An earlier version of this post appeared in my Live Journal blog Dureresque on September 14, 2010.
I’ve painted a number of icons over the last twenty years. Here’s a small one I painted a while back:
It was supposed to be in the Russian Pskov style. Really, the Pskov icons were so rough looking, though.
Here is an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa I painted, in 2008, in egg tempera on a wood panel I gessoed with gesso I made myself. This was something I did in my old studio. I had already started the icon a while back and hadn’t finished it because the gold leaf kept flaking off. I had thought I could fudge and use fake gold leaf but it wouldn’t stick until I finally used real gold, and a lot of it. It finally developed a sort of matte finish but it still looks like real gold and thus very nice.
Black madonnas are something of a fetish of mine, I guess. Cathedral of the Black Madonna by Jean Markele is a book I have several times. He suggests that the black virgins in Europe are related to ancient sun goddesses, which appeals to me. Another good book is The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg, published by Arkana Books. Then there’s Longing for Darkness, by China Galland, which is more of a travelogue memoir of her pilgrimage to Czestochowa to see the original icon. There’s a new, scholarly book out that I want to read: Pilgrimage to Images in the Fifteenth Century: The Origins of the Cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, by Robert Maniura. It is pretty pricey and I’ve been putting it off, but just typing out the title makes me want it again. I may have to try to get it by interlibrary loan.
I also discovered in my internet trolling that Our Lady of Czestochowa is associated with a Voudoun loa in Haiti, Mambo Ezili Danto or Erzulie Dantor. There she is considered very fierce, and sometimes is shown carrying a knife. She is the protectress of single mothers and gays. Here is a link to an interesting blog which goes into great detail on the relationship between Erzulie Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa: www.google.com/imgres
I painted the drapery in a different style than the original icon; it’s based on much earlier Byzantine icon called The Virgin Hodegitria, which is very angular and stylized. The name means “The Shower of the Way.”
The existing icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is painted in a primitive style and has been reworked numerous times. Here is a picture of the original icon from Poland: I probably should have changed the draperies and made them smoother. Now that I look at it again, I did at least try to make the blue draperies a little more flowing than the original Hodegitria source. The gold border is actually larger on my picture but it wouldn’t all fit on the scanner screen. She’s downstairs now sitting in the hallway on a chest of Native American relics my father dug up many years ago. Like I said, the gold is real gold, and the green background on mine is real malachite. I had to tone it down with yellow ochre because it was so green.
I wasn’t going to include the scar on my icon’s face (the original Madonna of Czestochowa is scarred, supposedly from a Hussar’s sword), but a mark appeared on the paint there as I painted. Yes, a mark appeared on Her face and I could not paint it out. Strange. It was as if She had an agenda and She was going to look the way She intended. But I never got her facial expression exactly right. She looks a little mean and sour where the original icon looks sad and sweet. It’s a very subtle expression.
Well, now I have to go get dressed to work at UTC. Today I’m drawing a cat skull, inside and out. Usually I don’t have to get dressed up to work, which is great, but today I’m going to see a really cool show at the UTC gallery — two figurative painters, one of whom studied with my idol, Odd Nerdrum. They appear to be quite the bomb from the color card I got. I’ll report later!
[Note: I put Her out in my studio one night on Open Studio Night, and she seems to have disappeared forever. I should have known better to leave her out without a frame, just the perfect size to slip under a jacket. She sits on someone else’s mantel now, stolen, and looking sour and pissed off about it. Then, months later, a man from Brazil contacted me, to find out if I was just kidding about the mark appearing on Her face. I told him, no, I wasn’t kidding. He made some cryptic comments about Mary being raped by the Roman soldier Pantera, which I have heard before, and asked for a high-resolution scan. I gave it to him, even knowing he is probably now selling prints on the streets of Rio. She moves where She wills.]
The comments attached are from my LiveJournal blog, from my old friend Rosemary.
What identifies a black Madonna? I.e. how is that different from any other painting of the Madonna?
None of the madonnas you are likely to see in Renaissance or medieval paintings from Western Europe are black madonnas; they are usually blond or brown-haired with fair skin, as was considered most beautiful. The black madonnas are either statues associated with specific churches throughout Europe, or icons from Eastern Europe. They seem to have a mysterious aura. Some of the statues have very black skin; the icons tend to have golden or darkish complexions; all of them have European features. The traditional explanation was that they were dark because they were very old, but some of them were obviously made black in the first place, and were even re-darkened periodically, and were the objects of pilgrimages, especially by women. The modern explanation is that they hark back to pagan goddesses.
Oh the Black Madonna….I call her the icon who is herself an iconoclast. Could it be that just a glimpse of her could shatter the smug illusions of those who view humanity through the lens of partial, exclusionary validation; those who are safely couched in their Anglicized image of this dusky Semitic desert-dweller? Could she spark an epiphany in such a person to consider viewing humanity as one common soul and that there can exist goodness, purity and worth beyond one’s own clan? I believe that this has most certainly happened, how may times and to whom is unknown, but in contemplating this possibility we are reminded once again that art is not only candy for the eye, but it also has the potential to heal the psyche and the soul. Julia, if I may be allowed to offer my own assessment of your lady’s expression, I would say that it does not reflect anger but a plaintive, although not overly accusatory plea to the onlooker to allow her to have such an effec