Who was the Black Madonna?

Mention Madonna these days and the first thing that comes to most peoples’ minds is the ageing pop star, who still loves nothing more than gyrating her geriatric hips in a leotard so revealing you can almost spot her ovaries!!

Of course the word Madonna has many religious connotations, especially here and for most locals Madonna refers to the virgin of Candelaria, patron saint of the Canary Islands. Also known as Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of Candelaria ) or commonly, La Morenita.

This religious icon has been worshipped since the 16th century by the Roman Catholic Church, specifically in the Basilica of Candelaria, especially during the feast of Candlemas on February 2, and also August 14-15 every year when a patronal feast is held in her honour. She is also worshipped in countries as far away as Bolivia, Columbia and Puerto Rico. So, who was she and how did the legend and worship begin?

The official legend was recorded back in 1594 by Alonso de Espinosa, but the story predates the “Castilian conquest” by almost 100 years.

The legend goes that 2 Guanche goatherds were walking along the beach at Güímar, then known as Chimisay, when they came across a carved statue with very dark skin, bearing a baby in her right hand and a green candle in her left (giving the area its name – Candelaria).

Highly superstitious and not knowing what the object was, one goatherd attempted to throw it back into the sea but found his arm had become paralysed, the other drew his knife and tried to stab the statue only to end up stabbing himself. The men then took the statue to the local Mencey (chief) Acayo, and it was put in the cueva de Achbinicio , also known as the cave of San Blas. The statue it was decided was Chaxiraxi the Guanche Sun God, mother of all gods, and her son Chijoraji.

It was only later when a Guanche named Anton, who had been enslaved by Castilians and converted to Christianity returned and identified the statue as the Virgin Mary.

The statue was venerated by the Guanches who believed she had the ability to cure illness and was seen as a protector of land and sea, until at some point before the arrival of the Spanish; it was stolen and ended up in Lanzarote. However legend tells that so many strange happenings were attributed to the statue whilst in Lanzarote, it was hurriedly returned to Tenerife where it remained in the cave until, in 1526 and the Spanish conquerors built a church for her in front of the cave.

In a suitably mysterious end to the legend, the statue disappeared in much the same way it arrived in 1826 a tidal wave breached the church and swept her back into the ocean, never to be seen again.

So, that’s the story from her arrival to her disappearance, but where did she originally come from?

Black Madonna’s, or Black Virgins are associated with early gothic medieval Europe and their appearance is often attributed to either an attempt to match the indigenous population of the area it was sculpted or; “various art forms that have turned black as a result of certain physical factors such as: deterioration of lead-based pigments; accumulated smoke from the use of votive candles and accumulation of grime over the ages.” Many other religions have laid claim to her, including Hindu (the goddess Kali), Brazilian Candomblé (Oshun), and Andean religions (Pachamama – Mother Earth).

Scientists that have studied the subject believe that she may have been connected to the mysterious Knights Templar and the Priory of Sion, as to how she ended up here will remain a mystery. The most mysterious of all though has to be the strange inscriptions found all over the original statue which to this day, the meanings are still unknown:

Girdle in the neck: ETIEPESEPMERI
On the left sleeve: LPVRINENIPEPNEIFANT
At the bottom of the robe: EAFM IPNINI FMEAREI
In the belt: NARMPRLMOTARE
In the mantle, in the right arm: OLM INRANFR TAEBNPEM Reven NVINAPIMLIFINIPI NIPIAN
At the edge of the left hand: EVPMIRNA ENVPMTI EPNMPIR VRVIVINRN APVI MERI PIVNIAN NTRHN
On the back in the queue: NBIMEI ANNEIPERFMIVIFVE

Candelaria is a fascinating place to visit, The Basilica of Candelaria is beautiful, built in 1959, the original 1668 Basilica was destroyed in a fire. It has a copy of the original statue, dressed in richly coloured jewelled robes by Fernando Estevez, the 18th century Canarian sculptor. The 9 huge bronze statues of the Guanche leaders mounted on volcanic plinths are impressive and imposing and behind the Basilica you can enter the original cave, La Cueva de Achbinicio where pilgrims still visit, leaving candles by the bronze replica of that mysterious statue of the Black Madonna.

Discover it for yourself; it’s a great day out!

The above article was written and first published by Marc Craig.

Step Through the Looking Glass and read the  Red Queen Musings

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