Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Marvel Team-Up: The 1970s Comics of Chris Claremont & John Byrne

I'd been feeling nostalgic for early John Byrne art and recently ordered a sampling of books from his 1970s run on Marvel Team-Up. The vendor on Ebay with whom I placed my order had a nice selection of Bronze Age books in VF/NM condition, and each selling for less than the cover price of today's comics.


Iron Man #109
"Moonrise"
Cover date: May-July, 1978


Iron Man #109 is a book that I purchased solely on the strength of the John Byrne cover. Ain't it cool?

This issue of Iron Man picks up in the immediate aftermath of a battle with villans Midas and the Growing Man–a battle that has left the Stark International building in smoking rubble.

Ol' Shell-Head is joined in the opening pages by Avengers teammate Yellow Jacket, as well as the Jack of Hearts, Whitney Frost (the metal-faced love of his life), and a pretty ticked-off...Tony Stark?

"Stark" is giving Iron Man a tongue lashing over his seeming mishandling of the millionaire industrialist's orders to get the clean-up and the rebuilding of Stark International underway. Yellow Jacket quickly steps in to brief Stark on all of the recent happenings and pretty much saves Iron Man from 'himself.'

In a quick about face, Stark offers his thanks to Iron Man and everyone else for their assistance, and then exits to give his bodyguard a chance to say adios to his amigos.

As the others move to take their leave, the Jack of Hearts stays behind and asks Iron Man if might consider taking him on as an apprentice; the costumed novice realized in the battle with Midas that he has a lot to learn about being a super-hero. Iron Man obliges.

In the second act, Iron Man and Jack of Hearts take one of the Avengers' quinjets on a quick, interstellar jaunt to the moon. They want to investigate the possible existence of lunar base from which the Growing Man launched his attack.

Immediately upon their arrival, our heroes are quickly ambushed by the Soviet super-powers known as Darkstar, Vanguard and Crimson Dynamo!

How will they fare against the soviet threats? If I told you that, you wouldn't want to read it to find out for yourself.

As mentioned, Iron Man #109 is a book I judged by its cover, and I'm glad I did. It was a solid read that reminded me of days gone by when you could jump into any random comic without knowing anything about what happened in the issue before, and still find yourself entertained.

This issue's writing was skillfully handled by long-time scribe Bill Mantlo, and the art was nicely done by guest-penciller Carmine Infantino.



Iron Fist #15
"Enter the X-Men"
Cover date: September, 1977


With this issue of Iron Fist, a short-lived series featuring the pulse-pounding exploits of the books' titular character comes to an end.

In the opening pages of the story titled "Enter the X-Men," Iron Fist's young life nearly comes to an end when he is attacked--once again--by a mysterious dragon branded bruiser who's been stalking Fist and attacking from the shadows.

After this last sucker punch, Iron Fist seeks refuge at the home of his girlfriend Misty Knight, who shares a posh Greenwich Village apartment with Jean Grey of the X-Men. Misty, he groggily recalls seconds after his arrival, is away on an undercover cop assignment, and Jean Grey is out with her boyfriend Scott Summers, picking up some last minute items for a little soireé she has planned for that evening.

One of people on the guest list, Wolverine, arrives early and mistakes Iron Fist for a prowler when he spies the fighter entering the apartment through the skylight. Unfortunately for Fist, the hotheaded Canadian's blood is already boiling over Jean's undying love for Scott, so he charges after the apparent prowler in a red-eyed rage.

The psycho lovelorn X-Man is soon joined by his teammates in a battle that could have and, frankly, should have been avoided. But it's still fun to see.

Iron Fist is obviously over-matched, but handles himself reasonably well against the coordinated efforts of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee, Storm...and a justifiably pissed-off redhead who finally comes back from the grocery store. 

As this was the the very last issue of the Iron Fist series, fans would get to read by way of the letters column that although the title was ending, they'd be getting to see more of Danny Rand in the pages of the re-named Power Man and Iron Fist (issue #44). And, thanks to the benefit of hindsight, we all know what a historic pairing it was for two really well-liked characters.

Overall, Iron Fist #15 is a fitting end to a now classic Bronze Age title that introduced many comic book readers to Danny Rand, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, and Sabertooth, Wolverine's ever-popular arch-rival, who was introduced in issue #14 of the series.

The writing and art chores were skillfully handled by the dynamic duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who would take their talents over to Danny's new home in the pages of Luke Cage's book.


Marvel Team-Up #63
"Night of the Dragon"
Cover date: November, 1977


In my review of Iron Fist #15, I mentioned the dangling sub-plot of a mysterious martial artist who had been attacking Iron Fist from the shadows. Before moving Fist over to Luke Cage's book, this story is brought to a climactic completion in Marvel Team-Up #63, which pairs Iron Fist with the spectacular Spider-Man.

As per usual, Peter Parker's pockets are full of lint and the rent is due. As luck would have it, the Daily Bugle photographer has received an assignment to shoot the luxurious home of the wealthy Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist). At the same time that Peter arrives at his home, Danny discovers a mysterious note that had been left on the front door by Steel Serpent, a man whose fighting ability reminds him of his own.

Rand abruptly cancels his meeting with Parker so that he can meet with the Steel Serpent, but ends up being shadowed around town by a concerned wall crawler. Meanwhile, Misty Knight, operating under the alias of Maya Korday (and lookin' super-duper fine on the yacht of a character called the Bushmaster) had been starting to think that the criminal tycoon may have something to do with the attacks on her boyfriend.

She blows both her cool and her cover when she overhears Bushmaster confirming during a telephone conversation the that he's put the hit out on Iron Fist. Meanwhile, cut back to Spider-Man. He has lost Danny Rand's trail. Eventually, though, Spidey tracks down the taxi that Rand had been riding in and learns from the driver that his fare had disembarked at a public park. The web-slinger shoots over to the park and soon finds Danny Rand's abandoned clothing.

Minutes later, Spidey finds Iron Fist in the midst of trading losing blows with the chi-draining Steel Serpent! But does the K'un-Lun kid stand a chance against him?



Marvel Team-Up #63 is a fine example of Chris Claremont and John Byrne near the senses-shattering apex of their combined creative powers. The writing is intelligent, the art is impeccable, and the final page--which features Misty holding the limp body of Iron Fist like the Madonna with lifeless body of her son draped across her lap a la the famous "La Pieta"--offers a moving portrait that leads into the soul-searing conclusion in the next exciting issue of Marvel Team-Up!



 Marvel Team-Up #64
 "If Death Be My Destiny..."
Cover date: December, 1977


Danny Rand lost the battle with Steel Serpent, and was drained of the mystic power of the Iron Fist. Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon (Misty Knight and Colleen Wing) team up to help Danny get back the powers that were taken from him. But Steel Serpent also has plans to to end the life his adversary altogether, to make sure that he retains the power that he has unjustly come to believe is his birth-right.

In this issue of MTU, readers get the revisionist back-story on Danny Rand and Davos, "son of Lei Kung" (a.k.a. Steel Serpent). It's a tale that goes back two decades to the magic-shrouded realms of K'un-Lun City. After the psychedelic flashback, we come to our senses to find Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon trading blows with Steel Serpent. And even fighting as a gang of three, the trio is virtually outta' of their league. Will Iron Fist join the battle and tip the scales?

Marvel Team-Up #64 offers yet another fine example of early work by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. The issue nicely finishes up a lingering sub-plot that was started in Iron Fist #14, before the title was cancelled. The two men would stay with Marvel Team-Up for two more issues, bringing to conclusion a classic tag-team that included issues 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65 & 66 of this long-running title.

Also, before going on to make their soon-to-become legendary run on Uncanny X-Men, Claremont and Byrne would take the green and gold garbed ass-kicker from his solo book to another team-up or sorts in the knucking-cracking pages of the renamed Power-Man and Iron Fist (issue #48).



Uncanny X-Men #122
"Cry for the Children"
Cover date: June, 1979


The cover of Uncanny X-Men #122 is somewhat misleading, as any good cover should be. It shows the adamantium-skinned X-Man in the danger room flexing his "muskles" between the teeth of a hydrolic vise, under which appears the tag line "The trial of Colossus." And while the issue does feature such a trail, the actual title of this issue is "Cry for the Children."

In all frankness, this issue could actually have been called "Black Power." Because that is what came to mind for me as I read turned its pages and was hit with hit with the unexpected appearances of Luke Cage (aka Power Man) and Misty Knight.

Well, Knight's appearance wasn't all that unexpected. She shared an apartment with the X-Men member Jean Grey, and had made many cameos in Uncanny starting with issue #102.

Luke Cage (aka Power Man) on the other hand, was more of a surprise.

As a young kid in the 1970s, you often found yourself--or at least I did--dreaming of seeing more than one major character who looked like you on a comic page at the same time–because it almost never happened. This story offered one of those very rarest of times.

The greater portion of this book of is devoted to living up to its cover. It's the part in which I was least interested. The more intriguing part for me takes place in Harlem, where Storm has been chauferred in the back of Xavier's Rolls Royce by none other than Wolverine.

Approximately seven pages are devoted to Storm. She asks Wolvie to drop her on the corner of Broadway & 135th. From there, she roams the streets for several hours in a seemingly aimless attempt to find what she lost there two decades before: the American roots of her childhood. 

Entering a familiar looking, but abandoned brownstone, Storm climbs the stairs to the second floor and opens the door of what she has a hazy memory of being her childhood apartment. But to her dismay, it's a shooting den now inhabited by half a dozen or more teenage heroin junkies!

Things quickly go sideways when the young junkies see the regal-looking woman as a target for a quick shakedown––so they can score more drugs. One of the teens pulls a switchblade and slashes Storm's hand with it. She then reveals herself to be more than they bargained for.

Storm shows her mutant power for controlling the elements and the teens start scrambling. But one falls out of her line of vision and circles behind her with his knife drawn. He creeps up behind our heirone and readies his blade to strike. But Luke Cage and Misty Knight arrive to the apartment just in the nick of time to cover the exquisite X-Man's back.

 

The meeting between these three characters is short but sweet. But that it occurred at all makes me recall now why I was a particular fan of comics written by Claremont and illustrated by Byrne.

At the same time as Uncanny X-Men, the duo also handled the production of Powerman and Iron fist. Both books frequently featured various degrees of overlapping stories, and shared characters––a handful of whom were people of color. That was cool.

And I wish now that there had been just one Uncanny X-Men tale featuring just Luke Cage, Misty Knight and Storm, written and drawn by Claremont & Byrne. That would have been so fantastic. But alas...




Sunday, May 8, 2016

When Mary Was Black: A Concise Consideration of the Mysterious Black Madonna Traditions of Europe




I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, 
like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon."
                                                                               – Song of Solomon 1:5


"Why are the majority of the virgins that are revered in the celebrated pilgrimages black?" queried writer Romain Rolland, puzzling over the curious existence of the icon known as the Black Madonna found in hundreds of Christian churches throughout Europe: 

"At Boulogne-sur-mer (France) the sailors carry a Black Virgin in the procession. At Clermont in Auvergne (France), the Black Virgin is revered as also at Einsiedeln, Switzerland, near Zurich, to which thousands of pilgrims--Swiss, Bavarians, Alstatian--go to pay her homage. The famous Virgin of Oropa in the Piedmont (Switzerland) is still a Negress, as well as the not less legendary one of Montserat in Catalonia (Spain), which receives 60,000 visitors a year. I have been able to trace the history of this one to the year 718 AD and it was always black. It is highly interesting to know, therefore, if the mother of Christ was not a Negro woman, how it happens that she is black in France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain?"


Vow of the consuls to the Black Madonna, Jean Solvain, 17th Century
Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire, France



How indeed.

Though a significant portion of the world’s Westernized population, both within and outside the Christian faith, are virtually unaware of it, the religious icon known throughout Europe as the Black Madonna, has been one of the most revered icons of the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest on the European continent, for untold centuries.

How very remarkable, and even ironic that, in addition to widely known white-faced depictions, Europe also sustained an ancient tradition of picturing Mary, the mother of God and the infant Christ as black. A hidden tradition that dates back nearly two thousand years.

Smoke and Mirrors

The nineteenth-century religious historian Sir Godfrey Higgins was one of the first European authors to boldly document how: “in all the Romish countries of Europe, in France, Italy, Germany, etc., the God Christ, as well as his mother, are described in their old pictures and statues to be black. The infant God in the arms of his black mother, his eyes and drapery white, is himself perfectly black.”

 Author Gerald Massey, a contemporary of Higgins, would also report how: “At Oropa [Italy], near Bietta, the Madonna and her child-Christ are not white but black, as they so often were in Italy of old and as the child is yet conditioned in the little black Jesus of the Eternal City.”

And wherever the ancient icons are to be found, theories, myths and untruths about the dark-skinned depictions of Mary and the Jesus Child circulate. Most common among them is the oft’ embraced falsehood that the figures had originally been white, “fair” or “flesh colored,” but became blackened by the ash and soot of devotional candles burning in their presence.

Critical of that unimaginative excuse, Higgins taunts:

"When the circumstances have been named to the Romish priests, they have endeavored to disguise the fact by pretending that the child had become black by the smoke of the candles; but it was black where the smoke of the candle never came ... The mother is, the author believes, always black when the child is. Their real blackness is not to be questioned for a moment."

Like the enduring representations themselves, questions regarding the dark complexion persisted. But some would also begin to look for answers.

Three studies of such icons were carried out in France during the 20th century, conducted by Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937), Emile Saillens (1945), and Jacques Huynen (1972). In the United States in 1952, researchers Leonard Moss and Stephen Cappannari conducted a joint study. On December 28 of that year, Moss and Cappannari presented their shared findings at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As their controversial presentation began, the Catholic priests and nuns who were in attendance promptly made their way to the exit doors.


Vow of the Plague, Jean Solvain, 17th Century
Puy-en-Velay,
Haute-Loire, France


Basing their research on a collection of nearly 100 such icons from various parts of the world, Moss and Cappannari believed that Black Madonna images could be categorized into the following three groups:

1) Madonnas with black or brown skin pigmentation and or physiognomy similar to that of an indigenous population.

2) Icons that were turned black by environmental factors like the accumulation of smoke from the use of votive candles or the deterioration of lead-based pigments.

3) A residual category with no ready explanation.

In 1952, when their study was conducted, the first category considered by Moss and Cappanari might have seemed like a logical leap. Moss cites Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe as an example of this type.[1] But this author is inclined to disagree. Images in Spanish churches indicate that, centuries before Spaniards brought Our Lady of Guadalupe images to the Americas, the Holy Virgin was depicted with a dark complexion churches all across Spain. The oldest Guadalupe image dates to the 12th century, and the Christianizing of America’s indigenous peoples didn’t begin until nearly 300 years later, after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

As to the second explanation for Black Madonna images, the one most frequently relied upon by priests, parishioners and non-experts, could apply to a percentage of the icons. But of the more than 500 statues and paintings that I have studied, virtually none appears to have been darkened by accident. All have been made dark out of pure intention, each of them having been painted with a black or a brown complexion.

With regard to the third category, Moss suggests that there is difficulty in ruling out “artistic license.”

But there are a couple of stronger theories.

The first suggests that the Madonna was made dark-skinned in a, perhaps, subconscious remembrance of the Great Mother, once worshiped as the Creator by various prehistoric peoples. History shows that in the days of antiquity, the color black was symbolic of fertility, likened to the rich, black soil of river valleys such as the Egyptian Nile. And the ancient Egyptians often used the color black to symbolize both death and the underworld. Conversely, the Egyptians also used the color black to represent fertility and resurrection.

After the death of Egypt’s 18th dynasty queen Ahmose-Nefertari, the beloved monarch was deified as the patron goddess of Thebes. What’s more, in tomb murals the queen was commonly painted with black skin, akin to the Egyptian god Osiris, the husband of Isis, and the king of the afterlife who’s name translates literally to “the black one.”

According to Godfrey Higgins, other goddesses revered in antiquity were also represented as black women, including Benum, Hecate, Juno, and Metis of Greece. Other goddess figures of the ancient world also depicted in this fashion were Isis of Egypt, Astarte of Phoenecia, Lilith of Babylon, Manat of Mecca, Cybele and Artemis/Diana of Turkey, Aphrodite, Demeter and Medusa of Greece. Goddess figures of India, including Maya (mother of Buddha), Devaki (mother of Krishna) and Kali were also black.

The second popular theory suggests that the dark complexion of the Virgin might have been influenced by a literal interpretation of the biblical verse “I am black, but beautiful,” spoken by the Shulamite bride in the Song of Solomon. A number of European icons contain an inscription, or are adorned with banners with the phrase "Nigra sum sed formosa," the Latin translation of the Biblical verse.

As early as the 4th century, after Rome had been declared a Christian state (378 AD), the mother of Christ was linked to the Shulamite bride from the Songs of Solomon. This early connection appears in the book De Virginibus by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. And this interpretation continued to be embraced by other influential Christian theologians like Honorius Augustodunensis, author of Sigillum Beatæ Mariæ (Seal of Blessed Mary), Germany’s Rupert of Deutz, and France’s illustrious monk St. Bernard de Clairaux.

In further support of the second theory, researchers often point out that a number of Europe’s Black Madonna icons date to around the time of the Crusades and that a sizable number exist in France, a country where more than two hundred such icons, mostly statues, have been identified. The heavy proliferation throughout France is often attributed to the efforts of St. Bernard de Clairaux, a priest who displayed a particular devotion to Mary. During his lifetime, he would pen more than eighty sermons likening the Mother of Christ to the black-skinned bride invoked in the Song of Solomon.

A connection is also further drawn to the Knights Templar, the Order of warrior monks supported by both Clairaux and the Vatican. According to various traditions, the Templars are said to have brought such statues back from Jerusalem after the Crusades.

White Knight takes Black Queen


Near the close of the eleventh century, Muslims from Turkey had taken control of Jerusalem and cut off all of Europe’s pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land. In response to the Islamic aggression, Pope Urban II announced a plan for a holy war to commence on August 15, 1096; a “crusade” to recover Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim control.

After three long years of a bloody war that resulted in the virtual extermination of Jerusalem’s Muslims and Jews, the Crusaders finally gained control of the city on July 15th, 1099. And virtually overnight the city’s Muslim and Jewish citizens would come to be replaced by Christians from Europe and West Asia. French would quickly become the day-to-day language and Latin the language of prayer. Again, Jerusalem would take on a more Christian character, as churches and monasteries were rebuilt. Once again, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the prime destination of the Crusaders, became the prime destination of Christian pilgrims.

St. Bernard de Clairaux was only a schoolboy the year the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. He was a student enrolled at the renowned school of Chatillon-sur-Seine, known to have once housed its own statue of the Black Virgin.[2] According to a popular tradition, so favored was he that three drops of milk are said to have fallen from the breast of the statue onto the head of the young Bernard as he knelt before the image in prayer.

In 113, as a young man, Bernard joined the Benedictine monastery at Citeaux. Because he was an outstanding initiate, within two short years he would be asked to lead a group of twelve Cistercian monks in establishing an offshoot monastery at Clairvaux. And under Bernard’s leadership, the Citeaux monastery would become one of the most famous monasteries in all of Christian Europe.


The Abbey of Clairvaux in the time of Saint Bernard


Recognized as the most eloquent and influential man of his age, Bernard’s power as a preacher attracted people by the throngs. He was believed to have conducted miracles of healing, and pilgrims came from great distances in the hope of being cured by his touch. Bernard also developed a reputation as a brilliant mediator. Popes asked for his counsel, princes called on him to solve disputes, bishops requested his opinion on difficulties within their churches, and knights sought out his influential favor.

In 1118, the military order called the Poor Knights of Christ was formed in France. Originally comprised of only nine knights, the Order was founded by Hughs de Payne, a fighter from the First Crusade, and André de Montbard, the uncle of Bernard de Clairveaux. Shortly after their formation, the Order traveled to Jerusalem and presented themselves to King Baldwin II, who had been crowned the new protector of Jerusalem earlier that year. Before the king, the knights bound themselves by perpetual vow to protect the Holy Land, and the pilgrims who sojourned there. The king granted the Order lodging in the structure believed to have been a remnant of the ancient Temple of Solomon. It was after this that the Order would come to be known as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or more commonly, the Knights Templar.

For the first nine years spent in Jerusalem, it is believed that the Knights Templar didn’t actually patrol the roads of the Holy Land protecting pilgrims, as proclaimed in their formal announcement. Instead, the Order apparently spent nearly a decade secretly excavating a network of ancient tunnels located beneath the Jerusalem Temple.

It was believed that Holy Ark of the Covenant had been hidden away under the Jerusalem Temple before the city had long ago fallen to the Romans. The Copper Scroll, one of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1952, reports the existence of a number of ancient burial sites where items described as the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem were hidden. It is believed by many today that the Templars found that treasure, as well as a countless sacred artifacts and religious documents over the course of their excavations.

While researchers can only speculate as to the exact nature of the documents found by the Templars, a reasonable consensus suggests that they contained scriptures, treatises on sacred geometry, information on the arts and sciences, and the hidden wisdom of the initiates who were well versed in the Egyptian and Judaic mystery traditions.

In December of 1127, with their excavations complete, Hughs de Payen, André de Montbard and the Templar Knights returned to France. Soon after their arrival, Hugh de Payne and André de Montbard are said to have visited with Montbard’s nephew, Bernard de Claireaux. It is believed that the men shared the details on their excavations in Jerusalem, and that they requested the assistance of the influential monk in securing the support of the Roman Catholic Church.

The next month, at the Council of Troyes, Bernard requested that the Council and the Pope endorse the Templar Knights as a kind of “new soldiery.” Upon his weighty recommendation, the Order was granted a formal constitution, a Rule that would legitimize the Templars, defining their status as warrior monks of the Church. Their Order was also given legal immunity from bishops, emperors and kings. It was declared that members of the Order were answerable only to the Templar Grand Master, and the Grand Master was answerable only to the pope.

With Bernard and the Vatican behind them, Templar membership swelled. Noblemen rushed to join their ranks, offering their land and deeds to the Order in the spirit of brotherhood, making the Templar Knights the richest and most powerful and influential force in Europe. The Order soon financed the erection of palaces, government buildings and cathedrals. They also laid the foundation for the development an international bdanking system upon which the world’s modern banking system is based. Soon, a Templar presence was established in every part of Latin Christendom. Concurrent with their progress, Bernard founded more than sixty monasteries throughout France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany and Italy. And it is assumed that Bernard’s particular veneration of the Black Virgin was disseminated this way.

In 1135, Bernard was in Italy overseeing the establishment of the Cistercian monastery “Chiaravalle” (named after Clairvaux), the first of five other monasteries founded there under the same name. That year he also began work on the unfinished Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum, a series of eighty-six sermons based on the Songs of Solomon. Bernard’s presence was wanted all throughout Europe, but perhaps more so in Italy than anyplace outside France. He assisted at the Council of Pisa, met with Roger of Sicily at Salerno, and reconciled Pisa with Genoa. In behalf of Innocent II, he debated Peter of Pisa in Rome.

Perhaps it was during his time in Italy, there in Rome possibly, that Bernard, and thus the Templars, received confirmation on the dark complexion of the Virgin. Though various traditions attribute the introduction of such icons to Templars returning home from Jerusalem, this image, so greatly embraced during the Gothic Age, may have been forged in honor of Rome’s far more ancient, but lesser known Black Madonna tradition.

Our Lady of the Catacombs

Unknown to most Christians outside of Europe, under much of modern Rome exist a series of ancient underground galleries, tombs, and vaults, referred to as The Catacombs. Their excavation began under the direction of the Church early in the 2nd century AD, and continued until around the early part of 5th century. Once believed to have been used by early Christians to escape religious persecution, the catacombs are now understood as a vast series of subterranean cemeteries used by early Christians to intern their deceased, so as to keep them separate from the dead interred in the pagan cemeteries of Rome.

Etched expressions and painted scenes of religious faith adorn walls throughout the catacombs. It is here that the earliest known depictions of several biblical themes, like Jonah and the Whale, the Raising of Lazarus and Christ's Last Supper are found. Located on a fractured wall in the catacomb of Priscilla, perhaps the earliest and most important of all the catacombs, can be found the oldest known depiction of Mary with the infant Jesus in existence. The creation of the painting, commonly called the Madonna and Child, has been dated to as early as 170 AD, and as late as 250 AD.

Created nearly two thousand years ago, this little known fresco offers a fascinating bit of perspective into early Christian imagery.


Madonna and Child, 2nd-3rd Century
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy


In the ancient painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as a brown-skinned woman garbed in a reddish tunic, her head covered by a reddish veil. She is seated, and on her lap holds the infant Christ, who clutches at his mother's breast. The Christ, a brown-skinned reflection of his mother, has his head turned towards the viewer. A bushel of woolly brown curls crowns his head, and his eyes peer out from the painting through dark eye sockets.

Standing beside mother and child is a man of similar, brown-skinned complexion, garbed in philosopher's tunic. There is some debate among historians as to who the man with Mary and Jesus is supposed to represent. Some say it is a depiction of Mary's husband Joseph, while others suggest that the figure represents the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who foretold the birth of a messiah saying, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." (Isaiah 7:14).

In one hand the man holds a book or scroll, and with the other he points to the Star of David, now barely discernible above the heads of mother and child. Arching over all three figures are the branches of a large tree, curved under the weight of blossoming fruit. The tree is understood to symbolize the messianic prophecy that described the coming Christ as "a rod out of the root of Jesse."

Despite the apparent decay wrought upon the image by the passage of centuries, it is a remarkable example of early Christian faith, rendered in graffiti for an eternity. Despite the ancient frescos significance--or perhaps because of it--many Christians remain completely unaware of its existence.

Not at all surprisingly, books and articles dedicated to the art of the catacombs have commonly provided vague, or even misleading descriptions of the ancient fresco. Some publications, which present artwork from the catacombs, neglect to include this particular image, preferring instead to provide vague descriptions--as if that should suffice.

Commentaries on the image, even those few that do include a picture, all uniformly avoid making any reference to the brown-skinned appearance of Mary, Jesus and the man shown with them. This uniform line of silence suggests a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy assumed by authors who offer only the most cursory description of the image possible. Certainly, detailed descriptions might possibly result in inadvertent suggestions that the oldest known depiction of Mary and Jesus in existence pictures the Holy Mother and Son as blacks, as Ethiopians.[3]

Elsewhere in the Priscilla catacomb, the vision of the dark complexioned Mother of God is maintained in two additional frescoes representing Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi; works that additionally represent the two oldest known representations of these biblical themes.


The Annunciation, 2nd-3rd Century
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy


In the Annunciation fresco, as with numerous Black Madonna icons from the Gothic period, the Virgin is enthroned. She is garbed in tunic and pallium. Before her stands a wingless Archangel Gabriel, robed in similar fashion. His arm is raised authoritatively, and the scene appears to depict Gabriel’s appearance to Mary as described in the gospel where the Lord’s herald proclaims, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." (Luke 1:30-31)


Via Latina Catacomb


Though not as clear as the first two frescoes, the third painting still allows its viewers to discern that it is a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. Here too, Mary is seated with the infant Jesus held to her bosom as their noble pilgrims present to them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Interestingly, the Magi are depicted in complexions that suggest black, brown and then white. The darkest of them is pictured nearest to the Madonna and Child, with the brown appearing at center, and the white appearing third.


Adoration of the Magi, 2nd-3rd Century
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy 


The fact that this is mentioned is no way to suggest that they were originally pictured in an order that would indicate significance, or importance. What is noteworthy, though, is the difference between this fresco and hundreds of later, Gothic depictions of the Annunciation. Typically, two kings, who are depicted as Europeans, are placed closest to Virgin and Child (also rendered as European). And the Ethiopian King--when he is rendered as such--is generally the one who is placed furthest away.

Combined, these remarkable images from the Priscilla Catacomb represent not only the earliest known depictions of Mary and Jesus in existence, but also represent three of the earliest known examples of the icon type known today as the Black Virgin throughout Europe, and other parts of the world where her iconography is known. Most remarkably, these images convey that at the very birth of Christianity, the Holy Virgin, in contrast to how she is generally imagined today, was prefigured as Ethiopian.

Why is she black?

One of the most practical explanations of the Black Madonna's countenance is cited in the early pages of Ian Blegg's book, Cult of the Black Virgin. The author relates how in 1944, the previously mentioned researcher Leonard Moss entered a church at Lucera, in southern Italy. For the first time, Moss saw a Black Virgin statue. Puzzled, he approached the priest in attendance and asked, "Father, why is the Madonna black?"

In a way that seemed almost matter-of-fact, the priest replied, "My son, she is black because she is black."


Black Virgin of Chateau d'Anjony
Tournemire, Auvergne, France


Today, there are countless priests, parishioners, and philosophers who continue to explore and then explain away dark skinned representations of the Holy Virgin as the by-product of candle smoke, stylistic flourishes, or adaptations made by dark indigenous populations who sought to give Mary and Jesus a more acceptable appearance, i.e., the physical appearance of themselves.

Ironically, with regard to the adaptation theory, it seems that, with regard to Christian Europe, this could not be more true. Limited by false conceptions, those who imagined themselves the progenitors of all humanity, civilization, religion, the sciences, and the arts, still typically fail to realize that the white-skinned representations of Mary and Jesus propagated today are actually the indigenous adaptations of their ancestors: popes, priests, and artists who recast the godly depiction of mother and son in their image because those figures whom they had appropriated for themselves were not quite like themselves.

Placing that grossly overlooked angle into its proper perspective, it seems that the next time a curious observer fixes it in their mind to repeat the now oft’ asked riddle, "Why is the Madonna black?" The question they might ask instead is, "Why is she white?"


De Moeder Gods (The Mother of God), 17th Century
Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrect, The Netherlands


Remarkably, we have grown vastly more aware of many of the most basic aspects of the bible, particularly the geographical locations of many of its stories: Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Punt, Jerusalem, etc. And now also better understand the ethnicities of the peoples that have inhabited those lands since time immemorial. Yet, in spite of this, most of us remain content, nursing on the breastfed prejudices of yesterday, and reeking of the drunken, blissful stupor of willful ignorance.

Nonetheless, it is the aforementioned--when rightly considered--that makes a Mary who is black, brown, or even olive skinned, a much more logical representation than their ivory complexioned counterpart.

Amusingly, there are millions of Christians whose measure of faith allows them accept that God created the world in seven days, that Adam was created from dust (and that Eve was created from Adam's rib); that Moses spoke to God in the form of a burning bush, that the virgin Mary became pregnant by way of immaculate conception, that Jesus, the son of God, performed a number of miraculous acts including--but not limited to--walking on water, healing the sick, turning water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, and also returning from death himself after being nailed to a cross and crucified.

These very same people can find it in their minds to accept of all of that, but at the same time find it an impossible consideration that Mary, mother of God, who--according to the Bible--lived close enough to Africa make the ten day foot trek into Egypt after the birth of Jesus, was visualized as dark skinned because she was dark skinned.

The acceptance of such would seem to require a different kind of faith.

Nigra Sum sed Formosa

Though a significant portion of the world's Westernized population, both within and outside the Christian faith, do not know that she was, and many who know still strive to understand why she was, the ancient art of Christianity reveals that there was a time when throughout Europe, Mary, the mother of God was visualized as being black.

These remarkably ancient depictions, hundreds of which still exist, hearken back to an age when a dark complexioned mother, holding her blessed child, was once idealized throughout Europe, and even adored. A time long before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade of the 16th Century, the divisive concept of race devised by Johann Blumenbach in the late 18th century, and all the idiotic notions of white racial supremacy that have been rabidly volleyed about ever since.

Best of all, though, the icons remind us of a now forgotten time when Christian Europe searched the face of the Earth for the the mother of creation and found her to be what they could only describe as nigra sum sed formosa.[4] Black and beautiful.


Black Virgin of Montserrat
Church of Our Lady of Montserrat, Madrid, Spain



Notes:

[1] According to several reports, Christianized Mexican Juan Diego, received a visitation from the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe in 1531. The well known painting of the Guadalupe Virgin is attributed to him.

[2] According to Romain Rolland, the Black Virgin of Chatillon-sur-Seine that the young Bernard prayed before was destroyed in a fire caused by revolutionists in Oct. 1793.

[3] To the ancient Greeks who coined the word, “Ethiopia” of the ancient world was comprised of Africa, including Egypt, Mesopotamia (Middle East) all the way to India; lands inhabited by the people whose skin appeared to them to have been burned by the sun.

[4] With regard to common interpretations of nigra sum sed formosa, a Latin translation from Hebrew text, the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible advises that the Hebrew connector should be interpreted as a conjunctive "and" rather than the disjunctive "but," which is uncommon to Hebrew.


Selected Bibliography: 

Augenti, Andrea. Art and Archaeology of Rome: From Ancient Times to the Baroque. NewYork: Riverside Book Company, Inc, 2000.

Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin, 1985. London: Arkana

Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood, Copyright © 1996. Prologue-chapter five, translated by Conrad Greenia ocso, from Bernard of Clairvaux: Treatises Three, Cistercian Fathers Series, Number Nineteen, © Cistercian Publications, 1977, pages 127-145 (without notes).

Gildas, M. Transcribed by Janet Grayson. St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II, Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight Imprimatur. + John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

Higgins, Sir Godfrey. Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis Or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations & Religions, Vol.II, 1863

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Abbot, Doctor of the Church - 1153. Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. Provided Courtesy of: Eternal Word Television Network 5817 Old Leeds Road Irondale, AL 35210

The Black Virgin, Dr Karen Ralls, 2000 © 2000-2003 Karen Ralls / Ancient Questy

Rogers, J.A. Sex and Race - Vol. I, Ninth Edition 1968

Rolland, Romain. Intermediare des chercheurs et des curieux, Vol. 34, p. 193, Paris


When Mary Was Black: A Concise Consideration of the Mysterious Black Madonna Traditions of Europe © Paco D. Taylor, 2002-2017


Saturday, May 7, 2016

[Video On Demand™] The Georgia Boy Choir - Nigra Sum

In 1943, the Spanish composer Pablo Casals (1876-1973) wrote "Nigra Sum," perhaps his most well known choral work. Like many of his compositions, the piece was designed to be sung at the famed Montserrat Monastery in Catalonia, the ancient Spanish city of Casals' birth. It was written as a six-part chorus, with an organ or piano accompaniment.

Rather fittingly, I found a performance of his masterpiece by the Georgia Boy Choir, recorded at the majestic Benedictine abbey on June 14, 2016. The performance took place during the Spain/Portugal International Concert Tour in which the choir participated. Some of the kids look a bit overwhelmed by it all, but the sound of their performance is beautiful.

The video itself is also beautiful, offering us establishing views of the picturesque "sawn" mountains where the Monsterrat Cathedral sits. Rather surprisingly, the video also includes shots of the boys with La Moreneta (The little dark one), a wooden Black Virgin statue whose legendary existence in Catalonia can be traced to the 12th century.

Enjoy.


Nigra Sum - Pablo Casals, 1943

Nigra sum, sed formosa, filiae Jerusalem. 
Ideo dilexit me rex et introduxit me in cubiculum suum et dixit mihi: 
Surge, amica mea, et veni. 
Jam hiems transiit, imber abiit, et recessit. 
Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra, 
Tempus putationis advenit 
Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra. 

--------------------  

I am black and beautiful, o daughters of Jerusalem. 
The king has brought me into his chambers. 
We will exult and rejoice in you; 
We will extol your love more than wine; 
Rightly do they love you. 
My beloved speaks and says to me: 
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 
For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 
The flowers appear on earth; 
The time of singing has come, 
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” 

Alleluia.    

(Song of Solomon)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Love Letter to the KKK



Several years ago, I got this million dollar idea for a best-selling book, a controversial essay collection called Love Letter to the KKK. As a creative person who has many more ideas in his head at any given time than actual time in hand, the idea never really got off the ground.

But I still have a decade's worth of unparalleled research to show for it.

As such, the idea is always hovering there, a few feet away from the drawing board, should I ever chance to win the lottery, or strike it rich in the stock market.

Or maybe a brilliant editor at a book publishing company will happen across this peculiar post and say: Whoa, Nellie! Nobody in America has ever published anything like this before! The title alone screams ,"New York Times Best-Seller!!!" I'd better pony up mah pennies and offer this guy a million dollar book deal!

And then I can throw myself feet first into its development.

Stranger things have happened, right?

Love Letter to the KKK was envisioned as essay collection on the history of Christianity where it intersects with the history of racism in America--and well, Europe, too. But the Christian-based white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan offered a crazy lens through which several remarkable, interesting ironies could be examined. So I make them the focal point.

The foundation of the story lies in Europe, a few centuries before people began their mass migrations from Ye Olde World™ in pursuit of religious freedom–which is basically a load of crap. Sure, there were some groups that came for that-most-popularly-given-reason-printed-in-school-textbooks. But groups like the Quakers then--as is true to this day--are a tiny minority in relation to their peers who sailed from Europe. And the driving force for those folks wasn't religious freedom.

History teaches us that the first Europeans to colonize this part of the world were the Spanish. Colonists from Spain had a 100-year head start on the rest of Europe's peoples--a great many of whom were convinced that the world was flat. But they finally figured out that the world was indeed round and, as a result of embracing the learning curve, joined the Spanish in colonizing this part of the world.

Along with these various groups of people from Europe came various incarnations of their Christian religious faith, Catholicism being the very first and oldest of them. Before the Christian Reformation, which led to various factions breaking away and "reforming" Christianity with a 'back to basics' approach, the Catholic Church held sway across the continental face of Europe.

Without giving too much away (gotta keep the publishers who are going to be in a million dollar bidding war for this book salivating), it should be said that one of the most significant problems cited by those protesting factions that broke from the Catholic Church was its use of images in places of worship.

Protestant or Reformed Christians cited amongst their grievances with the Catholic Church its failure to adhere to the God of Moses' commandment to not make for themselves "a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them."

If you were raised Catholic, you couldn't walk into a place of worship without bowing. That's just what you did. You walked into the Church, looked up at the image of the Crucified Christ, or Baby Jesus in the lap of the Holy Mother, and you bowed. It was expected, as Christ was the "King of Kings" and the "Lord of Lords," and it needed to be shown that he was revered by worshippers as such.

Moreover, people in Europe, like the citizens of other nations around the world, had an established practice of bowing before authority, even representations of authority. Heck, if you didn't, you could quite literally lose your head.

Now, at this point, I'm going to advance ahead in my super-oversimplified summary to make a unique point about an unspoken aspect of the problem some protestants had with religious iconography in the Church. It's so unspoken that across America today--even having the internet--people are mostly ignorant about it.

The problem was that these images of Jesus and Mary in churches across Europe, particularly Catholic churches, represented these figures as black folks. That's right, boys and girls. Paintings of Baby Jesus on the lap of his mother and the adult Christ on the Cross represented were represented in glorious color as darkies. (See later post)

The irony of this is so deep that it leaves one speechless, which is partly why those who do know never, EVER talk about it. Any acknowledgement would throw the whole Conservative Christian mindset out of wack if they understood that images of the Son of God in human form represented him as a negro in the Churches found throughout the countries of their ancestors.

So, what was the historical response in Europe and subsequently America?

Well, they did one of at least three things:

1. Made images of Jesus, Mary and everyone else in the biblical story look like Europeans. Many of these artists and artisans had never been the Middle East. What did they know?

2. Kept going to Church with these images of a black Jesus on the wall and literally. did. not. talk about it--because the truth was just too confounding. And ignorance is bliss, as they say, so they chose bliss.

3. Separated from the Catholic Church, they removed all images from their worship practices, citing that passage in the Ten Commandments; meanwhile the other nine commandments that require folks to not covet, or bear false witness against their neighbor, or steal, or commit adultery?

Well, let's just say that nobody's perfect.

Come to think of it, the only real success story in any of this was making Jesus white (yes, sarcasm). And that had much less to do with the teachings of the Bible, and more do with the teachings of white supremacy, which gives us a nice segue to a very cursory overview of that terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, aka the White Brotherhood. [Cue visual aid]




The Klan, originally founded in Tennessee 1866, describes itself as a "law abiding," Christian organization whose main purpose is to "protect our family, race and nation" and "restore America to a White, Christian nation founded on God's word." (See: Trump voter)

What the KKK is and always was is an organization of hood wearing terrorists whose poor, rank and file members have only two things in common with its wealthy, higher ranking members: European descent, and a near complete ignorance of history.

"Aren't you afraid of the Klan?" a lady friend asked out concern for my well-being after I shared with her some thoughts now contained in this post.

"Hell, fawkin' no," I replied.

"An incalculable number of our people have been terrorized and murdered in this county for doing absolutely nothing but being black the presence of racist idiots. As recently as 1989--when I was twenty years-old--young man named Michael Donald was lynched on a neighborhood street in Texas by two asshole "Klansmen." He was an innocent kid who did nothing but walk down the block within the sight of two hateful, murderous, predators.

"If they come after me," I warned, "it'll be because I completely scarred their minds."




Love Letter to the KKK © Paco D. Taylor, 2007