Brazil Reflections: Our Lady of Aparecida and Black Madonnas

During our time in Rio we took a walking tour through the Santa Marta favela. During the tour we came across a shrine to Our Lady of Aparecida, our first introduction to the patron saint of Brazil.

In 1717 three Brazilian fishermen from the city of Guaratinguetá--Domingos Garcia, João Alves, and Filipe Pedroso--went down to the Paraíba river to catch some fish for a celebration being held for a visiting dignitary. The fishermen prayed to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for a good catch. After struggling to catch anything the fishermen eventually dragged up a headless statue of the Virgin Mary. They soon found the head and afterward they hauled up a big load of fish.

After cleaning the statue the fishermen discovered it was a Black Madonna, specifically a black version of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The three fishermen named the statue Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida (Our Lady of the Appeared Conception). Veneration of the statue grew, especially among Afro-Brazilians due to the statue being a Black Madonna. Our Lady of Aparecida is considered to be the principal patroness of Brazilian Catholics.

I find the Black Madonna phenomenon to be fascinating. There are hundreds of Black Madonnas worldwide, one of which is Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil and another is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. Interestingly, hundreds of Black Madonnas, and some of the oldest, are from Europe. Check out Wikipedia's list of Black Madonnas.

The origins of the Black Madonna are varied and debated. Some Madonnas may have been darkened due to physical or environmental factors that affected pigmentation. For example, the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was found in a river. But many Black Madonnas are intentional creations, often taking on the skin color and features of the indigenous population. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is an example of this. In these cases the Black Madonna, often depicted with the black Christ child, reflects the trans-racial nature of divinity and the church.

Finally, many think Black Madonna iconography was influenced by the text from Song of Solomon 1:5: "I am black but beautiful."

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