Mazie’s at Song School in Lyons, Colorado. I’m working at the Stone Cup as a sandy blond lady adjusts the paintings hanging beside me. It turns out it’s Sally White King, the artist. I tell her that I like her bear pictures. Also how she decapitated the female heads in her portraits of the Mother and Child.
Her eyes light up. It’s an important detail. It’s because she’s the Black Madonna, Sally says. You see them all over Europe, but we don’t know who she was. The Black Madonna gave birth to the Holy Daughter. The Black Madonna was Mary Magdalene, she explains quietly. She was Christ’s true Bride.
When the morning starts with something like that, it’s time to close up shop. You basically have gotten enough for the day.
There are over 400 Black Madonnas (or Black Virgins) throughout Europe, some dating back to the twelfth century. Aside from the black coloring, some of them have two things in common.
The Madonna holds an egg or an apple (both representing either fertility, worldly knowledge, or sexual corruption). And plaited red hair or vestments.
We may never know the true story of the historical Mary of Magdala, the anointed companion of Christ. She most likely was not a prostitute (the New Testament scripture does not clearly support this), but no matter. For much of the 2000 year Christian narrative (and officially since Pope Gregory in the year 591), poor Mary has been identified as a harlot, the fallen one allied with wayward women.
The belief left behind a two thousand year long trail of religious images and iconography.
Mary of the curling hair, identifying her as an adulteress. Mary being cast into the wilderness.
Penitent Mary casting her eyes toward heaven, bearing the pure vessel, the Alabaster Jar.
Mary, her red hair flowing down her back, kneeling at the foot of the Cross. Mary present as Christ is laid within the tomb.
But these images also suggest another Mary, that of St. Mary Magdalene, the one who proclaimed to the world that Christ had Risen.This Mary lies prostrate before the empty tomb. This Mary heralds the birth of Christianity itself, becoming the Apostle to the Apostles.
St. Mary Magdalene is also the patron saint of penitents and perfumers,or to put it another way, the guardian of the fallen and those who anoint in anticipation of sex.
She contemplates and is illumined by the burning flame of god.
This is the Mary of the Cave, more voluptuous and sexual than repentant. Her flowing red hair suggests the flow of blood.
This Mary is the one cloaked in red. She is the one to present the red egg to Caesar. This Mary gives Word (or birth) to the resurrected Christ.
But we sometimes use metaphor to give greater dimension to the literal.
What if Mary was confidant and companion to Christ in the fullest sense? What if this laying in and exiting of the tomb was of a different, more carnal sort?
In this narrative, Mary as the Black Madonna is not so much the temptress, but the actual bride of Christ, and in this narrative, she bears his child.
Mary of Magdala carries within her the blood of Christ on the eve of his death. Mary is the Chalice. She is the generative vessel. That’s why Sally sliced the heads in half.
The Black Madonna is the Holy Grail itself.
And that’s why Arthur and his knights (and later Terry Gilliam and his band of buffoons, swallows and coconuts aside) were never able to find the damn thing.
The Chalice was in fact the feminine counterpart to Christ (and the sexual drive) that had been surgically expurgated from the religion. Sex had been cloaked in the blackness of sin. And if the procreative impulse is made unholy, where does that leave us?
It gets even weirder. In the Middle Ages, to protect their daughters’ virtue from marauding soldier or to pawn off the spinster daughter, they would pack them off to nunneries. With the true Bride of Christ now gone, these young acolytes would seal themselves to the Son of God by taking vows of chastity. The sexual impulse would become sublimated and would in turn find expression only through religious ecstasy. The nuns would at times feel within their wombs the fire of Christ.
But what if we were to once again acknowledge the Black Maria, no longer painted black, but as the woman who perfumed and bathed the feet of the Lord and gave issue to the Fruit of Heaven? Hinduism, Paganism, Zoroastrianism, Puebloan and Mesoamerican cosmology to name a few, all make room for the procreative force. By making christ a celibate, we neuter a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Perhaps that’s why many of the firefights in contemporary christianity have to do with sexuality.
Who’s to say which narratives should be designated as apocrypha, and which canon? And as we evolve, will other narratives become more resonant?
Oh and by the way. Tom Wait’s Black Mariah? It’s slang for a paddy wagon hauling away the condemned. And also, perhaps most beautifully, the nickname given to a black tarpaulin shack built by Thomas Edison in Orange, New Jersey.
That misshapen building? It was the first Movie Studio in America.
Or, you might say, the womb of our contemporary imagination and desire.