The Black Madonna of Monserrat

Ligo Haibun challenge – picture prompt 8 ligo_railroad

Last night I woke up with a headache. It was cold and I knew I had no painkillers in the house so there was no point in getting up. To take my mind off my sore head I began thinking up responses to this week’s Ligo Haibun challenge. I tried recalling railway journeys I have taken but nothing emerged – what popped into my head was a memory of watching a tiny train arrive at the little station at Monserrat in Spain. I dismissed this as irrelevant and tried again to recall rail journeys. Once again I saw that little train and a haibun evolved.

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I had gone to Monserrat to see the Black Madonna there. I am not a Roman Catholic but had become interested in these Madonnas while reading about the Mother Goddess. I wanted to see one for myself but most are in out of the way places. When I discovered it was easy to visit the Black Madonna in the mountains outside Barcelona I decided that was the one I’d see. Internet sites warned the tiny railway line up the mountain was unsafe so I opted for a bus tour.

Mid 2012 I boarded the bus with other tourists from Australia, the US and Britain. Our English speaking tour guide was a young Spanish woman completely obsessed with the Black Madonnas of Europe. As we journeyed up the precarious mountain roads she gave a detailed history of these mysterious objects. Most were found hidden in caves during the 12th century. Their age and origins are obscure and they are stylistically very different from Catholic depictions of Mary. There is a some thought that they are representations of a much older Goddess, possible Ishtar/Inanna from the Middle East or the Celtic Goddess, Eostre -now as I write that, I realise these two names are so similar they no doubt refer to the same Goddess. (This ancient Goddess is a fertile goddess but she is much, much more – the ancient story The descent of Inanna is perhaps the world’s first teaching about spiritual initiation and the growth of wisdom).

Legend has it that when the Madonna was found in a cave in the Monserrat mountains the priests ordered workmen to carry her down to the cathedral in Barcelona. As the men tried to carry the statue away it grew so heavy they were forced to put it down.  A monastery was built around the statue instead. These days it is a popular Catholic pilgrimage site. Hundreds of school kids and groups of older people arrive daily in buses or take the tiny railcar.

DSCF4197 The monastery is up near the summit. It’s so high up the air felt rarefied and thin to me. Our tour guide was unconcerned by this and led us up to the Madonna at a cracking pace. When we entered the monastery complex we were met by a deafening wall of sound as workmen attacked the crumbling stone walls with jack hammers. The air was filled with choking dust. Coughing and spluttering I followed the guide into the church.

Once inside the building a deep silence prevailed. Hordes of people climbed up flight after flight of stairs in a zealous, purposeful manner. No one spoke. I had read that this church was a grail church and kept a lookout for some sign of this. I snapped this image as I passed. No one else appeared to notice it.

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High up in the building we came to the Black Madonna mounted in a glass case. Pilgrims filed past and reached through a hole in the window to touch the stone ball she held. I did the same.

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Once past the statue the energy of the crowd suddenly dissipated and people wandered off in all directions. There was some time before the bus was due to depart so I followed some Spanish ladies down to a chapel behind the statue. I sat there a while soaking up the sanctified and peaceful atmosphere as the ladies whispered their prayers. The peaceful feeling stayed with me on the bus back to Barcelona but once there other sights claimed my attention and life moved on.

Recalling all this last night I wondered why I was lying awake creating a haibun about Black Madonnas. Seeking understanding I went back to the stories associated with these objects. All of them were found hidden in caves and all are thought to be representations of the ancient Mother Goddess Ashtar, the Goddess that was first named in Sumeria (now Iraq) – forgotten treasures emerging from the shadows – there is a Jungian symbolism to this.

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28 thoughts on “The Black Madonna of Monserrat

  1. Thank you for finding the link for me. So many threads come together for me. I have several friends who are close to the Black Madonnas and appreciate hearing your experience. I have only recently learned about the haibun form and have attempted a couple and love to read what others are doing with this form. One of my friends is an artist who has painted a series of powerful, cross-cultural madonna images. I thought you might like to see them. You can find them here: http://www.sacredartportal.com/divine-feminine-icons.html

    1. Thank you for that link. Please tell your friend I found her art most inspiring. I was particularly fascinated with her image of the Trinity. I was wrestling with that concept yesterday – where is the Mother in the trinity? I really want to learn more about contemporary interpretations of the trinity.
      As for haibuns – there is a new monthly haibun challenge on the dVerse Poets WordPress blog. I think this month’s challenge comes out today. I will be looking out for it and will respond during the week. When I do I will link to the site so you can either find it through my blog or do your own search for the poetry blog. I hope you join in. It’s a great challenge and the people at the site can be very welcoming.

      1. I’m glad that you found meaning in Yvonne’s art. It’s interesting that you ask about the Mother in the Trinity. Trinity is the name we chose for our younger daughter, so perhaps I ponder it more than most. My way of understanding it is that the Trinity both encompasses and expands beyond our human concept of gender. It helps me to think of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Spirit. That makes it easier for me to see the Mother or Divine Feminine in the Trinity. The Creator brings all to birth. The redeemer imbues all with boundless Divine Love. (It also helps me to remember that Jesus was a male person, but the Cosmic Christ is beyond the human confines of sexuality.) The Sustainer continuously breathes light, life, energy, and nourishment into the world. That is how I experience the presence of Holy Mother in all three aspects of the divine communion.

        Thank you for the information about the dVerse Poets. I’m glad you have found such a supportive group. I will have to look into it.

        1. Thank you verymuch for sharing your thoughts. There is much to ponder here. The idea that the Cosmic Christ is beyond human genders really helps me understand a concept I have been blocked for a very long time. Thanks again – you have reaaly expanded my awareness.

            1. Thank you for the link. As you will see from my recent haibun I am not a practising Christian although I was raised in that faith. It is very interesting to read of contemporary Christian spirituality. Many years ago I met a minister who taught me that Christ was within. This teaching was a turning point on my spiritual journey and I have been questing towards the inner Christ ever since. Thanks you for this interesting dialogue. It is most stimulating and illuminating.

  2. This has provided me with much food for thought. On my first visit to Poland my only trip beyond Warsaw was to Częstochowa to visit the Black Madonna there, drawn by the serenity of her image. Serenity was not what I encountered: hordes of people, a cage and garish illuminations greeted me. However, the visit gave me a point of contact with my daughter’s Catholic mother-in-law, who had made a walking pilgrimage from Warsaw to Częstochowa.

    1. It’s strange that you unearthed this old post and commented on it today. I was thinking about black madonnas yesterday and even pulled out a postcard of the one I saw. The trimmings of Catholicism are very overwhelming I agree – particularly to secular Aussies. What I find fascinating about the black madonnas is the mystery that surrounds their origins. They have to be old mother goddess figures I think.

  3. Excellent piece Suzanne. The whole Black Madonna Mythos & symbolism is fascinating. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PHD., in Women Who Run With the Wolves, talks about how black represents the mud in terms of both fertility and death. It has a third aspect, ” that world between the worlds which La Loba (Wolf Woman) – for black is the colour of descent . Black is a promise that you will know something that you did not know before. ”

    I’ve use the Black Madonna in one of my Implied Spaces post and now working out her role my Red Riding Hood sequence I am still working on ( sigh) .

    1. The Estes interpretation of black is fascinating. Applying it to the Black Madonnas of Europe I think La Loba and the Wolf Woman interpretation resonates. You’ve made me think about the deeper implications of my visit – interesting but not something I can give an immediate answer to. I’ll see if I can find your Black Madonna post on your blog.

      1. The post is titled – Implied Spaces: Insert Message Here. It is tagged under Indigenous, Folklore and Africa. It is an exploration of cultural colonialism in relation to Europe, Africa, and Canadian First Nations.People. It is a hyper-linked poem. 🙂

  4. Such detail. You took me on your pilgrimage with you. A pity many flock to see the sights without taking pause to feel and think. A great history lesson and so interesting.

  5. I think it was only with the Europeans that Madonna and company were altered to appear in the likeness of those around them. If you think about it in earlier times most folks did have their skin exposed to the sun and were probably quite dark, and had different hair too. And their eyes would most likely not have been ‘blue’. But each culture does adapt promoting misinterpretation which then becomes time honored fire and brim-stone truth.

    I really enjoyed the history you shared here. The grail is another interesting piece. I would almost like to think the original was like the one in the Indiana Jones movie and was simple and made of wood,

    1. Thank you for your interesting observations Jules. I’m glad you liked my post and appreciate your long comment.

  6. Great post, Suzanne, a most interesting read. I haven’t seen any of the Black Madonnas, but did see a Madonna in Cuba. Must remind myself of the story about that one. Well done for writing a Haibun with your headache….I can’t do any reading/writing when I have one these days! 🙂

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