In the old Benedictine abbey called Saint-André Saint-Léger de Meymac (now the parish church), 2 Place de l'Église, Corrèze department, Limousin region, 12th century, 48 cm, painted wood. Photo: Francis Debaisieux
The Black Virgin of Meymac
This is one of the strangest Black Madonnas. She wears a kind of turban, except that it is open on the top, revealing the Virgin's black hair. Brigitte Romankiewicz makes an association to the Buddhist world, where the top of the head is referred to as 'the gate of divine realization' - a gate you would want to leave open if you were the mystical bride of God.(*1) Indeed, this Madonna, who is obviously meant to look oriental, seems Buddhist in some ways. As opposed to most Romanesque Madonnas who look sternly ahead, both she and her son wear the peaceful little smile of a Buddha. Contemplate the hands! The Mother's hands are focused on Jesus without grasping him. They are open and empty, except full of love. The Son's left hand mirrors the same unusual posture, as if he were touching empty space. Perhaps their open, empty, yet aware hands are drawing awareness to the completely transcendent face of God, which Buddhists call 'emptiness'. Even the wall behind them is completely empty, just the bare, gray stone. Not a single piece of decoration, neither on the wall nor on the statue itself, none of the usual robes or jewelry, no legends or miracle stories either. To the modern eye this Mother and child are truly Zen!
But why would a 12th century French artist give Our Lady such an exotic hair dress? And why would the people call her 'the Egyptian'? Many authors point to connections between the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Virgin Mary. Mary inherited titles, temples, statues, and maybe even secret mystery schools from her older sister. (see introduction) E.g. in Paris a statue of a scantily dressed Isis was declared to represent the Virgin Mary and kept in the church St Germain-des-Prés until she was destroyed by Cardinal Briconnet in 1514.
In the minds of simple believers "Egyptian" might simply have denoted really foreign, exotic, oriental, from some African country that has been linked to Christianity from the time of Jesus and his disciples.
We don't know what each peasant, monk, or alchemist might have seen in this Lady. What we do know is that she called her devotees to honor the 'other', the ones that look, dress, and behave differently. And she did this in the middle of eight centuries of conflict as well as cultural exchange between European Christians and North-African and Near-Eastern Muslims. (See my article Black Madonnas and other Mysteries of Mary on this site.)
Beginning in the 8th century, Muslim forces held large territories in Spain, Portugal, Southern Italy, and Southern France. In the 11th century Christian armies of Crusaders responded by fighting Muslims in the Near-East. As so often, war became an opportunity for getting to know strangers, for exchanging ideas, women, even religions. Europe profited immeasurably from Arabic philosophy, science, medicine, and agricultural technology. At times Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together. "The Egyptian" of Meymac seems to want to support that. She seems to say: "Don't label your dark neighbors as strangers and enemies, for I am their mother as well as yours! Don't close your heart to people who look like me!"
*1: Brigitte Romankiewicz, Die schwarze Madonna:Hintergründe einer Symbolgestalt, Patmos Verlag, 2004 p.199