La Moreneta: The Virgin of Montserrat
One of the most famous of the Black Virgins of Europe, La Moreneta has been subjected to some of the most strenuous of tests of all the Black Madonnas in order to “prove” she was not originally Black, including x-rays. According to the Telegraph (UK), the report seemed to confirm what had already been assumed:
Over the years, the theory that the statue was not black has been aired several times and the new report appeared not to surprise Montserrat’s Benedictine community. Father Josep Maria Foses said: “In Montserrat we have assumed for some time that the statue is not black.”
The statue was definitely repainted several times over the centuries, the last being sometime in the 1800s, with black paint. I haven’t been able to find the full report on the findings of the tests, although I assume they found a coat of white paint in there somewhere. It’s not surprising that the statue was repainted with Black paint, considering that the tradition of Black Madonnas goes back to attributed images by Saint Luke, purportedly drawn from life; in other words, actual portraits of the Virgin Mary done in Jerusalem.
A Black Madonna would have generated much more in terms of pilgrimages and fame, as well as income for the hosting institution. There definitely would have been motivations to maintain a black color to the Madonna’s skin, although it doesn’t seem likely to me that if they had just painted a white Madonna black, that it would have generated the reverence a true Black Madonna would have. If indeed a white layer of paint did exist, it probably would have needed to darken naturally to some degree before being repainted Black.
For context, almost all of the hundreds of Black Madonnas that exist throughout Europe have had their color attributed to everything from “candle smoke”, aging varnishes, chemical reactions (for more on that read this post), and even, notoriously, “sunburn”. Despite quite a few of the Black Virgins having what some art historians maintain are Black or African features, almost all curators of Black Madonna images claim their skin color is due to unintentional causes.
The Virgin of Montserrat has a fascinating history, like most of the Black Madonnas:
According to legend La Moreneta was carved by St. Luke and brought to Montserrat by St. Peter in 50 AD, then hidden from the moors in the Santa Cova (holy cave) just down the mountain from the monastery.
By the late 1100s, a new wooden sculpture of the miraculous image was made, and it is this Romanesque statue that pilgrims are familiar with today. In 1522, St. Ignatius of Loyola came in pilgrimage, and made the decision to abandon his former life as a warrior, leaving his sword as an offering to Our Lady of Montserrat and settling for some time in the nearby town of Manresa as he discerned his vacation and wrote his Spiritual Exercises. The old church was replaced with an enormous transitional late Gothic/Renaissance-style basilica in 1592, and this building stood until much of it was destroyed by the armies of a retreating Napoleon in 1811.
Fortunately, the monks managed to hide the image of Our Lady of Montserrat so that it was not destroyed along with the rest of the abbey. In 1880, Our Lady of Montserrat was officially declared to be Patroness of Catalonia by Leo XIII. In more recent times, Pope John Paul II came to Montserrat on pilgrimage in 1982, to pray before the image of the Black Madonna.
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