New College, University of Edinburgh

The Black and Beautiful Early Church

October was Black History Month in the UK, and this has got me thinking both about the way that we portray early Christians visually, and about the way early Christians themselves thought about blackness and about race.

So how do we depict early Christians?

Over the last couple of decades, as computing equipment has become more powerful and images have become ever more easy to use, lecturers and pastors have taken to using a variety of picture illustrations of biblical characters and notable early Christians. Earlier Protestant concerns about depicting persons in Scripture seem to have faded into the background before the immediacy images offer as a way of attracting the attention and imagination of students and worshippers.


Fayum mummy portraits


But where do we get our images from, and who do they look like? If we make much use of Western art after the sixteenth century, they will tend to be Viking-white, after the Northern ideals of beauty to which Mediterranean artists turned after the fall of Constantinople in the previous century. But few, if any, of the earliest Christians would have been this colour. We can come quite near a sense of what many of them would have looked like by turning to the extraordinary Fayum Mummy portraits, online or in the various museums which preserve them, paintings which were attached to the preserved bodies of the people whose likenesses they were. These first- to third-century portraits from Roman Egypt, of which nearly a thousand survive, doubtless reflect an upper-class elite- the earliest Christians were probably not quite so glamorous and fine-featured- but in their mixture of Southern Mediterranean facial types, including Africans, they were probably not far from that of Jesus’ followers during the same period.


Fayum mummy portraits


As we reach for an image to illustrate Origen, Tertullian, or Cyprian, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica and Augustine, the apostles, Mary or even Jesus, do we depict them as the Africans and Southern Mediterraneans they were? Or do we habitually choose portraits which more closely resemble the Germans and Celts who came rather later to the Christian party?

The Black Madonna and the Black Church

There is one Christian figure who is widely depicted as dark or black across many cultures, and that is Mary, the mother of Jesus. (Sometimes the child Jesus in her arms or on her lap is also dark or black.) All over Italy, France, Eastern Europe and Latin America, there are icons and statues of Mary known as ‘Black Madonnas’, or ‘Black Virgins’.

These find a voice in the sixteenth-century Office for feast-days of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which draws for several of the Hours on canticles from the Song of Songs. Most notable is the canticle for Vespers, which begins ‘Nigra Sum, sed Formosa’. Mary speaks here in the voice of the black woman of the Song of Songs (Song 1.5). Several beautiful Renaissance settings of this sacred text exist, the most famous being from Monteverdi’s Vespers.


Black Madonna


‘Nigra Sum, Sed Formosa’ translates as ‘I am black, but beautiful’. It was Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Hebrew, but the Septuagint (which was the version normally used by early Christians) has μέλαινά εἰμι ἐγὼ καὶ καλή, ‘I am black and beautiful’.

Now, in Roman Catholic theology Mary is immaculata, without spot or stain, and so even with the use of ‘but’, the blackness cannot imply any connection with sin or evil in any way. Instead, it often signifies grief, which was also associated with blackness in the Hellenistic and Latin traditions. Many of the Black Madonna icons and statues are indeed images of grief, Mary at the foot of the Cross, or deep in sorrowful thought with the expectation or the memory of the death of Christ in her heart. But some are triumphant, where the blackness is simply who she is- one who goes out into the fields to work, and into the streets to look for her beloved, one who has spent time in the sun.

If we return to early Christianity, that same passage from the Song, ‘I am black and beautiful’, was widely used in a variety of contexts by different authors. The Beloved is always Christ, but the black and beautiful lover is sometimes the human soul (e.g. in Origen), sometimes the humanity of the incarnate Christ (in Gregory of Elvira), and frequently also the Church (for example in the work of Epiphanius of Salamis). In the latter case, other texts that are often brought into play alongside the Song are Ephesians 5:27, ‘That he might present the Church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish’, and the royal Psalm 45, from the line ‘At your right hand stands the Queen, in gold of Ophir’.


Black Madonna in the Basilica of Montserrat in Spain


A further early Christian intertext with this passage, it has been cogently argued, is Numbers 12.1-15, where Miriam becomes jealous of Moses’ Ethiopian bride, and as a punishment becomes white as snow with leprosy. Irenaeus writes ‘By means of the Ethiopian bride, the Church taken from among the Gentiles was made manifest; and those who do detract from, accuse, and deride it, shall not be pure. For they shall be full of leprosy, and expelled from the camp of the righteous’ (Against the Heresies, IV.20.12). The Ethiopian Bride, in other words, the church of the Gentiles, is black and beautiful, while the church that is obsessed with racial purity has no future (though of course in the original text Miriam repents and and is received back). The use of this text makes most sense in the context of first and early second-century debates between Jewish and Gentile Christians; Irenaeus’ use of the trope in the late second century is likely to reflect exegetical moves which were established much earlier.

If this is correct, the earliest church understood itself to be the Ethiopian Bride, black and beautiful, willing to run out into the street and risk wounds and ill-treatment to find again Christ, her beloved. If so, the churches of the Vikings and the Celts may have a thing or two to learn from this most ancient of traditions.


Written by Dr. Sara Parvis


(For more on the Song of Songs, see Karl Shuve, The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity, Oxford Early Christian Studies, Oxford: OUP, 2016)

  • CSCO Team,
  • 6th November 2016


  • Sara, 7th November 2016 at 3:31 pm | Reply

    There is a really beautiful clip of Victoria’s Nigra Sum over a series of Black Modonna statues here:

  • Shell Bell, 9th October 2019 at 4:31 pm | Reply

    Hey thanks for writing this – a great perspective and a lot to be learned here . 👍🏽

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