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June 2011

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Black Madonna of Czestochowa

Here is an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa I painted, in 2008, in egg tempera on a wood panel I gessoed with gesso I made myself.  This was something I did in my old studio. I had already started the icon a while back and hadn't finished it because the gold leaf kept flaking off. I had thought I could fudge and use fake gold leaf but it wouldn't stick until I finally used real gold, and a lot of it. If finally developed a sort of matte finish but it still looks like real gold and thus very nice.

Black madonnas are something of a fetish of mine, I guess. Cathedral of the Black Madonna by Jean Markele is one book I have read a couple of times. He suggests that the black virgins in Europe are related to ancient sun goddesses, which appeals to me. Another good book is The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg, published by Arkana Books. Then there's Longing for Darkness, by China Galland, which is more of a travelogue memoir of her pilgrimage to Czestochowa to see the original icon. There's a new, scholarly book out that I want to read: Pilgrimage to Images in the Fifteenth Century: The Origins of the Cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, by Robert Maniura. It's pretty pricey and I've been putting it off, but just typing out the title makes me want it again. I may have to try to get it by interlibrary loan.

I also discovered in my internet rambling that Our Lady of Czestochowa is associated with a Voudoun loa in Haiti, Mambo Ezili Danto or Erzulie Dantor. There she is considered very fierce, and sometimes is shown carrying a knife. She is the protectress of single mothers and gays. Here is a link to an interesting blog which goes into great detail on the relationship between Erzulie Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa: www.google.com/imgres

I painted the drapery in a different style than the original icon; it's based on much earlier Byzantine icon called The Virgin Hodegitria, which is very angular and stylized.  The existing icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is painted in a primtive style and has been reworked numerous times, so it is somewhat difficult to figure out exactly what She might have looked like originally. Here is a picture of the original icon from Poland:  I probably should have changed the draperies and made them even smoother. I did at least try in my version to make the blue draperies a little more flowing than the original Hodegitria source. The gold border is actually larger on my picture but it wouldn't all fit on the scanner screen. She's downstairs now sitting in the hallway on a chest of Native American relics my father dug up many years ago. Like I said, the gold is real gold, and the green background on mine is real malachite. I had to tone it down with yellow ochre because it was so green.

I wasn't going to include the scar on my icon's face (the Madonna of Czestochowa is scarred from a Hussar's sword), but a mark appeared on the paint there, and I had to make it into a scar.  Strange. It was as if She had an agenda and She was going to look the way She intended! [A few years after I orignally posted this, I got an email from a man in South America who asked me if I really, really meant it when I said the scar appeared by itself. I told him yes, and sent him a hi-rez scan of the icon. He's probably selling them as miraculous icons now somewhere in Rio but that's OK.]

But I never did think I got her facial expression exactly right.  She looks a little mean and sour where the original icon looks sad and sweet. It's a very subtle expression. A final note: a couple of years after I painted it, it was stolen from my new studio downtown, probably on Open Studio Night. I don't know what kind of person would steal an icon. I hope she's giving them Resting Bitchy Face every time they look at Her.


What identifies a black Madonna? I.e. how is that different from any other painting of the Madonna?

black madonnas

None of the madonnas you are likely to see in Renaissance or medieval paintings from Western Europe are black madonnas; they are usually blond or brown-haired with fair skin, as was considered most beautiful.

The black madonnas are either statues associated with specific churches throughout Europe, or icons from Eastern Europe. They seem to have a mysterious aura. Some of the statues have very black skin; the icons tend to have golden or darkish complexions; all of them have European features. The traditional explanation was that they were dark because they were very old, but some of them were obviously made black in the first place, and were even re-darkened periodically, and were the objects of pilgrimages, especially by women. The modern explanation is that they hark back to pagan goddesses.