Romanesque Church Hunt Looking for churches and other France adventures.

March 23, 2008

Black Madonnas

Filed under: Ardeche - Churches,Ardeche - Other Points of Interest — Karen @ 8:58 pm

One of our group reports that a colleague will be spending time in France this summer looking for ‘Black Madonnas’.

Black Madonna of LimouxMy curiosity was piqued, since we had seen several of these Black Madonnas on our travels. I wondered the most basic of questions: What are the Black Madonnas? Why are they black? And are there any in Ardeche near where we will be staying? The one at left is from Limoux and southwest France.

My initial research seems to indicate that the Black Madonna phenomenon as mostly European from the 11th to 15th century with more that 500 examples still viewable (and 180 of those in France.)

But here’s the intriguing part–no one is absolutely sure why they are black. Some say it is just a reaction of varnish on wooden sculpture or perhaps centuries of candle soot. Or that some were sculpted of naturally occuring dark stone. There are many, many theories out there. Others maintain that many of the statues were black from the beginning. I referred to our “Bible” of Ardeche Romanesque lore, “Eglises Romanes Oubilees du Vivarais” by Claudia Fabre-Martin. This would be “Forgotten Romanesque Churches of the Vivarais”. This book is so comprehensive and so dense that it will take us a lifetime of trips to get through it. But every page has a precious nugget of information.

I checked to see what “Forgotten Churches” had to say about the black madonnas and it seems its a very complicated issue. Another issue brought up here was the possibility that the black virgins were in tune with the earlier pagan goddess representations. Also of importance for Ardeche is its location on the way to the Black Madonna of all time, Notre-Dame de Puy.

There are several “vierges noires” in Ardeche, but the closest that I could find was one listed as being at Cornas, which is somewhat north of where we will be staying. But the Black Madonna seems like a worthy Romanesque destination.

cornas_notre_dame_de_la_mure-2-1.jpgThe black virgin of Cornas, called Notre-Dame de La Mure, is about 60 centimeters high and carries a baby, both of them looking at us. She is thought to be of the 13th century. She has a definite relationship to the Vierge de La Puy. The statue disappeared during the wars of religion and the French Revolution, hidden by the lords. I was not able to find a photo of the lady herself, but the santuary is at left.

The chapel was restored in the 20th century and Monsignor Roncalli (future Pope John 23) came to crown the Virgin & Child in 1946. The restoration was not finished and today another restoration has begun again.

While we are on the hunt for the Black Madonna, perhaps we might be able to stop and sample the wines of Cornas, well known among aficianados and reviewed here by Tim Teichgraber of the San Francisco Chonicle, Feb. 9, 2007

Wines from Cornas, when you can find them, sell for less than those from Cote Rotie or Hermitage but often rival them in quality. That doesn’t mean these bottles come cheap, though. Expect a bottle of Cornas to set you back between $35 and $90. Today’s wines from Cornas are still loaded with minerality and tannin, but they’re more polished and cleaner than they once were.

Cornas vintageI tasted 12 bottles from seven producers and four different vintages and these were my favorites. All were remarkably sound, well-made wines with genuine regional flair. I’d be impressed to see that kind of consistency from any region, and it just goes to show that the rising tide of quality in Cornas has raised all ships.

2003 Domaine Clape Renaissance ($50) The venerable Clape family is keeping pace with the young guns of Cornas. This wine has sweet plum, cherry, raspberry aromas laced with pepper, mint, violets and coffee. It’s richer tasting than the nose suggests, more so with time. Juicy but nimble, with a peppery, minerally finish.

2004 Jean-Luc Columbo La Louvee ($85) A very dynamic wine with aromas of blackberry, black cherry, gunpowder, licorice and mint, and rich but focused fruit flavors that finish with grainy granite tones, a touch of alcoholic heat and gentle, surprisingly tame tannins.

2004 Jean-Luc Columbo Terres Brulees ($78) Lucid deep scarlet in color with lavish plum, cherry, blackberry, vanilla, bacon, pepper, mint, leather and black licorice aromas and flavors. A massive, mouth-coating wine with spicy red fruit, soft oaky tones and sturdy tannins.

2000 Noel Verset ($50) An elegant, subtle Cornas from a veteran grower with pronounced black pepper, violet, cherry and plum aromas, edgy cherry and plum fruit flavors and hints of licorice and grilled meat on the stony, firm finish.

2003 Paul Jaboulet Aine Les Grandes Terrasses ($42) Full-bodied and mouth-filling with sweet raspberry, coffee and blackberry flavors giving way to taut mineral notes and sturdy tannins, toast and chocolate flavors. A solid value.

2002 Robert Michel La Geynale ($50) An enjoyable but more sinewy wine from a cooler vintage with pretty violet, black pepper and anise aromas, and stony cherry and plum flavors, finishing with meaty notes and tightly wound tannin.

2003 Thierry Allemand ($85) This cuvee from the tricky, hot 2003 vintage is stunning right out of the gate, with intense blackberry, clove, pepper, coriander, licorice, blueberry aromas and concentrated black fruit flavors finishing with more licorice and vanilla oak notes and stony, granite flavors. Truly exceptional.

2004 Vincent Paris Granit 60 Vielles Vignes ($35) Closed at first, then unwinds to reveal pretty rose petal, black pepper, black cherry, cranberry and blackberry aromas, compact dark fruit flavors and tight mineral notes on the finish. Subtly oaked and impeccably balanced, a great value and certain to improve with age


  1. This is a wonderful blog, Thank you so much for sharing your love of this beautiful region.
    I’d like to ad a comment to your Black Madonnas article. I grew up a few miles from Avignon and Nimes, and I remember visiting the Stes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue during the annual gipsy fair (pall bearers parade the church’s black madonna in the streets, and take her to the beach and into the sea, a ways.)
    This was a very long time ago, but I recall hearing the explanation that the black madonnas are the effigie of Sarah, a black woman , who was the maid servant of Mary Madgalena, and came to France with her, (yada, yada…refer to the DaVinci Code for more details, true, or …urban legend) and remained with her in her exile until her death.
    This would mean that she was the nanny and governess of Magdalena’s (and Jesus’???) child.
    It is interesting that the name ” Les Stes Maries de la Mer” is plural (the Saintes Maries of the sea) when my childhood catechism only ever spoke on ONE Marie. I can’t help wondering, just how many Maries came to France.
    Sarah, the black virgin is an object of worship to the gipsies, so she is probably a pagan figure. How did she wind up in catholic churches then? I expect this would be a bit of an embarrassment to the clergy. This is just hearsay, lore and legend, but I thought I’d pass it on to you. Catherine

    Comment by Catherine Henry — July 13, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  2. Dear Catherine,
    How fascinating! I would like to visit farther south (and we did some years ago–but regrettably we just drove through and did not research any churches.)

    The Black Madonna is compelling and the theories behind her emergence are many. Even when looking at churches, one can often see the precursors to the Romanesque era–There must be hundreds of churches built on the ruins of pre-Christian edifices. I think I shall devote a post soon on a few of the churches that show these traces.

    Comment by Karen — July 19, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

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