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The Black Madonna at Einsiedeln

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

From the author’s collectionIn 2008, my son Joseph moved to Switzerland to take up an assignment near Zurich. We first visited his family during the summer of 2009. There were many visits afterwards. During these visits, I made it a point to visit the Einsiedeln Cathedral, which contains Our Lady’s Chapel. Einsiedeln is a town on the bank of Alp Stream. The Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln is a baroque building of note in Switzerland. Located south of Zurich, it is an ancient and revered holy place. After one of the visits, I wrote:

Perched on a little hill, the church stands aloof impervious to the crowds on the road below the two towers rise together as if in prayer the grey walls bloom in the soft sunlight we walk up the hill, my children in tow the wooden door creaks as we push it open in the flickering light of a hundred candles shadows move like souls seeking redemption People are scattered on the floor, lost in prayer and some light candles, adding to the glow. Some sit huddled, sharing a private grief occasionally glancing at the statue by the wall The Madonna with the child gazes at me asking me, perhaps, where I have been I have no answer except to mumble not to construe the omission as a denial. Where have I seen this face, I ponder, as I come out of the church and wander reflecting on faith, love and redemption and how myths become real with time.

The shrine located here dates from the 9th Century when Meinrad, a young nobleman who had been a monk, left the monastery of Reichenau to live a hermit’s life in the deep woods of northeast Switzerland. He brought with him a wooden statue of the Madonna. Meinrad was known for helping others, which , unfortunately led to his death. A monastic community came up at the site of St. Meinrad’s hermitage. Then, in 940, the Benedictine Monks turned this into a small chapel housing the statue. The magnificent baroque abbey complex and church got consecrated in 1735. The meaning of the word ‘einsiedeler’ is hermit in the German language, and the abbey of Einsiedeln derives its name from the ‘place of the hermits’. Inside the church, the object of pilgrimage is a mid-15th century Black Madonna icon (the earlier icon got destroyed in a fire). This Black Madonna holds court in her black marble Chapel, enclosed within the nave of the bigger basilica. Small painted plaques adorn the dark walls of the chapel, offerings made by devotees expressing their deep gratitude for her healing or intervention in their lives. Many of the devotees are Sreelankans. Karen McCormick [1] writes: “She” is carved of wood in late Gothic style, is painted coal-black, and is not quite four feet tall. Dressed up in elegant brocades embroidered with golden floral accents, she holds the Christ child on her left arm, and he, in turn, has a blackbird. Her right-hand clasps a majestic sceptre while a chain with a Sacred Heart hangs from her arm.

The Einsiedeln Chapel has been one of the most significant pilgrimage places in Europe since the Middle Ages. In 1466, the monks brought the present statue of the Madonna to Einsiedeln, and the place became a noted Marian shrine in Switzerland. However, throughout Western Europe, there are over 200 examples of these black images, which are widely venerated for their esoteric, magical and wonder-working powers. Fred Gustafson [3] explores the broader symbolism of black Madonnas generally. Gustafson explains that the original statue of the Madonna at Einsiedeln was white and, over the years, darkened as a result of candle smoke from the votive candles at the shrine. Attempts to restore the statue to its original whiteness provoked an outcry from the congregation, who had become attached to her blackened state. Gustafson suggests that symbolic meaning had become associated with this blackness.

According to Karen McCormick [1, Einsiedeln has evolved into a healing shrine, where people find a cure for their mental and physical ailments. The Black Madonna is attributed with healing ability and miracle-working.

China Galland [2] believes that the Madonna at Einsiedeln was a Western remnant of the ancient Dark Goddess like the Indian Kali, Durga, lesser-known forms of Tara (Tibetan), Isis (Egyptian), Cybele (Roman), or Artemis (Greek). Many believe that the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln was also a manifestation of the Isis cult that migrated from southern Egypt to the Mediterranean. The faith then spread throughout much of Europe. Isis, too, is believed to be a Virgin, the Mother of God, and healer, like the Madonna of Einsiedeln, writes Gustafson.

Mary Lee Nolan [4] has noted that several European shrines of Black Virgin worship are known to have been centres of worship in pre-Christian times. Scholars see in the worship of the Black Virgin, a continuation of pre-Christian worship of such pagan goddesses. For example, scholars have noted that the great Egyptian goddess, Isis, is often shown as a nursing mother with the infant Horus at her breast; in this image lies the origins of the Madonna and Child image.

(In preparing this article, I have benefited from the following books and papers: [1]McCormick, Karen. “Our Lady of the Dark Forest: The BlackMadonnaa of Einsiedeln.” Quest 90.3 (MAY — JUNE 2002),

[2]China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna 2007, [3]Fred Gustafson the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, An Ancient Image for Our Present Time 1990 2008, [4]Mary Lee Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe (Studies in Religion 1989)

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