February 16, 2006

More Sacrilege: Black Madonna

Guest Post by: notorious apostate

A Polish pop-culture magazine Machina has added to the recent spate of images that have caused consternation and angry reactions by putting on its cover the following image:


To understand the image it is necessary to get some background. The face of the woman in the picture is known around the world (the child is her daughter, Lourdes). The clothes, however, belong to another Madonna – the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, considered to be the holiest painting in Poland, with thousands of pilgrims walking across Poland to reach it every year:


Not surprisingly, the image in the magazine is considered to be sacrilegious by many Catholic organisations, with the magazine coming under attack. Already a number of advertisers have withdrawn their contracts with Machina and the magazine faces the threat of being taken to court as religious feelings are protected in Poland.

It seems very likely that the original editorial decision was a calculated effort to create publicity for a magazine which is returning onto the shelves after a four year long hiatus. Still, the image can be seen as saying a lot more, given its context. Polish society has been rapidly changing over the sixteen or so years since the downfall of Communism. In that time it has become a capitalist society, with a new generation growing up that does not remember the days when the Church was considered to be the main protector of Polish identity in the face of the Communism that had been brought to the country on Soviet tanks. As such, Poland has been undergoing many of the same changes as Western European societies – the difference being that in Poland the changes have been much more rapid. To replace in the icon the Mother of Christ with the “mother of Lourdes” is, therefore, to acknowledge what is happening in Poland – one set of icons replacing another. The sharp reaction by the conservative Catholic elements in society to the cover must be understood not just as a reaction against a religious icon being used in what is thought to be an inappropriate way but, also, as a reaction against being told what they fear is the truth.

The fact that Machina may well end up worse off for its decision is only indicative of the problem with the claim that the way to deal with unwanted images (be they of Mary, Christ or Muhammad) is to boycott their publishers. No publisher in Poland would care about a Muslim boycott as the Muslim community is tiny while the Catholic Church still claims the (wavering) adherence of the great majority of Poles. The result is that the strong can strike back against what they dislike while the weak are open to ridicule or, in the case of the Muhammad cartoons, worse.

(image 1: Machina Magazine via drownedmadonna.com.  image 2: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Madonna)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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