This summer I received a postcard from a friend in Italy portraying the Madonna in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the major church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Far more than a just a beautiful image, this Black Madonna has been attributed with miraculous and awesome power. Her titles “Our Lady of the Snows” and “Salvation of the Roman People” offer clues of her power over the weather and her ability to protect a whole community.
According to the legendary fourth century origins of the church, still celebrated today, the Virgin Mary caused snow to fall in August in Rome (a highly unlikely weather phenomenon) so that she could designate where she wanted her church to be built. She appeared to a couple and to the pope in a dream telling of the snowfall. She came to be known as Santa Maria della Neve, Our Lady of the Snows. On August 5, white flower petals are released from the church to celebrate the event and to simulate the miraculous snowfall.
In the basilica, her image is framed with precious jewels, encircled with gold, and displayed against a deep blue marble background with a golden star above. Marble columns flank either side. The scene of the miracle of the snow is depicted in gold in the arch above her painting. One of the powers sometimes attributed to Black Madonnas is control over the weather.
Like other Black Madonnas throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, the Black Madonna at Santa Maria Maggiore is considered to have protective powers, particularly against the plague. Pope Gregory the Great carried her image through the streets of Rome in the year 594 to pray for deliverance from a terrible pestilence. The dark icon became known as Salus Populi Romani, Salvation of the Roman People, and in 1837, Pope Gregory XVI again carried it through Rome during a cholera epidemic.
It was thinking about this very miracle story while I was researching the Black Madonnas that made me realize that the church clearly considered (and still considers) Black Madonnas as powerful. The pope chose this image to protect the city from the most powerful disease. Over the centuries, scenes like this took place throughout Italy with other Black Madonnas to protect against widespread disease and natural disasters.
Further south, the dark Madonna of Romania, whose veneration is described as antichissimo (most ancient), is regarded as the protectress of the city of Tropea in southern Italy after she protected it from a devastating earthquake in 1638. In a dream, she instructed the bishop to carry her image in procession, which he did, to prevent damage from the earthquake. A devoted parishioner in the basilica the day I was there told me that this Madonna, whom the church literature describes as bruna (dark or brown), prevented bombs from exploding that were dropped near the church in World War II, thus sparing the life of his mother who was praying inside. Two unexploded warheads were still on display
I, too, have had dreams of the Black Madonna. While she hasn’t asked me to build a church or carry her image in procession, she has provided a comforting presence and guidance. In one dream with her appearance, there were a circle of women dancing, hands joined, completely elevated and horizontal to the ground. Their dancing had the power to affect what happened to the world around them.
The Black Madonna also came to me after my mother died, and I was sleeping in her home. In my dream, the Black Madonna was alongside the road in the form of an immense dark tree – not unlike a wild olive tree I had seen in Sardegna on a study tour with Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum. I awoke with a tingling exhilaration as if I were between worlds.
The Black Madonna’s presence gives comfort, guidance and more in my waking life as well. It is worth paying attention when the she shows up.
beautifully written account of a timeless encounter with our lady of peace and healing.
I always love it when you are teaching and reflecting. YOUR voice is reassuring.
It’s always interesting reading of your research plus personal experience. A lot to learn and to relfect upon!
Thank you for sending the postcard to me, dear friend!
Blessed be the unfolding of our dreams!
This (unnamed) Goddess-gossip,
that birthed the human plant communion conversation:
She stands in my kitchen, in my dream,
her things in a rustic wooden cupboard at her feet: she’s moving in.
She looks just as she did
in my first vision of her, in which,
under a clear blue sky, grasses stretch,
lush and low, into the distance,
where a stand of giant bamboo and a grove
of deciduous trees of equal height
grow side by side.
A gentle breeze is silvering the leaves.
Everything is luminous and numinous
and silent and serene.
The dream-set disappears:
behind the dreamer’s eye,
She stands, as if there all along.
Looking just like Aunt Jemima, She stands,
with her skirt and blouse billowing,
a bandana on her head.
She stands, feet planted,
arm raised, injuncting and proclaiming a given: “human-plant communion”.
She calls for humans to come together,
in a moment of time, in acknowledgement
and appreciation of plant life,
for so abundantly sustaining us.
In the dream-kitchen, too, She stands.
(She did not “arrive”. She “there’d”.)
Getting she’s moving in, I inquire her name
She speaks it; I miss it, and ask again.
She speaks again. I miss!
The third time, I throw down my head
and throw up my hands in exasperation.
(What was that, crickets and bird calls?)
She laughs jovially, highly amused at humans’
thing of naming of Her, and says, in consolation,
“Well, on Samothraki,
they call me The Black Madonna”.
Wondering what to do with Her things,
I take the measure of her cupboard
with my arm, then leave her to go looking
for a better measuring tool, and discover,
in the basement, a fully furnished classroom!
“Perhaps The Black Madonna’s things
can go here”, I think.
In a third dream occasion,
I open a cupboard in that selfsame kitchen,
a cupboard like the one She moved in with;
and I see an icon of Her, as umphy, and conscious and blissful as her physical apparition, with meaning to be made from scratch from the kitchen, the cupboard, and the Her-ness.
The jungian dream tracker, Marion Woodman, allows as how The Black Madonna is a frequently recurring motif in contemporary Western dreaming.
The (re)turn of The Black Madonna?
In dreams? In the splendor of recognition of nature? In a kitchen cupboard?
What is more common than a kitchen, a cupboard, a dream, a plant scape?
In our commonality and communality she (re)turns.
The Black Madonna, the Queen of Nature, the agent of all fertile transformation in the outside world and in the psyche, urgently demands a return to balance and wholeness, honoring the earth and representing ecology and environmental concerns, theologian Matthew Fox proclaims. “Her return is a sign of our times.”
That was 2008.￼
And I promised:
The human community, the plant community, one community present
to exquisite relatedness, by 2021￼.
Time is now!
What beautiful Dreams, Maurice! And such beautiful images and words you have shared, too many to note. “In our commonality and communality she (re)turns.” May it be so! Thank you for reading my post and for your thoughtful reply. I love to think of the Black Madonna in the kitchen. In fact I just positioned an icon of Her in my kitchen early in 2020, a gift from friend. At first I thought it was a temporary resting place. . .and then realized I loved having Her presence in my kitchen. Blessings!
I nearly died on Friday. My heart got so badly out of rhythm that I almost went into cardiac arrest and they had to rush me off to surgery and implant a pacemaker. It cured me instantly! But that night in the hospital when I was going to sleep I suddenly had a vision of a Black Madonna standing in my backyard! Rather she was floating just inches above the ground. She was chocolate-colored, all of her, even her robes. I was uncertain of her because I wasn’t familiar at all with the Black Madonna. But when I woke the next morning I remembered vaguely references to her, and started looking her up. I realize now what a great gift that vision was! I am home recovering well and reflecting on what this means for me.
Dear Laura, Thank you for sharing this powerful experience, which thankfully you are alive to share! It sounds like the Black Madonna is showing up for you in a meaningful way. When she shows up in a Dream, I always pay attention. She is an active presence in the world. I’ve shared a lot on my Black Madonna facebook site that may be helpful if you want to take your reflections further. My wishes for continued healing and recovery to you. Blessings!