Sunday, 21 March 2010


“Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” - Abraham Joshua Heschel

Art Sunday today highlights the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. This is an icon of the Virgin Mary which is a Polish national symbol as well as a holy religious relic. It has been in the country for the last 600 years, but legend relates that the icon was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on a cypress table-top from the house of the Holy Family. The icon is documented to have been brought from Jerusalem via Constantinople and Belz, to finally reach Częstochowa in 1382.

The original image was repainted after being damaged in 1430, when Hussite raiders devastated the church in which the icon was kept. The painting was repaired, but ineptly as the original painting was encaustic (hot wax painting technique) and the restoration was tempera. The paint sloughed off and the solution was to repaint the picture after scraping the wood.

The painting is of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Infant in a pose known in the Orthodox Church as “Η Παναγία η Οδηγήτρια” (I Panayía I Odogétria, “The Virgin who Shows the Way”). The Madonna shows the way of salvation by directing attention to the Christ Child, who extends His right hand in benediction, while holding the gospels in His left hand.

The image of the Black Virgin is a recurrent theme and many shrines possess an icon or statue of a black Madonna. About 450 have been documented around the world, but mainly in Europe. Concerning why the Virgin Mary is depicted black, in Aramaic (the language of Jesus) black means “sorrowful”. Nowadays the Virgin Mary is often depicted as a black woman and thus points to the trans-racial universality of the Christian faith. This image of a black Madonna is easier for people in Africa, say, to identify with. In Japan, Japanese Christians depict the Madonna as a Japanese woman and similarly so in china, where her features are Chinese.

The image seemed apt for today, which is the international day against racism. The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was established in 1966, following a tragic event that shocks the conscience: The massacre in 1960 of 69 young students peacefully protesting against apartheid laws, adopted by the South African government, a brutal regime that applied the theory of inequality between races, regardless of humanity’s moral and ethical advances. Proclaiming this International Day for the 21st of March, the United Nations General Assembly called upon the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting story about this unique art work. I had seen black statues of the Madonna and wondered what it was all about.
    We can stop racism if we all cooperate!!!
    Thanks Nic!!!!