One of the Black Madonnas
Credit: Morguefile photo by yogishan

Most images of Mary, the Mother of God, show her with creamy white skin. But in many European shrines, she is portrayed with dark skin. The babe in her arms has a complexion that matches hers.

These portraits are widely referred to as "Black Madonnas." There are hundreds of them throughout the European continent, home to most of these unusual images. But a few dark virgins are also found in the United States, Latin America and Asia. The ones in North America are replicas of a popular Polish devotion known as Our Lady Czestochowa.

Many of these madonnas are associated with miracles and the granting of special favors.

Why Mary's skin appears blackened in these statues and painting is due to several factors. Some were originally painted with swarthy skin tones, reflecting a popular style from the Medieval period.

Others took on a different hue as they aged. Some statues have been exposed to centures of smoke from votive candles. Another group of madonnas have mysteriously darkened, for no apparent reason.

Some Black Madonnas are very famous, with throngs of people still making pilgrimages to the site of reported miracles and healings. Here are three of the most popular Marian shrines in Europe.


Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland

A Byzantine-style icon located in a monastery in Jasna Gora is referred to as Our Lady of Czestochowa. It holds a very space place in the heart of Polish Catholics.

The image has a history said to date back to Christ. It is reportedly painted the surface of a table built with His hands.

The image was transported from Jerusalem to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine. The people of that city revered it and it remained there for several centuries. Then it was taken to what is now Poland.

Although people tried moving it around the region, during one attempt, horses refused to draw the cart is was carried in. So it stayed in its present spot.

The portrait of Our Lady shows her and her baby with large gold crowns on their heads. Two gashes on Mary's right cheek resemble tears running down her face. Although many attempts were made to repair these "wounds," they always reappear, as prominent as ever.

The gashes were made by invading barbarians in the 1400s. They ransacked the monastery in Jasna Gora and attempted to steal the icon. However, horses once again foiled plans by refusing to move.

An angry invader then threw the painting on the ground and slashed Mary's cheek with his sword. Then he was struck dead.

Through the ages, large-scale miracles are connected to this devotion. One of the most recent happened in the 1920s, when Russian troops threatened to conquer Warsaw. The faithful prayed intensely for relief. Many people then reported an apparition in the sky that looked exactly like Our Lady of Czestochowa. Immediately the enemy soldiers withdrew.

Poles refer to this as the "Miracle in the Vistula." The late Pope John Paul II made several visits to Jasna Gora after his election to the papacy.




Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain

There is a miraculous image in Guadalupe, Spain that shares the same name as the more popular Mexican devotion. But the Spanish one is much older. It is centered around a wooden statue created in the sixth century. It was soon lost to the public, as the land was under seige from invading North Africans.

The statue went into hiding for 600 years, until it was discovered by a farmer looking for a wandering cow. This man received an apparition from Heaven that instructed him to dig in a certain spot. He consulted with Church leaders, who didn't dispute his account.

Catholic officials came to the site and helped him unearth whatever was buried there. They found the entrance of a large cave, which held a wood carving of Mary holding Jesus in her arms. Remarkably, the wood hadn't decomposed a bit after being buried in the earth.

A chapel was also built there, as was requested during the farmer's vision.

Today it is the site of a huge church and monastery.

The Madonna of Guadalupe is simple, but elegantly clothed with many precious jewels. It is said the Christopher Columbus took a replica with him to the New World. He had great devotion to Mary under this title, and named the island of Guadalupe after her.

Crutches and braces at Altotting
Credit: Flickr image by heatheronhertravels

Our Lady of Altotting in Germany

This Marian shrine is often referred to as the "Lourdes of Germany" because so many miraculous cures have been reported. The town of Altotting was put on the map in the 15th century, when a little boy drowned in a nearby river. His mother brought his body before a statue of Mary in a local church, and prayed very hard for help. Then her child stirred in her arms and came back to life.

Shortly after, another child was killed in a tragic accident. His mother brought his body to the same place and requested the same favor, which was immediately granted.

Word quickly spread that this image was very special and people throughout Europe began to visit Altotting. About a million pilgrims each year still come to pray in a tiny chapel that holds about 100 people. (A larger church nearby was also built to accommodate the visitors.)

Some people healed in this Bavarian community have left their crutches, braces and wheelchairs behind as testimony to the power of prayer. These are on display. Many others have left paintings that depict the particular favor they received.

The statue is small and carved in a primitive style. It is believed to be very old and its wood has become darkened with smoke from candles.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have traveled to Altotting. Pope Benedict grew up in a nearby village, and his parents often brought him and his siblings to pray before the Madonna.