Midnight Mass

Religion - Bonnie Greer goes in search of the Black Madonna

In Muriel Spark's short story, The Black Madonna, Lou, an infertile housewife living in a new town outside Liverpool, prays to the local Black Madonna to give her a child.

At the same time, she and her husband become friends with two Jamaicans who have come to work at the local plant. The black men are, at first, curiosities - a welcome respite from the banality of small-town life. Lou defends them against hostile neighbours as she attempts to educate them in the ways of their new country.

Gradually, the two Jamaicans demonstrate an unfortunate trait: each has a mind of his own. This leads them to express opinions and to make choices that Lou finds increasingly difficult to accept. She comes to realise that she can no longer speak for them and mediate between them and the town. They have got away from her. They have become their own people.

And then the miracle happens. The Black Madonna answers Lou's prayers and she becomes pregnant. The child is born, a girl as dark as midnight, the same colour as the Madonna. Lou angrily rejects both her child and her former Jamaican friends. She puts the child up for adoption just as one of the men, disillusioned by Britain, returns home.

Spark leaves Lou pondering her adoption plans, but there is also an unwritten ending: Lou will return to the Black Madonna, oblivious to what she has done to the real, flesh-and-blood black people in her life.

One of the Black Madonna's best-known features is serendipity, the method through which she works. And so it was quite by chance that I first discovered her. It was on a hot and sunny day in mid-August in Greece, not long after I had moved to Europe as a Reagan refugee, that I found myself following the sound of a bell. It was a church bell, dark and sonorous, so unlike the bright bells that called me to Mass in my childhood.

I followed the sound to a square, and in its centre was a basilica. I entered, enveloped in its welcoming coolness. After adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I saw a large group huddled around a small altar. There, bathed in the glow of dozens of candles, was an icon of a Madonna and Child. She was black.

I was stunned. I had never seen anything like her in my life. The statues of Mary in the church of my childhood were alabaster with pink cheeks and pale blue eyes. Here before me was something else - African, or perhaps Caribbean, in complexion, but certainly not European.

Some people spoke out loud to her, as if engaged in conversation. Others touched her hands, then their hearts. There was weeping and laughing, all of it private and personal and yet strangely communal. I looked around at their faces. One had the face of the grocer on the street where my family and I used to live. He used to give us our change from behind the safety of a grill because, as he once told my father, "to be honest, the coloured scare me. I am afraid of you dark people." Another had the face of the taxi-driver who had refused to pick me and a friend up one rainy night in New York City. Now, while the rest of Athens was having a siesta, it was as if these same men were kneeling before a black female icon.

After that, it seemed that the Black Madonna was everywhere: a friend had one hidden in her bedroom; there was one at a roadside shrine not far from our place in France. I found that, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in London, better known as Farm Street, there is a replica of Our Lady of Montserrat, "La Moreneta" ("Little Black Girl"), patron of the Catalans. Her dark face, with its narrow, stern features, is a popular object of devotion at the church.

In Switzerland, there is the stylish Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, revered since the 16th century, the same colour as the country's chocolate and known for her sumptuous seasonal clothing. Italy has Our Lady of Loreto, in place since the 13th century, a statue as black as coal. And, in Saragossa, there is Pilar, whose name is one of the most popular for girls in Spain.

Black Madonnas can range in complexion from the palest beige to coal-black. Their eyes and hair are dark. Some may have broad noses and full lips, quite unlike the Europeans who have created them and consider them so vital to their spiritual and secular lives.

Many of the clergy, art historians and others contend that the darkness of the Madonnas (those that are not made of wood) is the result of age or candle smoke. But how to explain why these conditions have affected only the face and hands and not the clothing? And why have clearly modern representations of the Madonna, such as Twardogora in Lower Silesia in Poland, been deliberately made as Black Madonnas?

The Black Madonna is considered to be more powerful than the traditional Madonna, and is particularly noted for her miraculous powers, which range from restoring lost memories to resuscitating dead babies. Two, Czestochowa and Marija Bistrica, have been crowned queens, of Poland and Croatia respectively. According to a book about the life of the present Pope, Le Pape en Prive, recently published in Paris, the Holy Father has replicas of Czestochowa in his private apartments. A few years ago, he made a pilgrimage to her in thanksgiving for saving his life after the assassination attempt. The biography contains a striking image of the Pope saying Mass, the sombre black face of the Madonna looming behind him.

Practically every nation in Europe has its own Black Madonna. She has played a powerful role in the shaping and defence of Europe and European culture. Joan of Arc was known to have been a devotee, and Francois Poulenc wrote songs for her. She was invoked by John Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna. St Bernard of Clairvaux prayed for her aid in his struggle against the Cathars, a sect that rejected centralisation and whose defeat began the creation of the modern French state.

According to Ean Begg's seminal text The Cult of the Black Virgin, the Black Madonna may have begun as a Christianised version of Diana of Ephesus, whose statue in many places was black. Or she may be a latter-day representation of the Great Goddess, a mother figure who blessed and protected. The Celts, who were vigorously evangelised by the Church for more than six centuries, nevertheless managed to retain their wooden deities, which were simply changed into saints.

The most spectacular Black Madonna is Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, who is revealed to her people once a year on 15 August. That the Polish people revered a Black Madonna surprised me most of all. I grew up in Chicago during the civil rights protests, when Polish Americans were among the most implacable opponents of open housing and other laws designed to curb racism and create equality. Over the years, I had come to understand some of the economic forces that pitted two working-class communities, blacks and Poles, against each other. Yet I was still haunted by Polish faces, faces filled with hatred when my family and I moved into their neighbourhood, by the bricks that they lobbed through the windows of my friends, the abuse yelled from passing cars and the general air of menace my father experienced, day after day, on the shop floor.

The Poles still frightened me, but I had to go to Poland, to the monastery of Jasna Gora, not far from Auschwitz- Birkenau, and stand among them to witness the unveiling of their dark image of the Mother of God. Early on a sweltering morning this summer, while making a documentary on the Black Madonna for Radio 4, I finally stood before the icon, crammed into a tiny medieval chapel. I was cheek by jowl with people who had walked for up to 20 days and had begged for their food, and together we waited for the ritual elevation of the screen that covers the Black Madonna of Poland. The chapel of Jasna Gora is filled with the crutches of those who have walked away, apparently healed of their ailments, and the medals of those soldiers who believed that their lives had been saved through her intercession. I felt I was in another time, far removed from the dawn of the third millennium.

Then, suddenly, a recording of trumpets sounded and the screen was slowly raised. The crowd gasped. People called out to Czestochowa; they wept and laughed with joy. Slowly, a sound rose from the crowd. People were singing, serenading their queen. I didn't know the words, but I sang along with them.

Back in London, I discovered that there is also an indigenous Black Madonna in Willesden. Willesden has been an ancient centre of Marian veneration since the ninth century. It is mentioned in the writings of Sir Thomas More; Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry Vll, made offerings there in 1502 and 1503. In the 16th century, the Madonna was destroyed. Holinshed, writing in 1538, records the destruction of the shrine: "By a special motion of the Lord Cromwell all the notable images unto which were made any special pilgrimages and offerings were utterly taken away - as the images of Walsingham, Ipswich, Worcester, the Ladye of Wilsdon." She came back into favour during the 19th century and, in 1954, was crowned at Wembley Stadium in the presence of 100,000 people and to the accompaniment of the Coldstream Guards.

Ted Hughes implied in his book, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, that the violence of the Dissolution perpetrated by Henry VIII has deeply affected the soul of England, cut off from its Marian heritage. He argued that the civil war split into two what was left, leaving England in conflict with itself. This spiritual conflict is illustrated at Walsingham, in Norfolk, a focal point on the "Milky Way", the medieval sojourn along the miraculous route of the Madonnas.

Like England's cleaved soul, there are two focuses of homage to Our Lady of Walsingham. There is the Roman Catholic madonna, pale-skinned with blond hair, that Henry VIII prayed to on his deathbed. She is installed in a replica of the ancient Slipper Chapel, which, by custom, was entered with bare feet. "A proper English lady", I was told when I visited the shrine. And there is the Anglican madonna, who best represents the Walsingham that was known and loved until Henry VIII ordered that she be burned in the middle of the 16th century. She is black, this ancient Queen of England, and can be seen processed through the town from time to time, flanked by various clergy and often the military.

I remember the London school where I taught ten years ago. The head, a kind, conscientious, and courageous woman, told me proudly one day that she had moved heaven and earth to find a black Nativity scene. Now her students, second and third generation whose ancestors had come from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, China and the Caribbean, could have something to which they would relate. How much better to have shown them the ancient guardian of their borough, the Black Madonna of Willesden - as much of part of England as they.

Bonnie Greer is a writer and broadcaster. The second episode of In Search of the Black Madonna is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on 22 December

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.