In the museum Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, in Prague, in the Stare Mesto part of town, one block from the Vlatva river, U Milosrdnych 17, 1396, 41.5 x 29.5 cm, tempera and gold on parchment and linen.
The Madonna of Breznice
This is one of those Black Madonnas whose skin color might have been attributed to the Byzantine style, candle smoke, or the 'saponification of the white lead' in the paint, were it not for her halo. It reads: "Nigra sum sed formosa filie ier(usalem)." That means: "I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem." This quote from the Song of Songs can be found on or near many Black Virgins. It and the red and white ring on her thumb(*1) mark Mary as the bride of this love poem and the bride of God. But more than that, the quote in the halo marks her as a Black Madonna. No one can "renovate" such a Madonna and say, 'She was meant to be white and is more beautiful when white.'
The painting bears a Latin inscription on the back, which reads in English: "This image of the glorious Virgin, commissioned by (…) the most illustrious King of Bohemia, was painted to resemble the image in Roudnice, which Saint Luke painted with his own hand. A.D. 1396"
Czech scholars consider the icon in Roudnice to be lost. We only know that it was a variation on the type of Madonna called Virgin Kykkotissa, which in turn is a Cypriot variation on the type called Our Lady of Tenderness. Kykkotissa means 'compassionate' in Greek(*2) and refers to the 11th century monastery of Kykkos on Cyprus that houses the original image of this type. The Cypriot icon, said to have been "painted by Luke's own hand," is fervently worshipped as miraculous by Christian and Muslim Cypriots alike. Since the early 18th century it has been hidden from view by a heavy silver cover and embroidered veils. This is because the Mother of God is often referred to as the New Ark of the Covenant who contains the Presence of God. Treating this icon as the Ark according to Mosaic law means hiding it behind a veil which marks it as the Holy of Holies and separates it from that which is merely holy. According to Cypriot thinking: "Nobody dares to look in the face [of the icon], because many who did so in the past were punished."(*3) This tradition goes back to a story in the Bible where people who looked into the Ark of the Covenant were punished by death. (1 Samuel 6:19)
Nonetheless countless copies and variations on the theme of this icon can be seen in churches throughout the world. One of the most famous is an icon in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt. This is the one Our Lady of Breznice closely resembles. Ean Begg states that an ancient icon in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai is regarded by some as a Black Madonna.(*4) Obviously the 14th century painter of the Breznice icon wanted to make clear that he was one of them. Here we see that the question, which Madonnas are black, is centuries old.
*1: This is an interesting symbolic combination of colors. In this icon it repeats the colors of the Christ child's clothes, an illustration of the idea that the Virgin is not only the mother, but also the bride of Christ. Red and white recur in St. Faustina's visions of the Divine Mercy, where two streams of light emit from the heart of Jesus, one red and one white. In Tibetan Buddhism red and white represent the complementary principals of femininity and masculinity, wisdom and compassion, form and emptiness.
*2: See: an article by Helen C. Evans, Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437, in a catalogue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, edited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Jiri Fajt, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005
*4: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, London, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1985, p. 164