A black madonna

Black madonna

Materials: cast in plaster of paris, painted
Dimensions: 18 centimeters high
Place acquired: street stall, Pernambuco, north east Brazil
Place of manufacture: Brazil

For over 400 years the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French were engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. This involved the forced transportation of an estimated 12 million men, women and children from the west coast of Africa to work as slaves on the plantations of North, Central and South America and the islands of the Caribbean. It’s not surprising that such a massive movement of people, and the culture of duress that resulted in these slave societies of the New World, should produce complicated and hybrid forms of belief. This little plaster statuette is a classic example. Ostensibly it depicts Our Lady of Aparecida, the Catholic patron saint of Brazil. The history of the original statue that it copies is similar to many Marian cults:

In the year 1717 a clay statue of the Virgin Mary is accidentally dredged up from the bottom of a Brazilian river by fishermen, and subsequently becomes the apparent source of many miracles. Enshrined in a basilica in the city of Aparecida it attracts pilgrimage, veneration, recognition by the Vatican and ultimately, in 1904, its ‘coronation’ by the Catholic authorities promotes the icon to patron saint of Brazil.

But Our Lady of Aparecida is also a member of another sub-genre of Marian statues: a black madonna. Statues that appear black are sometimes to do with their age and the circumstances of their history (buried, or submerged in water for instance). But in the ex-slave-owning areas of the east coast of the Americas a ‘black’ Madonna immediately becomes charged with significance, and in this little plaster copy of the original she is not just brown with age, she is most definitely a black woman.

The old west African cosmologies from the slaves’ homelands have not only survived in the Caribbean and the Americas, but have prospered and evolved into a host of religious practices, Voodoo, Santeria and Obeah are some of them. They have the same west African roots, but often have a certain syncretism with Catholicism, whose strong, visual pantheon of saints, and culture of the miraculous blends obligingly with the old religions of west Africa. The main Afro-Brazilian religious practices are Candomblé and Umbanda, and this black madonna creates a powerful link between these beliefs and the Catholic church in Brazil.

So this little statuette is much more than just Our Lady of Aparecida. She is also Orixa Oxum, the Great Mother, patroness of pregnancy and of babies, of rivers and of seas, of gold, of honey, of laughter, of beauty, of seduction, of shrewdness and wisdom. She is the supreme Ancestral Mother of the Yoruba.