People of Color in European Art History

  1. Retroactive Erasure: The Black Madonnas of Europe

    One of the most baffling failures of logic in all of academia is the flagrant attachment to the unsupported claim that the Black Virgins of Europe, of which there are well over 300, are not black because they are Black. For some reason, their inability to explain her dark complexion is combined with the adamant position that it must be explained. That, however, has not stopped most scholars on the subject of the Black Madonnas asserting that whatever the reason for her skin color, it could not possibly be because the artists intended to paint her skin that color, and if they did, it must be some other reason than because that was how she looked.

    imageThis Madonna in Tindari, Sicily, dates from well before the 8th century, and the Latin inscription reads, literally, “I am black”. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be a message art historians want to hear.

    There was very little academic interest in the supposed “anomaly” of the Black Madonnas of Europe until relatively recently. Most art historians, if they mentioned them at all, attributed her complexion to age, accumulation of smoke, and other environmental factors; in fact, the evidence shows that this is false. Despite the fact that no other portion of the paintings or statues had been affected by the same darkening, or why when the images were restored, copied, or repainted in subsequent centuries, the original brown or black skin color was painstakingly preserved (Scheer p. 10, 16). Even analyses of relative age, possible smoke exposure, and darkness of skin tone debunked these assumptions.

    Many of these copies, and even copies of copies, are made from originals attributed to Saint Luke and are said to have been drawn from life; i.e., they are true portraits of the Virgin Mary herself. Nearly all of these images that have not been painted over show the Holy Mother and Christ Child with dark brown or black faces and hands. A wide variety of images that have been attributed at some point (although some have been shown to have other origins more recently) to Saint Luke can be viewed here, including ones that have been painted over and/or literally whitened in the 18th and 19th centuries.image

    One of the factors that art historians have pointed to repeatedly as evidence that these images were not intended to be of a Black woman is that there is no mention of them in historical documents being described as “black”. However, there is no reason to suppose that the way she was perceived at the time these images were made, or for centuries afterwards, is the same as they are viewed retroactively-or that her skin color would have been seen as “anomalous”, unlike the historians of this century. These texts describe only clothing and decoration, or mention “the image of Our Lady”, without prevarication upon relative skin hue (Scheer p. 10).

    In quite notable opposition to those who are adamant that these images do nothing to suggest that the Virgin Mary was a dark-skinned woman, the 15th-century scholar Gabriel di Barletta quotes the thirteenth-century St. Albert the Great. According to him:

    You ask: Was the Virgin dark or fair? Albertus Magnus says that she was not simply dark, nor simply red-haired, nor just fair-haired … Mary was a blend of complexions, partaking of all of them, because a face partaking of all of them is a beautiful one … And yet this, says Albertus, we must admit: she was a little on the dark side. There are three reasons for thinking this-firstly by reason of complexion, since Jews tend to be dark and she was a Jewess; secondly by reason of witness, since St. Luke made the three pictures of her now at Rome, Loreto and Bologna, and these are brown-complexioned; thirdly, by reason of affinity. A son commonly takes after his mother, and vice versa; Christ was dark, therefore …(Scheer p 14, Vaz De Silva p. 7)

    It is also notable that according to Albertus, the dark skin of Christ is a well-known fact, and is used to demonstrate that by virtue of heredity, it follows that Mary herself would also be dark-complected.

    When this is contrasted with some of the more absurd claims passed as “explanations” of the Holy Mother’s dark skin, including Ean Begg’s ludicrous, “Mary lived in a hot climate and would have been very sunburnt” (Begg p. 7), it illuminates just how far many writers on the Black Madonnas are willing to stretch credulity.

    Begg’s willingness to point out the “open hostility” that any scholarship on the Black Virgins was met with in the 20th century, is made hypocritical by the omission of any reasons why every single priest and nun would have walked out of the room at the 1952 American Association for the Advancement of Science; namely, racial prejudice that did not exist at the time these images were made, or at the time they were renowned and venerated (Begg, p. 8).

    In fact, denigration towards the appearance of the Black Virgins is a modern invention; before the 18th century, they were seen as not only the most true to life (due to their origins attributed to Saint Luke’s portraits), but as the most beautiful and desirable. It was not until later that the qualification “Nigra sum, sed formosa” (I am black, but beautiful) was added to several French Black Madonna statues, including one in Notre Dame.

    Monique Scheer notes in her exhaustive essay on the black Madonnas that the connection between the Madonna’s black skin color and a person of African descent goes unmade until 1816:

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also expressed a sense of aesthetic disappointment in black madonnas in a comment from 1816: “How the most unhappy of all appearances could have crept in-that, probably for Egyptian or Abessinian reasons, the Mother of God is portrayed as brown, and the face of Our Savior printed on Veronica’s veil was also given a moorish color-may be clarified when that part of art history is more closely examined.

    Scheer notes that this also coincides with the invention of a racial separation between “white” people and “black” people, although makes little mention of its connection to colonialism and American chattel slavery (Scheer 26, Allen XIII-107) and subsequent devaluation of the aesthetics of dark-skinned persons.

    Although Scheer’s exhaustive scholarship is certainly commendable, she falls prey to a certain amount of confirmation bias in her conclusion:

    The idea of a black madonna as possibly African was not disturbing enough to cause any reference to it until the early nineteenth century, and then it was primarily among those for whom sacred meanings were invalid-rationalist, even anti-Catholic, intellectuals. (Scheer p. 29)

    Considering within the first paragraph of this thorough essay Scheer is quite certain that these images “were not originally intended to be depictions of Mary as an African”, she shows herself as perhaps falling victim to the same confirmation bias that many of the writers she criticizes.