Once the opportunity came my way to spend two weeks with my sister in Paris, I knew I had to visit the Black Madonnas at Chartres. I had been to Chartres many years ago, before I knew about the Black Madonnas scattered throughout Europe. I felt the power of the site at that time, but had little understanding of where that power came from.
History of the Black Madonna
The indigenous goddess worship of Europe, was influenced by Phoenician traders who introduced statues of dark skinned Middle Eastern goddesses such as Isis, Inanna, and others to the European continent from 1550BC to about 300BCE. The worship of these goddesses continued with The Roman invasion of Gaul (France) and other parts of Europe.
Once Christianity took hold in Europe, churches were built on top of sacred pagan sites. But old ways die hard; many of these dark skinned goddesses were incorporated into the newly built Christian churches. Today there are more than 500 known Black Madonna statues and paintings throughout the world, the majority in France.
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
But why is She depicted as dark? Certainly there has been the eastern influence of Isis and other Eastern Goddesses. But how better to depict such an ancient Earth Goddess now transformed into the Madonna, than as dark, an embodiment of her chthonic powers of regeneration. Some also believe that Her darkness can been seen as a metaphor; the Earth Goddess “veiled” behind the persona of Mary. Her darkness could have represented the deep, dark mystery of knowing.
Virgin of Montserrat
Whatever the source of her darkness, there was a mini- renaissance during the 12th century which included a resurgence of devotion to the Divine Feminine. Humanity could not and would not live without their mother. Chartres, with its wealth of Sacred Feminine imagery and its school, cultivated with Platonic spirituality, was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites of that time.
Chartres Cathedral, an hour by train from Paris, is home to two Black Madonnas. The name Chartres has its origins from Carnutes, a Druid tribe that lived in the area. Roman records reveal that all the druids of Gaul gathered yearly in an oak grove with a well, the sacred center of the Carnutes. Many believe that the location of that gathering was deep beneath the present day cathedral in a cave, the ancient realm of the Mother Goddess throughout the world. This same oak grove would become the future site of Chartres cathedral.
Our Visit to Chartres
On a cold windy day in June my sister and I entered the Cathedral, immediately passing into a heightened consciousness of peace and love. We were enveloped by the darkness which was brightened by jewel-toned light streaming through the many stained-glass windows. I was first enraptured by the huge rose window on the west wall, formed by a series of almond shaped petals, reflecting the birthing capacity of female anatomy.
We continued deeper into the church, arriving at the labyrinth, whose origin can be traced back to the Goddess worshipping society of the Minoans. Unfortunately it was covered with chairs. Apparently Friday is the only day one can actually walk the labyrinth; we were there on a Monday. Nonetheless, we walked what we could and then continued further into the cathedral.
Arriving at the middle we saw two more huge, rose windows on the North and the South walls. Both of these rose windows centered around the Madonna, one of whom is dark. We were moving slowly, taking in the power of the Goddess all around us. Her symbols of roses, bees, and wheat are found in abundance within the windows. We felt Her holy presence, speaking in whispers of the beauty surrounding us and within us.
Due to renovation of the main altar area, we were unable to locate the stained glass window of the Madonna with a red robe and vibrant blue background, reputed to be the most beautiful stained glass window in the world. Plus I was confused as to where to find the Black Madonna statue.
Rounding a corner of the closed area in search of a peep hole through to the Madonna stained glass, I found myself in front of the Black Madonna of the Pillar. I felt a power, a power beyond time, the power of the unmanifest streaming from Her to me.
My sister and I sat entranced by Her for a very long time. I felt the ancient power of the Mother Goddess flowing from the earth through Her and emanating out to all with eyes to see. I felt that we were part of an ancient tradition, honoring Mother Earth, honoring life. I felt a strong sense of peace sitting in Her presence, the peace of love, of nurturing, of the great mystery, of the One Source from which we come. Only the shortness of my time at Chartres pulled me away from Her.
The first cathedral at Chartres was built on this ancient site of Earth Goddess worship, probably in the 4th century by the Romans. Over the centuries the cathedral grew, was destroyed by war and grew again. In 1020 a Romanesque cathedral was built there, and then was subsequently destroyed by fire in 1194. The gothic cathedral as we know it today, was rebuilt over the remains of the previous buildings, completed in 1250 CE. The previous structure is now know as the crypt, a gigantic subterranean church, today cast in total darkness
Notre Dame Sous Terre
In the crypt one finds Notre Dame Sous Terre (Our Lady Underground). She is a replica of an old Black Madonna, destroyed during the French Revolution. But this destroyed statue was itself an 11th or 12th century replica of an earlier reference to a small black Goddess of pagan, Druidic origin. What has happened to this staute is not known.
One can only visit the crypt with a guided tour. So the freedom to sit with Notre Dame Sous Terre, to feel Her power in Her presence, is not possible. The guide, speaking in French, hurries us along the historical markers of the crypt. But I snapped many photos and upon my return home I was able to view Her again and feel Her power. I knew a painting would spill forth from this visit. I thought my inspiration would come from the Black Madonna of the Pillar but once I got started it was Notre Dame Sous Terre who called to me.
“My Notre Dame Sous Terre”, oil on canvas, by Judith Shaw
While working on my painting of Notre Dame Sous Terre, I felt Her power speaking to me, seeking through me to speak to the world. I felt Her connecting me to the ancient Goddess, Isis. For the 11th century pilgrims She was a bridge, connecting them to humanity’s ancient roots. A bridge they could take to the other shore, away from a world full of hierarchies and violence. Today she is still that bridge, inspiring modern pilgrimages from around the world. Once again the Black Madonna speaks to an ever growing audience who seeks a world in balance. Humanity will not be denied the love of our Mother.
(This essay was first published on Feminism and Religion http://feminismandreligion.com/2012/10/25/why-are-we-drawn-to-the-black-madonna-by-judith-shaw/)