Legends of the Madonna by Abbie Whalin

The concept of the Madonna has been around ever since the birth of Christ, beginning thousands of years ago. Since that day, Mary has come to represent many different things to many different people. There are many legends that surround the idea of the Madonna, in which Mary has played many different roles. To some she is a representation of strength and power for minorities; to others she is an active force of prayer, healing, and compassion; and to some she represents proof of a God using a humble servant to accomplish his Kingdom. She has taken multiple physical forms throughout the years in countless statues and paintings, and also has been said to appear in visions or apparitions to the faithful. We find many scriptures about Mary beginning as early as the Old Testament, where God prophesies about the birth of Jesus through a virgin. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:17 KJV). In this paper I will explore certain legends of the Madonna such as the legend of the Black Madonna, Madonna Sightings, and Mary’s current role in the church.

The Black Madonna is a legend that involves a rather different view of Mary. Instead of the Anglo Saxon depiction that many are familiar with, this representations of Mary is brown or black in complexion, and is seen in both paintings and statues. Many of these statues are found in Holy places, such as churches or shrines to Madonna. To qualify as a Black Madonna, the figure must be female and must have a dark complexion. The figure can appear either with or without baby Jesus. There are three main reasons cited to explain the coloring of Black Madonnas. The first is that the skin tone was made to match the indigenous populations in which the Madonna was discovered, and has no significant difference in meaning from the Anglo Saxon Madonna. The second is that these forms have turned black due to the physical factors such as deterioration of lead-based pigments, damage from candle smoke, or grime over the years, making the coloring accidental. The third explanation is that the Black Madonnas received their pigment because they originally represented ancient earth goddesses that were converted for Christian purposes. The most often cited explanation is the second, in which it is said to be “accidental” that the Madonna has been represented as being black (Duricy).

Whether this is the case or not, there are hundreds of examples of Black Madonnas throughout Europe- especially in southern regions. One famous example of a Black Madonnas is “Our Lady of Montserrat” in Barcelona. This figure, named La Moreneta meaning “the little dark one”, was said to be miraculously shown to a shepherd in Spain by a guiding light and angelic singing. On discovery of the figure, the people of Barcelona erected a small church at the site where it was found. This particular statue is said to be a “miracle working” statue that receives approximately 1 million visitors a year.  Another famous example is “Our Lady of Czestochowa” in Poland. This statue is said to protect the Polish people and disband armies from attacking. To this day they acknowledge this Black Madonna for her protection and cooperation with the Polish nation. A modern day example of a Black Madonna is found in the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees. In this novel the Black Madonna is a figure who is said to give strength and courage to those who place their hand over her heart. She represents strength for the African American women at the time, who find courage in her presence. The traits mentioned above are common among Black Madonnas. She is said to give protection to individuals and groups such as those in Poland. She is said to give strength to those who are sick or weak such as in The Secret Life of Bees. In essence, the Black Madonna represents many different ideas and characteristics that are independent of her role in motherhood, such as power, strength, and peace. Regardless of whether or not these Black Madonnas were accidental or intentional, they have and will continue to be a figure of reverence to countless people around the world.

Another legend that finds Mary as the central focus is the legend of the Madonna Sighting, or accounts claiming that Mary appeared either as a vision or in person. Madonna sightings have been reported ever since 39 AD, with many of the sightings being reported by children. These sightings have also occurred over wide geographic regions, which often have nothing in common. There are many famous accounts of a Madonna Sighting, in which the Madonna often brings prophetic warnings, or words of encouragement. One of the most famous sightings occurred in Southwest France in 1858 by a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous. She claimed to experience 18 apparitions of “a lady dressed in white”, urging her to pray for the conversion of sinners. She also reported that a well bubbled up in front of her that contained miraculous properties that could heal the sick. Despite those who doubt the credibility of this story, 6 million Catholics are reported to visit this spring annually (Elert Gadget). Madonna Sightings remain current even in our culture today, albeit they are not always quite so religious. In 1994 a Florida resident by the name of Diane Duyser reportedly saw Mary in the face of her lunch: a grilled cheese sandwich. She saved the sandwich for ten years, reporting that it did not crumble or get moldy. She commented to the press in 2004, “I made this sandwich 10 years ago. When I took a bite out of it, I saw a face looking up at me – it was Virgin Mary starring back at me. I was in total shock. I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary Mother Of God” (BBC News). According to Mrs. Duyser, the sandwich brought her immediate good luck, including a $70,000 winning at her local casino. To share the luck with others around her, and to make a handsome profit, Mrs. Duyer sold this sandwich on eBay for a reported $28,000. Not the only one to make a profit on this newly deemed piece of “pop-culture”, opportunists everywhere attempted to market the image on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and other forms of collectible pieces. One company even produced a toaster that would imprint the Virgin Mary’s picture into any common piece of toast for as little as $59.95.

As one can imagine, the validity of these accounts has always been an issue in the church. Due to the amount of sighting reported and the effect this has on a population of believers, the Vatican has recently announced a commission to investigate claims of Madonna Sightings. This commission is beginning in Bosnia, where Mary is said to make an almost daily appearance in the town of Medjugorie. Since the original sighting in 1981, over 30 million people have visited this sight where six children claim that she appeared to them saying the words, “I’ve come because there are many true believers here. I wish to be with you to convert and reconcile the whole world” (Lowen). After a Madonna sighting has occurred, it is common for the people or person to construct a church or shrine to Mary in the location. These shrines are often said to have miraculous abilities and healing powers, and are have become popular sights for millions of faithful pilgrims every year.

Currently, Mary’s role in the church is debated. In Luke 1:46-49 Mary says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me- holy is his name.” In this verse we see Mary acknowledging her lowly status, and praising God for choosing her to glorify him. In the Catholic Church, many see Mary as an intercessor between humans and Christ, and many go to her with prayers for healing, compassion, and requests. They state that this intercession is not to be confused with the role of Christ however, who is the only one who can intercede with God on our behalf. Rather her role is seen more as that of a prayer warrior, who can aid the faithful in their prayers to Christ by praying for them. This has been compared to that of a Protestant believer asking a pastor to do the same. The pastor is not interceding for that person with God, but rather praying with them and for them to Christ. Many Catholic believers also rely upon Mary with the use of a Rosary prayer, which is used to aid those in prayer by reminding them of “certain principal events or mysteries in the history of salvation” (Rosary Center). It is said that the Rosary Prayer is considered a “Marian Prayer” because Catholics are asking Mary to pray for them to Christ.

While many in the Catholic faith consider Mary to be an active prayer warrior in the church who can be approached for assistance, many Protestant believers view Mary’s role in the church solely as the Mother of Jesus. It is taken on faith that Jesus’ birth was an immaculate conception, and that God chose Mary to represent how he can use even the lowly servant to glorify his Kingdom and accomplish his purposes.  Mary is recognized as being a faithful servant to God, and someone to model ones life after rather than as a prayer warrier between man and Christ. There has always been a controversy between these two faiths and their views upon Mary’s relationship to the church that dates back to the Reformation.

Through the research conducted for this essay, I have learned many things about the Legends of the Madonna. Through the Legend of the Black Madonna I have learned how people celebrate Mary for the power and strength that she represents to many. While it is acceptable to appreciate Mary for her role in motherhood, it is encouraging as a woman to celebrate the accomplishment that she achieved with the help of God. This is a promising message to the women in the Kingdom of God, that tells us of our worth and necessity in God’s plan. By celebrating her brown or black skin we can also celebrate the strength she offers to the minorities that embrace her presence in their communities, and the example it sets for those around them. Whether the coloring is accidental or intentional, it allows us to embrace multiple cultures in the form of religious sculptures and paintings.

Through the Legend of the Madonna Sightings I have learned that many people have faith that the Spiritual world can be present in our physical world today. I have also realized that it speaks of a yearning expressed by our world for a need of a tangible spirituality. There is a quiet desperation that surrounds the Madonna Sighting that tells of a hope in something outside ourselves that is bigger than us. Whether or not this hope is placed in the correct place becomes the question. This may even be seen as a challenge for the believers in a living God to rise up and spread the news of a true saving hope to a world desperate to hear of it.

In learning about Mary’s role in the church today I have gained a clearer understanding of what Mary means to different faiths. Coming from a strictly Protestant background, I found it very insightful to learn about Mary’s role in the Catholic Church. Through researching some of the beliefs and customs associated with Mary, I feel as if I am more socially aware and tolerant of other people’s worldviews and approaches to her role in the Church. This research, in totality, has allowed me to better understand reasons people have for seeing Mary like they do. She represents a woman who was fully human used for God’s Holy purposes. Whether she is seen as a statue, as a painting, as a vision, or as a figure in history, she inspires us to Holiness and encourages us with her story and her life.


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