Among the materials donated to the Special Collections Research Center by Katherine Dunham is what appears to be a Black Madonna. Upon further research, I discovered that this is not really a black Madonna but Erzulie Dantor, a Haitian Voodoo goddess and her child and interpreter, Anais.
However, the image of Erzulie Dantor is based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. The icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is a sacred relic and national symbol of Poland. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is an icon in Eastern Orthodox Byzantine style rather than typical Western Roman Catholic. The mother and child are dark-skinned. Mary has two scars on her right cheek inflicted on her by enemies of Poland who sought to desecrate the image. Some sources say she was once jeweled and the scars on her face come from where the thieves stole the jewels. In this image, like the image of Erzulie Dantor, the baby carries a book. The baby in the Polish icon is the baby Jesus but in the Haitian icon, the baby is Anais.
Some differences between the Black Madonna and Erzulie Dantor are that Erzulie and her interpreter, Anais, wear gold-and-bejeweled crowns, and their halos are white instead of golden. The Black Madonna and baby Jesus are not crowned, but have golden halos.
The Haitians became acquainted with the Black Madonna when Polish soldiers brought copies of the icon with them during the Haitian Revolution against France. The Haitians modified the Polish image to suit their own needs. Poland’s Black Madonna has a fleur-de-lis on her robe. The fleur-de-lis is a symbol of France. It is often displayed in New Orleans as well. This symbol of Haiti’s oppressors is not found on Erzulie Dantor’s robe.
In Haitian Voodoo, Erzulie has three aspects. She can be Erzulie Freda, a virgin goddess likened to the Virgin Mary; Erzulie Dantor who is the goddess of jealousy and passion; or La Siren, a personification of the sea and goddess of motherhood. Erzulie Dantor is a mulatto woman who is often portrayed as the Black Madonna, or the Roman Catholic “Saint Barbara Africana”. She is the Voodoo goddess of love, romance, art, jealously, passion and sex. She is the patron goddess of lesbian women, women experiencing domestic violence, women betrayed by lovers, single mothers, and business women. She is also the patron goddess of New Orleans. She loves women and will protect them at all costs. She also loves knives and is the protector of newly consecrated voodoo priests and priestesses.
Haitian tradition holds that the revolution against France began when the priestess, Erzulie Dantor, spoke rallying the oppressed majority of African descent to rise up against their French masters.
Legend holds that Erzulie Dantor was a priestess and a warrior and was abused during the revolution against France. According to one account, her tongue was cut out while she was tortured after being captured by the French. Another account says her own people cut out her tongue to keep her from revealing secrets to the enemy if she was captured. She is mute and can only speak one syllable, the sound of her tongue clicking on the roof of her mouth, “ke-ke-ke-ke!” As a result, Erzulie Dantor cannot speak in coherent language when she takes over one of her worshippers in the ecstasy of Lwa(goddess)-trance. This is why she is pictured with her daughter, Anais, who serves as her interpreter since she cannot be understood.
Courtesy of Christina Gould