Black Madonna of Olot with her bull

In the church by the same name, Carrer de l’Aigua, 12, state: Catalonia, open daily 8 a.m. – 9 p.m., original image from 872(?), present one from 11th/12th century and heavily restored in more recent years, 60 cm, painted wood. Olot lies between three dormant volcanoes. Walking a few minutes up the road from the front door of the church will take you to a crater.

Mother of God of the Bull (Mare de Déu del Tura),
Patron of Olot

Legend recounts that the Black Madonna del Tura was discovered in the Cueva de Mas Caritat outside the city, in 872. A bull kept strangely bellowing in a certain place until people dug and uncovered this treasure. She ows her name to this animal with spiritual sensitivity, for ‘tura’ is an old Catalan word for ‘toro’ i.e. bull. Almost all copies, holy cards, and paintings of this Madonna show her with her bull.

While the original statue has been whitened during recent renovations, all the copies around the church and in the sacristy show the Mother of God of the Bull to be a Black Madonna.

Olot balck Madonna in sacristy 3.jpg
Olot black madonna in sacristy 2.
Olot black madonna in sacristy 1

While the original statue has been whitened during recent renovations, 
all the copies around the church and in the sacristy show the Mother of God of the Bull to be a Black Madonna.

Sacred Bulls, Oxen, and Cows in Christianity?

It is very striking how many Black Madonnas are said to have been buried in the earth and later found with the help of an ox, bull, or cow with a spiritual sense. Heaven used these animals as guides for humans and as conveyors of the will of God. Examples in my index are: FoggiaGuadalupe de CáseresLordMiliciaNuriaPrats-de-Mollo, and Telgte but there are many more. So many in fact that Ean Begg in his trend setting index tires of telling the story over and over. He abbreviates it with one word ‘cattle’.(*1) 

The question here is not whether animals have souls or consciousness and are able to pick up on spiritual energies. Neither do we need to wonder how many of these cattle stories might have been real. What’s important, I think, is to ask why this legend of the bull, ox, or cow finding a Black Madonna in the earth was so popular that it was told all over Europe with minor variations? What is its message and intent? The answer is manifold.

In the article “Nuestra Señora del Tura” Gozo argues that such stories are invented to augment the veneration of a certain image by giving it an air of ancient origins and mystical blessings. 
Furthermore, since the bull was the preferred animal sacrificed in sin offerings by Jews and Roman followers of Mithraism and other cults, the bull resembles Christ who was also sacrificed for others’ sins.(*2)

I agree with that author, but there is more to it. So let’s take a closer look at the role of bovines in Christianity and the religions that had an influence on it.

Foremost of course there is Judaism out of which Christianity grew. The prophet Ezekiel describes a vision of God on his throne accompanied by four beings with four faces each: a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. (chapter1:1-14) They are expressions of the power of God that Christians later adopted as symbols for their four evangelists.

I Kings 7:23-26 describe a basin in the temple of Salomon that is supported by 12 oxen, presumably representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Again, Christians copied this idea and built baptismal founts supported by 12 oxen, representing the12 apostles of Jesus.(*3) 
The Canaanites, in whose land the Israelites settled, worshipped a God called El (the same name Jesus uses for God when he cries out on the cross “Eli, Eli…!” which means “my God, my God”). El was figured as the infamous Golden Calf Aaron sculpted for the people while Moses spent time with God on Mount Sinai. El was often addressed as Bull.

In the Roman Empire the devotees of Attis would literally be showered, washed in the blood of a consecrated dying bull and thereby felt themselves freed of all sin and “born again”. (Compare Leviticus 17:11 and Revelation 7:14)

Pasiphae with her Minotaur son

Pasiphae with her Minotaur son

During the first centuries of the Common Era Mithraism was the chief rival of Christianity. It worshipped the God Mithra, whose main feat it was to have hunted down and finally sacrificed a heavenly bull. By his death the bull gave birth to all living things and eternal life to his devotees. Every meeting place of this cult included a representation of Mithra sacrificing the bull. These images spread all over the Roman Empire, all the way to England, because Mithraism was particularly popular among Roman soldiers. (It was a men’s religion that excluded women completely.)

In Egypt the god Osiris was believed to be embodied by ritually perfect bulls, who lived in his temples their whole lives and were embalmed at the time of their deaths. Meanwhile his wife Isis was associated with cows. She often wears cow’s horns on her head. 

The “Holy Bull", a Celtic monument found in Paris under the choir of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.

The “Holy Bull", a Celtic monument found in Paris under the choir of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.

Before Isis the mother goddess Hathor or Hesat was already seen as a heavenly milk cow, who kindly quenched the thirst of human kind with her abundant divine nectar. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, as a cow, or as a woman wearing cow horns.She was the “daily companion” of the Solar Bull.(*4)

The matriarchal Minoan civilization of Crete consistently linked their goddesses and holy sites to sacred bulls. Bulls’ horns marked a place as having sacred authority. As the consort and son of the goddess heavenly bulls were sacrificed and resurrected each year.(*5)Since at least 2600 BCE bull leaping festivals were held throughout the year, marking the passing of the seasons. But bulls were also killed and sacrificed by priestesses as a way of passing life force from the gods and ancestors to living individuals.(*6) Pasiphae, a later Cretan moon-goddess, coupled with a bull, the Taurus of astrology, and gave birth to a Minotaur, a son with a human body but a bull’s head.

In Greece Hera was the Queen of Heaven who presided over all things feminine. Homer complimented her by calling her “cow-eyed” or “cow-faced” and cows were sacred to her. The earth-goddess of agriculture, Demeter or Ceres, was also sometimes portrayed as a peasant woman riding a bull.(*7) Dionysus was not just the Greek god of wine but also another god of death and resurrection with strong links to the bull. He was frequently portrayed with bull horns.(*8)

The Celtic religion also knew a divine bull and sacrifices of consecrated bulls. Above you see "The Holy Bull", a Celtic monument found in Paris in 1711, under the choir of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. (It is preserved in the Musée de Cluny ot des Thermes.)

Pagan deities in general were often close to the earth, worshipped in sacred groves and accompanied by sacred animals.

In Christianity, besides being the symbol for Luke the Evangelist, the ox, bull, or cow doesn’t really get mentioned until Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) popularizes the image of baby Jesus in the manger accompanied by ox and ass. Saint Francis is the Christian champion of nature and animals. He preached to them and appreciated how well they lived out his ideal of poverty in flesh and spirit (that poverty which was his way to divine union).
Other than next to the manger, cattle only plays a significant role in the Christian world in the context of the Black Madonna. Why? Because, as I explain in the introduction, she has strong ties to the earth and to pre-Christian goddesses. I would argue that if the Queen of Heaven insists on being dug up from the earth, or at last sensed in the earth, by animals that were held sacred in pre-Christian religions, she is making a strong statement. Or, if not she, then her devotees want to say something about the divine being present not just in heaven, but also in the earth, not just in humans, but also in animals, not just since the birth of Jesus, but since time immemorial. 

I wouldn’t doubt that with so many sacred bovines tredding through the Roman Empire and the Bible the sacred cow, bull, or ox had sunk deep into the subconscious of the people. They surely didn’t remember why, but somehow those animals still had a connection to the divine in the collective unconscious.

Olot, copy of black madonna del Tura in Sant Esteve
Olot, copy of Black Madonna of Montserrat in Sant Esteveg

The biggest church in Olot is Sant Esteve, where you’ll find these two copies of Black Madonnas. One is Santa Maria del Tura (notice the bull on the bottom right) the other Our Lady of Montserrat held in her mountains as in the hands of the earth. Many Spanish images of the Dark Mother of Montserrat show her with her mountain. Here you see again how the people appreciate her closeness to Mother Nature.

First Steps before the Black Madonna: a Unique Olot Tradition

It is a local ritual: when your baby is about ready to walk, you bring it before Santa Maria del Tura, put brand new shoes on its feet and let it take its first steps in the presence of the Virgin while the mother recites this prayer: “Here I bring you this child of mine, because in jumping from my arms I want it to take its first steps before you and before God.” As Mary presented Jesus in the temple, the parents present their child to God through Mary.


*1: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Arkana: 1985. By coincidence my index doesn’t yet include any cattle stories from France, but Begg’s infinitely more complete index certainly does. E.g. Manosque, Limoux, Font-Romeu/Odeillo
*2: In the internet magazine of the Spanish ministry of culture “Animalario: Visiones humanos sobre mundos animals
*3: Two such fonts survive from Romanesque times in Liège, Belgium and Trier, Germany.
*4: Jack Dempsey, Calendar House, chapter 7. A great book on Minoan culture.
*5: L. Caruana, the Rape of Europa
*6: Jack Dempsey, op. cit.
*7: Miquel Ballbè i Boada, Las Vírgenes Negras y Morenas en España, Vol. 1, Gafiques ISTER, Moia/Terrassa: 1991, p.31.
*8: Wikipedia article on “Dionysus”