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Divine Feminine
Divine Feminine

The Power of the Black Madonna

Thursday, March 17, 2022

St. Patrick’s Day

Scholar and activist Christena Cleveland has studied and visited Black Madonnas across France. She writes of her pilgrimage to a 12th-century Black Madonna in the French town Mauriac and the transformative impact this encounter had on her:

As I examined the cavernous interior [of the basilica], I was aggressively confronted with signs forbidding visitors from trespassing beyond the crimson velvet ropes surrounding the town’s renowned sixth-century statue of the Black Madonna, an uncommon dark-skinned version of the Virgin Mary. . . . The ropes hung more than forty feet from the magnificent unapologetically Black-and-female Madonna.

My unapologetically Black-and-female body longed to be near this Black Madonna, whom people of diverse races, religions, and eras have recognized as a Black and female image of God. Though I was raised in a Black family and had spent significant time in Black church spaces, the image of a white male God permeated my being. I know I am not alone. The late Black tennis star Arthur Ashe shared his childhood experience with white male God with a reporter from Sports Illustrated, who wrote: “Every Sunday, Arthur Jr. had to go to church, either to First Presbyterian or Westwood Baptist, where his parents had met and where he would look up at a picture of Christ with blond hair and blue eyes and wonder if God was on his side.” [1]

Like Arthur Jr., I too questioned whether God was on my side. And after years of questioning, healing, and transformation, I had traveled all the way to the heart of central France to finally come face-to-face with the Black Madonna. Desperate for a divine image that I related to and breathed hope into my experience as a Black person and as a woman, I had to be near this likeness of God that looked like me. Seeing Her from a roped off distance wasn’t enough. I longed to gaze into Her mysterious and kind eyes, to witness Her unyielding clutch on Her precious Black boy, to run my fingers along Her centuries-old dark, wooden body, and to stand before a sacred image of Black femininity. . . .

Christena Cleveland’s research of Black Madonnas was not simply an intellectual project; it changed her entire perspective of God and how God loves the world:

Within seconds of viewing photos of the Black Madonnas, my gut shifted from terror to hope. Before I even read a word about the Black Madonna, my soul immediately recognized that these photos and drawings of ancient Black Madonnas declared a truth about my own sacredness and gave birth to a new understanding of God.

I call Her the Sacred Black Feminine. She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred.

[1] Kenny Moore, “Sportsman of the Year: The Eternal Example,” Sports Illustrated 77, no. 26 (December 21, 1992): 21.

Excerpted from God Is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Toni Frisell, Nuns Clamming on Long Island (detail), 1957, photograph, New York, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Rose, (detail), 2020, photograph, used with permission. Annie Spratt, Women farming cassava in Sierra Leone (detail), 2017, photograph, Sierra Leone, Unsplash, free use. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Divine expression comes in many forms. The Divine Feminine meets, nurtures, and is in us all, regardless of gender. Like a rose in a forgotten window, She Is and continues to be, despite attempts to neutralize her fragrance.

Story from Our Community:

divine feminine offering understanding / a spirit of serenity, knowing, Peace, contentment / securely holding preciousness / hands offering strength and foundational belonging / child rests over open heart / finding rest in what is / unity of hearts completing the circle / of life, growth, struggle, letting go, new life
—Patricia S., “My Little Meditation-Mother and Child” (inspired by a painting by Mary Cassatt)

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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