In Lake Chiem,about 1 1/4 hours from Munich, Bavaria, a baroque "copy" of Our Lady of Altötting. photo: Ella Rozett

Fraueninsel im Chiemsee
(Women's Island)


This statue illustrates two points. One, it shows that Northern Europeans saw something African and exotic in their Black Madonnas, for this Lady's crown is not a European crown. Rather it looks like a German's fantasy of an African crown. The artist seems to celebrate cultural diversity. He affirms Mary as the one mother of so many different tribes of children. She will wear many different hats for us, but her heart is always the same, a fountain of immaculate, divine love for all.

This statue was created at a time when Europeans were discussing the legitimacy of the African slave trade and it seems to cast its vote against it.

Europe had always used slaves, long before it had ever heard of Africa. Like Africans, Europeans enslaved their own peoples before they came into contact with other races. Once Europe had pretty uniformly been converted to Christianity the question whether it was ethical to hold slaves arose. Under Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 800 to 814 it was decided to abide by Leviticus 25:44-45, which states that it is permitted to own slaves, but not to enslave your own people. Hence it became illegal for Christians to hold other Christians as slaves, but non-Christians were fair game. The Mediterranean kingdoms had access to Muslim and later African slaves, though they were not nearly as numerous as in the colonies. The first country to abolish slavery completely, even in its colonies, was the German state of Prussia in 1713; Great Britain followed in 1807, and the rest of Europe in 1815.

The other point this statue sheds light on is the tradition of creating "copies" of existing Black Madonnas, rather than freely creating dark mothers whenever one felt like it. Our Lady of the Chiemsee shows that in doing so many artists were not very concerned about crafting exact replicas. Why then did they call their free variations on a theme "copies?" It seems that there was a sense that one couldn't just produce a Black Madonna. She had to appear somehow as a gift from Heaven; she had to be turned black by the hand of God. The only way for a community to come by a Black Madonna when Heaven had not bestowed such a gift, was to make a so called "copy" of a famous Dark Mothers. Being a "copy" justified the statue's existence and allowed it to share in the spiritual power of its mother statue.

Sometimes a copy was sent to spend some time with the original, in order to be imbued with its spiritual power. For example the Black Madonna of Rumburk, Czech Republic, a copy of Our Lady of Loreto, spent one week in the Holy House of Loreto (see Italy) imbibing the grace and identity of her mother statue.