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Honoring Darkness: Exploring the Power of Black Madonnas in Italy
Dea Madre Publishing, 2005
Reviewed by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur
When most of us imagine Mary, Mother of Jesus, we tend to vision a light-skinned woman, conditioned by hundreds of Renaissance and Post-Renaissance images of her. Yet for over a thousand years, Mary was traditionally depicted as dark. These "Black Madonnas" are generally regarded as very powerful. In "Honoring Darkness," Mary Beth Moser "focuses on the power associated with the darkness of Black Madonnas in Italy, and looks for its primordial and ancient roots by investigating her images, miracles and devotions."
Moser delves into the history of the Black Madonnas. According to legend, many of these images were painted or carved by St. Luke. In some cases, they are purported to have been completely created by divine intervention. Such origins "would have given the images authenticity and protection, having come from an Evangelist or divine forces." Moser also delves into the reasons for the images' darkness. Some may have been dark due to unintentional reasons, such as dirt built up over time or candle soot. Many more, however, are intentionally dark. They may have been representing the skin color of the native people, symbolize the dark woman in the "Song of Songs," be an imitation of Black goddesses who were venerated in the pre-Christian era, or reflect genetic memory of the first African mother, the ancestor of us all.
Throughout history many have attempted to destroy or lighten the Black Madonnas. While some have suffered this fate and been lost, many others have managed to survive, sometimes via miraculous circumstances. The images are also believed to have miraculous abilities themselves. At the secluded places in which many of these images reside, there are many physical offerings that many people have left as testimony to healings received and disasters averted. In looking back at the miracles attributed to the Black Madonnas, Moser determines that often they possessed both "benevolent and fierce" powers. Over time, the fierce aspects of the Madonna's personality have been minimized.
Moser looks in detail at several particular Black Madonnas located in Italy. She provides beautiful photographs of these as well as discussions of their history and symbolism present in the images. This is the strongest section of "Honoring Darkness." The images are powerful and will encourage readers to rethink how they picture Mary.
Originally written as a Master's thesis, "Honoring Darkness" does read as an academic document in some spots, but Moser has inserted enough of herself into the work to make it pleasant to read. She has also included the personal reflections of some of her travel companions as they studied the Black Madonnas. These help to give the work personality as well. Moser delves deep into the symbolism of darkness. She relies very heavily on Judy Grahn's "Blood, Bread, and Roses" to discuss menstrual rites and the power associated with the color red. While her arguments may have value, it would have been helpful to have additional supporting material.
Overall "Honoring Darkness" presents a side of the Madonna many are not familiar with. Moser's work is valuable for those interested in art, spirituality, or Marian devotion. For more information or to order this book, please visit http://deamadre.home.comcast.net/.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur is editor of Spiritual Woman and author of Letters to Mary from a Young Mother. Visit her blog at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com