Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

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Black Madonnas, Medieval Race and the Dangers of Modern Scholarship

Research Seminar Series image

Join us for the latest in our spring research seminar series when we welcome speaker Dr Elisa Foster, Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Institute.

The Black Madonna, a modern term referring to the depiction of the Virgin Mary with dark-colored skin, is often associated with race. Yet in the pre-modern period, these figures were largely not perceived as African but instead their blackness was interpreted as a sign of sacred antiquity and ‘Eastern’ provenance.

The tendency to understand the Black Madonna in terms of skin color is actually a quite recent phenomenon, and one that has come into particular focus in recent years. For example, the choice to repaint a cult statue of the Virgin during the controversial restoration of Chartres Cathedral was both criticized as an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the statue and justified as a return to ‘the original’.

Most recently, in September 2017, a series of online debates closely followed by scholars of medieval studies saw the use of another image of the Virgin at Chartres, a stained-glass image known as Our Lady of the Beautiful Window, erroneously cited as evidence for the absence of racism in the Middle Ages. The image is not considered to be a Black Madonna by art historians, and the somewhat dark flesh tone in this instance is the result of a later restoration. These examples at Chartres present the complications that surround the modern interpretation of the Black Madonna and demonstrate the perils of applying modern day notions of race and color to medieval objects.

In this seminar, Dr Elisa Foster will examine the modern and medieval concepts of race with attention to the understudied case of the Black Madonna. She will argue that their singularity complicates issues of medieval race and therefore can be an exceptionally useful pedagogical example of the perils of misreading art historical images. The seminar will present both research and teaching strategies to argue that Black Madonnas should not be not restricted to temporal boundaries or discounted as anomalies – as ‘Other’ – but rather they can be studied on their own terms through the reception and perception of these images across time, culture and community.

The venue for this research seminar is Room 1.17, School of Media and Communication, Clothworkers Building North, University of Leeds. See here for a campus map.

It is free to attend and all are welcome.

This event is organised by the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, as part of the spring research seminar series.

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