The Black Madonna of Czestochowska (late 14th century)

The Black Madonna of Czestochowska (late 14th century)

The Black Madonna, interview of Martin Irvine for ACNE Paper

Interview for ACNE Paper (full version)
Issue 9, Winter 09/10


One of the most venerated of the Black Virgins, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is credited with saving the Jasna Góra monastery from destruction during a siege that took place at the time of The Deluge, a 17th century Swedish invasion of Poland. Stimulating Polish resistance, they eventually repulsed the Swedes, and the King of Poland proclaimed the Black Madonna protector and Queen of the lands in his kingdom. Thousands of pilgrimages are made to visit her every year, and she is credited with many miracles.

Martin Irvine, expert in classical, medieval and Renaissance culture, is also the director of the Irvine Contemporary art gallery in Washington, DC, and a professor at Georgetown University. Having greatly explored the codes and symbols of eras when spirituality ruled all, he was key to unveiling the mysteries of the Black Madonna’s past and lending a critical eye to the rose-tinted rationality of our present.

Montana Mathieu: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa seems to derive great spiritual power from her mysterious coloring.  How does this icons differ from other icons of the Virgin?

Martin Irvine: What’s fascinating about this icon is that it is also regarded as a sacred relic. According to the legend kept in currency by the monastery, the icon was painted on a plank of a table from the holy family in Jerusalem. Medieval monasteries, by the way, competed to have the most sacred relics in their shrines and chapels for drawing the most pilgrims and donors to the monastic property. Sacred space was a major value for the political economy. Relics are very corporeal: a relic is either a part of a saint’s body or an object touched by a saint, having contact with the saint’s body. This is the primary “aura” that Walter Benjamin is famous for inserting into art historical discourse: art works, even in the modern era, carry over the sense of the spiritual known in the “ritual use” of art objects. Of course, the Black Madonna is “pre-art” in our sense, since its historical function was in the religious cult. The miracles attributed to the Madonna, then, come from its function as a relic, not a painting. It would be very unusual for an icon painting in itself to be associated with miracles or the sacred power of relics. Icons were for veneration and functioned as signs of access to the spiritual by the saints or divine vehicles (Christ, Mary); relics were experienced as stored sacred power. It’s clear that the Black Madonnas were also felt to be specially marked with sacred power, and did not signify something sinister (an inverse of white associated with the Virgin) but something blessed as truly extra-ordinary.


The Black Madonna of Czestochowska (late 14th century, ?)

MM: You mentioned traveling to see the Vièrge Noire of Rocamadour. What was that like?

MI: My experience of seeing the Black Madonna of Rocamadour for the first time was partly influenced by all my prior experience as a classical, medieval and Renaissance scholar. (Yes, believe it or not, I used to write about about medieval semiotics before I moved into contemporary art!) The chapel of the Black Madonna is dark and lit with candles, and the keepers of the site have done their best to maintain an atmosphere of veneration in the space. You get a sense of the sacred, the dark wood of the Madonna and Child figure makes you search for something. The statue is actually quite small. I have been in maybe hundreds of temples, churches, and chapels over the years, and Rocamadour, with its dramatic cliff-side buildings and church, seemed connected to some deep history, like the Chartres Cathedral.

This sculpture of Madonna and Child may have been carved from dark wood, and has become even darker over the years. I think the blackness or darkness of these Madonnas was treated as another sign of the sacred in the original Latin sense of the term (sacer), something marked as from the gods, either cursed or divinely chosen. When something–or someone–is marked by the divine, it can take many forms; in this case, blackness is a sign of difference, an unusual sign in the context of other color+figure symbolism (gold, white, red).

MM: What inspires so many people to visit the Black Madonna, sometimes more than once?

MI: Rocamadour still draws thousands of tourist-pilgrims per year. This type of cultural tourism draws on Romantic expectations of the sacred. People go there, and to many other Black Madonna sites in France, Spain, and Italy, for an art and culture experience. Since there are few devout or doctrinally conservative Catholics who do the cultural tourism routes, the experience is meant to be quasi-religious, like a mainstream middle class view of art itself. So you can have a nostalgic quasi-religious, aestheticized experience, or an art-historical experience. Getting there is like doing a pilgrimage too, except today you can there by tour bus and car.

MM: The Black Madonnas of Europe have been associated with pre-Christian earth goddesses and Egyptian goddesses like Isis, the Mother of Horus – whose eye, a symbol of protection and power, is in fact inscribed on the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora.  I also read that the Celts venerated statues dark Mother Goddesses at the crossroads of underground rivers and other points of high earthly energy. Does their blackness hint at a hidden spirituality, like that of primordial Mother Goddess?

MI: There are over 400 Black Madonnas around Europe (according to various scholars’ accounts), but it’s important to understand that they come from different sources, materials, and cultural contexts. If we universalize or over-generalize the phenomenon, it’s not very far, then, from talking about people who see Mary in their buttered toast or Christmas lights. Most of the Black Madonnas are wood statues, and many of the black faces seem to come from the natural aging of the wood, oxidizing of paint pigments, and the smoke and soot of candles in churches. There were local cults all over Europe that may have memories of pre-Christian goddesses, but certainly there is no cultural memory of this today. The significance needs to be explained by other means, according to a cultural grammar and symbolism current in the cultures that find them significant. Similarities with cultures that had little or no contact with European Christianity is not causality or an indicator of some universal truth. One could say the same thing about red or white cultural symbols: what we could say about this in universal terms doesn’t explain how or why they have meaning in the historically specific cultures that take them to mean something.

MM: How has this meaning changed with her appropriation by the Church?

MI: This kind of question presupposes that there is some lost origin, a declension (fall), and continuities from a lost origin that could be changed, an assumption which I would contest. A myth of origins is usually at the root of many ideologies, and certainly in the various forms of post-Romanticism that have come down to us in the modern world. The role of the cultural historian, however, is to find meanings that are in place and circulate at any given moment; cultural meanings are always experienced as full and complete, at any moment, and not dependent on unknown origins.

One aspect of post-Romantic ideology still alive today, which keeps the mythology of the Black Madonnas going, is a myth of origins, a “back formation” of some prior state, from which our modern era is a fall. In the primitivism myth, still alive and well today, that prior state is posited as somehow authentic or unified, and all else is a fall away from the origin. It’s the myth of the Fall from Eden rewritten for different ideological uses. So, we can’t talk about “change” by the Church, certainly not positing the Church as an monolithic agent that acts to change cultural origins, nor can we posit that black goddesses, because of surface similarities, were sources or origins that could be changed.

MM: Sailors are known to paint this symbol on the bow of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel, and centuries after the Black Madonna “saved” Poland from the Swedish invasion during The Deluge, the Polish anti-communist resistance wore the Black Madonna on their lapels. I find this symbolism interesting from an anthropological standpoint. I wonder what kind of spirituality surrounds these Virgins with darkened faces to make them venerated above so many other Marian icons? How is their mythology different?

MI: The blackness was definitely taken to be a differentiator, a sign of difference, and a sign clearly associated with Polish identity, even the Polish Church as a distinct ethnic/national entity. Polish Church leaders were on the side of the nationalist anti-communists. This explains how the Black Madonna could still be a powerful secular symbol.

MM: In her conference on the Holocaust  in the City of Czestochowa, Dr. Barbara Allen says, “It is worth mentioning that during the 1980s, Walesa didn’t drape himself in the Polish flag when he was leading the outlawed Solidarity movement. Instead, he wore a Black Madonna lapel pin on his jacket. Poles know it to be a subversive message. Walesa’s Nobel Peace Prize rests in the monastery’s museum, just outside the chapel of the Black Madonna.” Can we speak of a popular spirituality, bound less by doctrine than by community and the communal experience of the spiritual?

MI: That’s really interesting. The Madonna image was appropriated as a symbol of historic Polish national identity in the face of more recent communist dictatorship. The movement recognized the historic identity, so Walesa was doing a “return to origins” mythology, which of course would have been an irritant to the Communists and Soviets. It was still a viable symbol, secularized.

MM: I’m really amazed by her power in the collective unconscious to foment social rising.  Not only was her image appropriated, but it was recognized as a subversive message of solidarity against oppression and even collective action. Quite a complicated aura – and so interesting in light of what you were saying about the sacer, being either cursed or divinely chosen – or both?

MI: But it’s a collective conscious, not unconscious. Without knowing the social code– “Polish Catholic icon > Polish national identity”– there would be no symbolic power, only an artifact lost in prior history.

MM: Even at a time when the spiritual was rooted in religious tradition, local popular devotion seems to have superceded the Church’s control on the aesthetics of religious art. Although the icon’s skin color may not have been significant during its creation, it has come to hold a specific significance today. Is the color symbolism based on popular spirituality?

MI: Let’s first bracket off the question of when many of the icons’ colors changed. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa has been repainted, with attempts at “restoration,” several times. I don’t know if anyone knows when the black face first appeared and how it became symbolic in the local religious practice. So we’re back to accounting for cultural meanings at each historical moment based on the known symbolic relationships.

Remember, too, that “the Catholic Church” was not a monolithic totality, even more so the pre-Reformation Church. Local beliefs and customs always merged with the main church doctrine and beliefs. Veneration of saints and the Virgin, of course, in many ways extends and merges with pagan and Roman ritual practices, beliefs, and identity groups. I think in each case of Black Madonnas becoming locally significant we’re going to see long cultural and historical cultic practices in place before and during Christianity. But the prior histories would neither be known by the community nor required to participate in the symbolic meanings current at any time.

It would be useful at this point to borrow from two of schools of thought on cultural meaning. I’ve always been able to discover things with the ideas from “reception theory,” a main proponent of which was Hans Robert Jauss, a German scholar, and from “cultural semiotics,” a large field, but one defined in the 1960s by Yuri Lotman, a Russian scholar. Reception theorists introduced ideas like “communities of reception” and “communities of practice” to help account for how cultural meanings circulate in different historical moments and how the meanings of things are anticipated in actual practice. The meaning of anything circulating in a culture–and we can use any example in the arts or popular media today as well–comes from how it is received, not from its sources or the intentions of producers. So, we can look into the meaning of the Black Madonna as understood by the community in which it was taken as a sign, an image and object invested with special meaning beyond a mere artifact.

The meaning doesn’t come from outside the community, but inside: responding to different historical and identity forces, the community of practice could use the Madonna image as a sign of Polish solidarity, identity, or even special Polish spirituality, over against the pressures of “official meanings” coming from other sources (the government, the papal authority). With reception theory, we can account for how an icon could be used as a sign of resistance or special identity as a response to current social and political conditions. This meaning was possible, and could only emerge from, the community in which the Madonna could be used as a sign.

Symbolic objects also perform the important function of cultural memory and identity. Yuri Lotman observed that culture is the non-hereditary memory of a community; it’s what we receive and continually reinterpret. Culture is transmitted in texts, narratives, images, and symbolic objects, not genes. Culture is what converts raw time and events into history and memory. Lotman also observed that every culture experiences itself as incomplete, always adding new meanings, new arguments, new interpretations from what’s inherited and received. The Black Madonnas represent stored memory and identity, but the symbolism can shift as the living historical “community of reception” changes. So you see, at any moment that we want to try to understand what the Black Madonna “means,” whether long ago or very recently, we find that the community of practice experiences the meanings as internally consistent from within their own living, local culture. Changes in material history will occasion new meanings, new responses, but that’s the sign of a living culture. For art historians, the cultural object entering a museum or into canonical art history is the end of the line; the object is an artifact of history, only the sign of a function in the grand narrative of “art history.”

MM: So although Man has always been spiritual, each token of the sacred is a product of his place and time?

MI: Yes, what’s taken to be sacred or spiritual will always be embedded in what’s possible for a community at a given moment, not something universal and timeless. Andre Malraux is well-known for his observation that art took on the functions of religion in the modern world. He observed the transition to a modern view of art, what I would call the cultural category of art as established in our institutions today, as differentiated from earlier eras where the objects, which we consider “art,” were known by their functions (tools, fetishes, religious ritual objects, for example).

Malraux’s view in The Metamorphosis of the Gods was that the modern era is defined by the strategy of estrangement or detachment from the local historical function of objects in order to create a trans-historical idea of “art,” an essentialist view that requires one to buy into a notion of a universal human tendency to create art, no matter what the culture or historical condition. (Hence we have museums of “African Art,” “Asian Art,” “Outsider Art.”)

MM: Searching for the essential connection between color and feeling, did modern abstract artists like Kandinsky and Mark Rothko want to ignore the cultural associations between the artistic and spiritual experience, going towards this “trans-historial” idea of art, or even spirituality?  I know they were also interested in primitive art. Is there a connection between their interest in spirituality and primitive art?

MI: The other Malraux moment for us here is the convergence of primitivism and spirituality, that is, ways that “the primitive” has been constructed as bearing a kind of pre-rational spirituality and transcendence. This was part of the modernist movement and its legacy today. There is a long literature on this topic. For Western institutional definitions, the monumental exhibition, “Primitivism in Modern Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” produced at MoMA in 1984, and the two-volume catalog of the exhibition, summed up all the received ideas to that point. African art and medieval Black Madonnas have an affinity in the way they are constructed in the now (universal) history of art, grandfathered in because of a way of constructing ideas about transcendence and the “authentic” cultural vision of pre-modern and non-Western cultures. A chilling parody of the primitivism ideology was captured in the great line given to the Nazi archeologist in “Raiders of the Lost Ark:” the ark isn’t a historical artifact but a radio transmitter to God!

In modern art since the 1920s, there have been several ways of talking about “the spiritual,” and making arguments for the function of art as a “spiritual” practice. For Kandinsky and others, it may mean taking about art as a gateway to emotions, ideas, or a sense of transcendence beyond the material world, beyond the world of industry, machines, business, necessity. For Rothko, it was the experience of large-scale color fields and the emotional responses that, for him, marked the transcendental function of painting; it was a secular mysticism. But in any case of art works being presented as spiritual statements in the modern world, there is an “interpretive community” for whom these are possible statements, possible kinds of arguments about what art is or can be. Modern statements about the spiritual in art are not indicators of some universal sacred sense, but very historically located sets of arguments that have no meaning outside a community with shared assumptions and expectations.

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary," 1996. Paper collage, oil paint, polyester resin, mixed materials, elephant dung on linen. "No Woman No Cry, "1998. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, elephant dung on canvas. Tate Museum.

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary," 1996. Paper collage, oil paint, polyester resin, mixed materials, elephant dung on linen. "No Woman No Cry, "1998. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, elephant dung on canvas. Tate Museum.

MM: Are there any parallels with the Black Madonna in contemporary art that you find especially illuminating? Are there artists revisiting the spiritual in cultural or universal terms that you find successful, and where do their practices fit in the post-modern era where the spiritual is seen as one facet of life among many?

MI: Good question. I think there are some interesting examples in contemporary art: Chris Ofili’s Madonna, and Melissa Ichiuji’s works.

Ofili is intervening with a new interpretive work that depends on our culture’s received ideas and visual language of Madonnas, and disrupting it with African imagery and references. It’s a Black Madonna in the African, racial, and ethnic sense. He’s riffing on a number of things–our received ideas about primitivism and Black Madonnas as already known. Ichiuji in a different way looks at the Madonna symbol and reinterprets it through traditions of surrealist sculpture and found object works, rechanneling it all through a vision like that of Hans Bellmer and Louise Bourgeois, but with childhood innocence. Her Black Madonna has a child observing the mother’s body in which breasts and the vaginal delta look like stained glass rose windows. Both artists riff on traditions without invoking or stating explicit spirituality.

What we find today, I think, is a still deeply felt expectation, desire, and need for art to provide some kind transcendence in a world that has been deconstructed out of all transcendence. Transcendence has been exposed as illusions and suppressed ideologies of dominance and exclusion. But people still want art to do something that only our cultural category of art can do. We hesitate to name it–”creativity,” “spirituality,” “freedom,” “ecstasy,” whatever–because all inherited terms and discourses are riddled with traps, baggage, and pre-commitments that few want to buy into now.

Artists are still often treated as secular priests, seers with irrational prophetic utterances (echoes of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra), providing glimpses of the divine, or whatever the simulacrum of the divine would be now and still satisfy without dissolving immediately in a sea of irony. Maybe what we have today is an erotics of art, multiple displacements of desire, that still add up to something other-than-the-banal-world. Without this contemporary erotics we would have no drivers for the making and acquiring of art. Art is still fetish, not in Marx’s sense but the anthropologist’s, and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa or of MoMA both call out as icons of desire for something-more-than-what-we’ve got, however we want to name it.

MM: The erotics of art– we displace our desire for a transcendental experience onto the way we look at and feel about art?

MI: Others have written on the erotics of art. Art often satisfies a hunger like sex or erotic pleasure. It’s actually trite and ordinary to say that art is displaced sex, but when you see the kinds of expressions and language that circulates about art today, you start to see the language of sexuality and religion, even addiction. If you corner an artist or collector, and try to ask “why do you do this,” “what keeps you going,” the answers are like “because I love it,” “it saves my life.” It’s the “but there’s got to be more” for a secular world too knowing to buy into nostalgia or religious ideologies, but still secretly hoping for wild transcendence, everyone seeking their own inner “St. Theresa in Ecstasy.”