The Black Madonna of the Darker than Dark Forest

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The place closest to my heart in the whole of Switzerland is the Monastery of Einsiedeln. “Einsiedeln” is a German word for “hermitage.” Surrounded by a dark, mysterious forest, situated near a scenic lake, adjacent to glorious mountain peaks, the place is second to none of the famous holy sites of the world in its beauty. It is in this area that Paracelsus was born, and perhaps more importantly – it is a place of worship of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, a delicate statue carved lovingly in lindenwood in the first centuries AD. She was a gift from Abbess Hildegarde of Zurich to Saint Meinrad, a monk who established the hermitage of Einsiedeln.

Meinrad was born into a privileged family but he felt he needed to walk his own path instead of rising in the ranks in an established monastery of Reichenau. He wanted to leave the familiar and the predictable behind, because above all he craved a life of solitude and contemplation. He chose the life of an eremite at Etzel, a mountain pass close to Einsiedeln. However, because his wisdom was widely known, he was visited by countless pilgrims, which disturbed his inner peace. Like Dante in Divine Comedy, he felt the pull of the Dark Forest, which seemed to hold a promise of the long awaited silence, solitude, contemplation and the intensity of deep inner work. He moved into the Finsterwald (Dark Forest), taking the Black Madonna statue with him and making Her the centre of his hermitage. “Finster” is a curious and mysterious adjective in German; it means darker than dark, pitch black, impenetrable, but at the same time it does not carry any sinister connotations. It just denotes a complete lack of light, similarly to the word “Sonnenfinsternis,” that is the solar eclipse.

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Meinrad died the death of a martyr at the hands of two robbers, who clubbed him to death. According to the legend, the robbers were punished thanks to two ravens, who alarmed the locals about what had occurred. The legend of the two ravens is very compelling and symbolic of Meinrad’s individuation path. In his book on the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Fred Gustafson wrote this of the ravens, who symbolized the nigredo in alchemy – the first stage of the alchemical work:

“… as Meinrad made his way into the Finsterwald he noticed a nest in a fir tree, above which two hawks were hovering threateningly. The hermit chased the hawks away, climbed the tree, saved two ravens, and fed and cared for them. Finding a suitable clearing, he built a cell and a little chapel beside it. Meinrad dedicated the chapel to the Mother of God; today this is the site of the Monastery of Einsiedeln. The ravens stayed with him at his new hermitage.

In the Egyptian myth of Horus’ sparrow-hawk, as well as in the myths and symbolism of the Graeco-Roman age, the hawk is very definitely associated with the sun, that is, with the patriarchal values of logic and linear thinking. The raven, on the other hand, traditionally represents only the darker aspects, the shadow of consciousness. That the hawk would thus descend upon the young ravens symbolically represents the hostility of consciousness towards contents of the unconscious, especially embryonic contents – such as new awareness of attitudes or opinions – that need to be nourished and cared for. Meinrad’s rescue of the ravens is a spiritual victory for the emerging unconscious. The Finsterwald and the two ravens are closely related, one being the prima materia of the unconscious, the other, one’s personal relationship to the contents that begin to arise from it.

Ravens are indeed worthy and appropriate companions for St. Meinrad in that they fulfill their traditional role as messengers of gods, i.e., carriers of the vital messages of the unconscious to consciousness.”

Fred Gustafson, “The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln: An Ancient Image for Our Present Time, Kindle edition

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St Meinrad’s chapel, via Wikipedia 

As in the case of the Dark Forest, also the darkness of the Madonna is not viewed as sinister or evil. Rather, it is peaceful, good, enveloping, and also creative, fecund, powerful and potent. It embodies the creative forces of the unconscious. The central part of the monastery is her chapel – octagonal, carved in black marble, lit by candles. In the centre, she resides surrounded by the blindingly golden halo of clouds and lightning. Her robes are extremely elaborate and ornate, and come in many shades and colours. Gustafson continues:

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“She is elevated to a celestial-spiritual and dynamic position, the clouds emphasizing the former and the lightning the latter. Both have long figured as fertile, life-giving forces. In this respect, Augustine compared the apostles to a cloud because of the fertilizing nature of prophesies which, like clouds, come from a higher order. It is also said that lightning has an illuminating, vivifying, fertilizing, transforming, and healing function. Lightning, especially, is representative of energy and power; it symbolizes psychic energy in its most dynamic form. From another perspective, however, the gold lightning and clouds are just not a glorification of the Black Madonna; they are in fact eclipsed by her.”

The last sentence seems to say something very crucial about the Black Madonna. She is the creative force, the veiled mystery of darkness standing for the creative matrix. Her extremely potent and alluring quality, says Gustafson, “represents that side of the psyche that leads and entices an individual into life in its fullest measure.” She fascinates because she cannot be fathomed; she just suggests that what is apparent is just a thin layer covering the vast ocean of truth. She reminds us, according to the same author, that “for renewal to come in our time, it must be borne in the arms of the black, unknown maternal night of the unconscious, where humanity will once again open its psyche to that rich natural soil that is the mother of all human thought, invention, doctrinal formulation and truth.”

It is quite paradoxical that with Her mighty, formidable presence which makes one humble and full of reverence, She can simultaneously be related to in a very personal and direct way, as if She carried an individual healing message for each pilgrim’s soul. She is both of the earth (warm, accessible, maternal) and of heaven (distant, striking, regal). She is always surrounded by numerous pilgrims, both men and women. It is worth remembering that after Meinrad’s deaths Benedictine monks had full control over who had access to the Black Madonna statue and who was allowed to worship her. In that time, the so called Forest Sisters continued to live in loose communities of nuns without following any strict rules. They gathered herbs in the forest, practiced mystical arts and healed the pilgrims that flocked to Einsiedeln to visit the monastery. In the 16th century, the Benedictine monks came to the conclusion that the free community of Forest Sisters was not to be tolerated on the land of the monastery. The women were evicted from the town and had to live according to strict Benedictine rules in the town of Au. In 1703 they lost their free status. In addition, they were ordered to wear black robes. They were also banned from visiting the monastery and the town of Einsiedeln.

It is astounding how that tyrannical decision goes against the all-encompassing, all-loving wisdom of the Black Madonna, who obliterates all barriers and accepts every soul based on its inner depth rather than any accidental social status. The exclusion of Forest Sisters from the cult of Black Madonna is also symbolic of the Catholic Church patriarchal slant. However, this bias stands in direct contradiction to the true spirit of the religion and its dark, impenetrable roots.

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20 Responses to The Black Madonna of the Darker than Dark Forest

  1. litebeing says:

    well done Monika. Can you supply an image of your beloved monastery and adjacent black forest?

    hugs, Linda

  2. Aeolian Heart says:

    I love your work so much!

  3. Fascinating account and shades of meaning. I think any grouping of herbal healers, etc…known as the ‘Forest Sisters’ would be rather mystical and friendly. Fascinating too, especially in connection to the Black Madonna. Those terms of darkness are very interesting. I can think of ‘obsidian’ or ‘charcoal’ as descriptive in English but those don’t seem to catch the intent or meaning.

    • Thank you, Steven. You know how I love those linguistic meanderings and I know you do too. I want to get to the deepest bottom of every word – if only that were possible!

  4. A fascinating write, Monika !!!!!

  5. Thank you, Monika, for the lovely article and imagery. It’s always a welcome reminder for me to visit with the Black Madonna. I enjoyed the ‘darker than dark forest’ language, too. Very deeply evocative. Blessings, Jamie

  6. Jeff Japp says:

    Great post, Monika. While I had heard of the Black Madonna, I was not familiar with Her background, so this was really enlightening for me. Also, the Raven symbolism was very interesting. It makes me want to reread Poe’s “The Raven” and look at it for a different perspective.

    • Thanks, Jeff. There are I believe over a hundred Black Madonna statues found all across Europe, though don’t quote me on the exact number. Each of them has a unique story, including another one of my favorites – the Polish Black Madonna of Czestochowa. There have been so many theories about what they mean. A lot of them relate her to dark goddesses or to Isis. I especially agree with the latter.
      I love ravens and their symbolism. According to the medicine cards, they are bringers of magic, healers, messengers from beyond.
      Anyway, enough said. Always happy to hear from you.

  7. Leeby Geeby says:

    Hey there. Thank you for following my work. I really love the ornate presentation of your blog, it’s inspiring. This piece was beautifully written, I can relate to Meinrad’s journey. When material life gets too much, I long for immersion in nature. Just the though of meditating in a cool, deep, isolated forest glade brings me such peace. The crow has been a powerful spirit guide for me in my life. In periods of deep dispair it would come to me very directly in physical form to remind me on the importance of my inner-life as the refuge for weathering life’s great transitions.

  8. Leeby Geeby says:

    Reblogged this on Shamagaia and commented:
    Beautifully written account of the life and times of St Meinrad Einsiedeln and the Black Maddona.

  9. fallenAngel says:

    Thank your this well written article.I have lived for five years in Samstagern/Richterswil so I’ve been there many, many times.
    There something odd with the official Catholic interpretation of Black Madonnas, as just being the Virgin Mary, supposedly black for some trivial, local reasons, for instance “accidentally blackened by candlelight”, isn’t it? I am also more drawn to the conclusion, that Black Madonnas represent “the ancient earth-goddess taken into Christianity”. The legend of the two ravens or sparrow-hawks is indeed very compelling and symbolic and may have a hidden meaning, as Horus, sun of Isis is often shown often as hawk. Many scholars of comparative religion have suggested that Black Madonnas are descendants of pre-Christian mother or earth goddesses, often pointng to Isis as the key ancestor-goddess. The story of Osiris, Isis and Horus, is clearly an early symbol of trinity and resurrection. The Isis’s iconography closely resembles and may have influenced the earliest Christian icons of Mary holding Jesus. I would go further, as all religions are cultural constructions around spirituality and “borrow” freely symbols.
    I will spend the long Easter mass in “my” monastery -St.Otillien- together with monks.

    • Thank you very much for your comment. I know about the Black Madonna Isis parallel and I must say I think it is absolutely true. For “church fathers,” there is something shameful or underdeveloped in the ecstatic cult of the Black Madonna. In my native Poland she is revered beyond any measure.

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