By Katie Cercone
Yes, I am black! And radiant –
Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn
– excerpts from Song of Songs (1)
In Paleolithic era cave art near the sanctuary of the Black Madonna of Palermo, Italy, a horned animal immortalizing female divinity is circled by sexually aroused men. In a cave etching near Bologna, a pregnant Venus moon mother, fondly “Venere Artemide,” boasts a glorious pubic triangle symbolizing the gateway of life. Within Italian folklore, caves and grottoes are the “womb” of the goddess. The coming together of the people in ecstatic worship – Carnival – is her laughter. (2) Black Madonnas are venerated on high sacred mountains or carried out to sea by local fisherman as devotees dance, chant and throw flowers. Pilgrims climb barefoot while chanting and drumming to perform intricate fertility dances in her honor. Devotees who have received miracles from the Black Madonna crawl on their knees and lick the ground (Strascino) “licking the floor” as a vow taken in gratitude for Her miracles. (3)
Several years ago, in one or another of Brooklyn’s dive bars, I stumbled upon the work of Alessandra Belloni – singer, percussionist, and scholar – key-holder to Italy’s living legacy of the pre-Christian Black Madonna. Belloni was playing a set with a raucous cohort of fellow musicians while instructing curious bystanders how to dance La Tarantella, the notorious erotic “spider dance” she is known for. A low to the earth Southern Italian folk dance characterized by pelvic gyrating and furious healing, Tarantella has been used for centuries along the Mediterranean to cure psychotic unrequited love, symptoms of repressed sexuality and heal survivors of abuse. My friends and I (at the time I road 3 lesbian feminists deep with the transnational, queer, radical feminist collective Go! Push Pops) threw ourselves into the wild splendor syncopated by Belloni’s hypnotic tambourine. There were red ribbons flying and laughter like jackals. Inspired by our experience with the dance, Go! Push Pops later teamed up with Chilean artist Maria Jose Duran, who wove a human-scale web where we performed our version of the tarantula dance merged with stories of the Native American spider grandmother, yoga and improvisation during a feminist salon.
Over time Go! Push Pops championed embodied feminism in our work and rose as leaders of a new era of sex-positive feminist art. Meanwhile, I became a self-loathing white person for all the trendy, PC reasons. Although I won at smashing the patriarchy, I often gave my power away – to seemingly more worthy, less-white, infinitely more cool folks. One day my American-Dream-achieving Italian patriarch of a Father got his DNA test results back indicating that he was part African and Middle Eastern. “So we’re Black, and Terrorist,” I said.
Recently, Alessandra Belloni and her work, now crystallized into her book HEALING JOURNEYS WITH THE BLACK MADONNA unexpectedly popped back into my life. Belloni’s work is the fruit of 35 years of research within Italy’s sacred sites of the Black Madonna where regional healing traditions incorporating dance, mantra, percussion and ritual are key aspects of the rural culture. According to Belloni, the Black Madonna “has roots in ancient devotions to Isis, the Earth Goddess, and the African Mother and recalls an era when God was not only female but also black.” It’s no coincidence that festivals for Yemaya and Ochun, African Orishas (Mermaid folk) of the sweet waters, love, fertility, honey and romantic union have clear similarities with Southern Italian feast days of the Black Madonna. In Brazil pilgrims proceed en masse to the water’s edge adorned in blue and white carrying roses. They dance thoroughly until their state of exhaustion births an ecstatic vision of Yemaya emerging from the sea foam. The mythical slippage between this Goddess of Love with Aphrodite and the Italian Black Madonna also known as Stella Maris “Star of the Sea” is profound. (4)
Within a few weeks of getting my hands on Belloni’s book and attending her live performance at Cathedral of St. John Divine in Harlem under the Spring Equinox full moon, I was feeling motivated to seize this opportunity for a deeper engagement with the Black Madonna. The supercharged Libra full moon was luminous as I made my way to the Cathedral.
I cried as the evening opened, not sure why until Alessandra stood up and said “I might cry tonight, I cry often,” then something along the lines of how the Black Madonna is the mother of compassion, there to hold our oceans of sorrow, to accept and love us all. A week later I was crying through the first chapter of her book. Belloni came to New York City at the tender age of nineteen escaping her patriarchal Italian father and embarked on the beginning of her successful career in the performing arts. It wasn’t until her sister was violently raped that she unearthed the knowledge that her arts practice and devotion to the Black Madonna would guide her to become a shamanic healer.
In her book Alessandra breaks down many of the healing traditions she has uncovered in her pilgrimages through Southern Italy. Consecrated land in towns crossed over by “Fiume Sabato” (Sabbath River) where witches performed tarantella in masks, spinning around the enchanted walnut tree. (5) Wise women dialed in the energy of the moon using a great iron ring called l’anellone piceno between their hands, raising it high to gaze at the moon through its center. “The moon’s rays shine perfectly through each ring, touch the iron, and pulsate along the hand’s lifeline, giving the ring bearer immense power and infinite energy.” (6) You can also do the exercise with just your hands forming a triangle. Alessandra connects this lunar prayer with Roman Diana, Huntress and Moon Goddess, one of the Black Madonna’s many archetypes. I recalled doing this unknowingly prior to one of our most powerful performances. Go! Push Pops co-leader Elisa Garcia de la Huerta and I were playing with yogic mudras and ended up making a triangle shape and positioning the big bright full moon right inside it just the way Belloni describes. Our arms outstretched, we knew what we were doing without having to explain it away. Black Madonna reminds us we are nature. Not only is she Black because we all come from Africa the cradle of humanity – she is black like the womb, black like the ocean at night, and black like the cosmos. Black Madonna in the embodiment of the moon deity represents “the dark side of the moon, the blackness of the cosmos, the immense universe, and the mystery of life-giving woman.” (7)
Once my son was born, I squirmed under the crossfire of a zillion feminist iPhones. There being so few powerful representations of motherhood, my breasts feeding a half-black baby became the new banners of feminist maternal sexuality. Alessandra writes of “Madonna Lattante” (Madonna Breastfeeding) who she encountered in the rural mountain sanctuaries of southern Italy. An age old archetype popularized in Byzantine era art – sensual, sweet, smiling Mother Mary with her right breast feeds baby Jesus. Derivative as all Madonna and Childs are of Egyptian Mother Isis and Horus, Madonna Lattante is “a symbol of incarnation, birth, fertility, freedom, wellness, hope and love…she is Nurturing Dark Madonna…protector of agricultural life as well as the sea.” (8) The Italian Catholic Church has buried the magical breast mother just as they have systematically whitened the complexion of most of the dark Madonna icons. (9) Today, the heated landscape of contemporary feminist art exploring sexuality and spirituality in ways that explode our limiting cultural understandings of race, class and gender remains a veritable battleground. Although the moon-charging and breast-suckling rituals were one of my favorite personal connections to Belloni’s work, that wasn’t what made me boil over with passion and sorrow.
In her book Belloni recounts how using the advanced techniques of shamanic dance and rhythm she was able to cure her cervical cancer. Doctors told her she needed surgery, and as she approached her surgery date and an upcoming performance – they told her to stop dancing. A little voice in Belloni said no, dance on. “Rhythm is the Cure,” she intuited – which is the title of the final chapter of her book and what she calls the annual healing retreats she leads in a villa in Tuscany. Her sacred arts work involves teaching the ancient folk dances and chants of the Black Madonna. She often works with women recovering from sexual abuse and domestic violence. In my twenties I was diagnosed with precancerous cells on my cervix and had to have it scraped through an invasive medical procedure with the psycho-physiological impact of rape. I called my Mom, vented to girlfriends. “Oh I had that twice” “Yep, me too.” My holistic acupuncturist at the time (who by the way healed her 2nd chakra as a B-Girl on the rough streets of 1980s New York) said “I have clients who have to remove their whole female reproductive system before the age of 25.” The wombyn of the world are in crisis.
Although I hesitate to even mention her, and don’t care much for her work nor lean on other white women with a history of teenage bulimia as role-models, Lady Gaga comes to mind. Only because I recently watched her self-made Netflix documentary, bearing witness to this Italian-American artist’s debilitating hip spasms and anxiety attacks. Hidden under layers of thick foundation and chemical bleach, heavily medicated and deeply lonely – Gaga is the epitome of the overachieving neo-liberal neurotic feminine. Her recent Superbowl halftime show – with roughly 98.2 million eyeballs peeled – read like a robotic barbie brigade. Gaga’s body was a glittering weapon of consumer capitalism as Pepsi Sugar One subliminals flashed to and fro amidst overwhelming fireworks and screens. I apologize for all of my country when I say that in many respects Superbowl Sunday is the “Carnival” of the cardinal U.S.A. As Belloni’s work illustrates, understanding the primal, sexual power of the Black Madonna necessitates going beneath the surface. Even Madonna calls Gaga “reductive,” but maybe that’s another symptom of a system that encourages competition rather than sisterhood. Clearly, the limiting frameworks of white capitalist patriarchy have DEMENTED THE GODDESS!!!
Belloni writes in her book that her work is meant “to awaken the true power of women and to help men become aware of the ancient spirituality of the Divine Feminine, which can heal our relationships.” What’s refreshing is her way of interweaving myth and reality with practical, grounded healing wisdom. We can hear it when we are ready to. Belloni, a prophetic artist, delivers her truth passionately, never scanty in her approximation of the virtues of the Black Madonna, nor hiding behind the unspoken rules of academe, nor fearful of religious backlash, as many scholars of the Black Madonna unfortunately are. Some of us would rather be a bleeding heart than a stylish wart on the back of the patriarchy, as we know consensus reality is very meat-and-potato-lovin’ pill-poopin’ dense.
“In this time of world turmoil and paradigm shifts, I feel that there is a great need to acknowledge that God is a Woman and She is Black…the Madonna is indeed alive and that She has the power to heal and transform,” (10) writes Belloni. Madonna with a black face. Madonna of wheat and animals. Peasant Persephone, Isis, Queen of the Dead, in the bowels of the galactic center. (11) Although the Black Madonna is grossly misunderstood if not swathed in secrecy throughout the Western World, as Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum breaks down in her Black Madonna book, in the “Land of Sirens,” (12) feminists have reclaimed the Black Madonna as their mascot to wage massive, student-led political protests, calling upon the Black Madonna to defend “the ecology of the imagination” and demand social justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (13)
As a fiery, Italian-American feminist living in America post-Madonna, it’s clear to me that artists tarting up for the war on women often stop short of the subterranean depths healing demands. Few are taking bullets to resacralize female sexual power or make its connection to the fertility of the earth conscious and woven into the fabric of social life. Veneration of the Black Madonna, infernal goddess of wheat – is celebrated with animals, fireworks and trumpets. Her feasts days coincide with the cyclical bounty of nature. Italian women of the Cocullo region bake a circle bread symbolizing the ouroboros, the snake-biting-its-own tail symbol associated with Kundalini Yoga. (14) If the Black Madonna represents the prophetess of the underworld, it’s important to look at how perhaps today she is a symbol representing our collective unconscious – which is why the truth of her is so often suppressed.
Katie Cercone aka “High Prieztezz Or Nah” is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, scribe, yogi and spiritual gangsta. Cercone has been included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum, Whitney Museum, Dallas Contemporary and C24 Gallery. She has published critical writing in ART PAPERS, White Hot, Posture, Brooklyn Rail, Hysteria, Bitch Magazine, Art511, Utne Reader and N.Paradoxa. She is co-leader of the queer, transnational feminist collective Go! Push Pops and creative director of ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS Urban Mystery Skool. Cercone was a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for the U.S.-Japan Exchange Program in Tokyo. Follow her on instagram @0r__Nah_spiriturlgangsta and learn more at KatieCercone.com
(1) Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) is one section of the Old Testament Hebrew Bible. The book celebrates sexual union and harmony between two lovers (“Song of Songs” Wikipedia)
(2) Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993, p. 6-10
(3) Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna: Chants, Music, and Sacred Practices of the Great Goddess, Alessandra Belloni, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2019, p. 138
(4) Alessandra Belloni, Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna ibid, 213-17
(5) Belloni, ibid, p. 121
(6) Belloni, ibid p.7
(7) Belloni, ibid p.8
(8) Belloni, ibid p. 204
(9) Belloni, ibid p. 104
(10) Belloni, ibid p. 23
(11) Belloni, ibid p. 145
(12) Birnbaum, ibid p. 55
(13) Birnbaum, ibid p. 176
(14) Birnbaum, ibid p. 56