I’d heard that in St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, there was a sculpture of a Black Madonna by the British artist Leon Underwood, who was a teacher of the great sculptor Henry Moore. I wanted to be sure to go and see it.
When we walked into St. Georges there was a man sitting at a desk in the front foyer. I asked him about the Black Madonna and he immediately told us where we might find it.
The Madonna was as beautiful as I had imagined. She looked so strong and confident but also amazingly calm and absorbed in her child. She definitely had an African face unlike other Black Madonnas I had seen with a more European visage.
Jesus was larger than life in the sculpture. It reminded me of how all of our children loom large in our lives especially when they are infants and consume so much of our time and energy and unconditional love.
Mary’s hands and arms were also larger than life. It reminded me of what a ‘huge’ job it is to parent a child, a job where you have to grow your capacity to do many things at once. A job where your arms have to be strong to provide a secure and safe cradle for your child.
It made me think of a man I know whose child had colic and he spent so much time carrying the baby in the crook of his arm that the muscles on that arm visibly grew in size over a number of months.
The Madonna seemed different shades of black depending on the angle I looked at her. The light from candles people had lit at her feet gave her skin a burnished look in places.
Artists have been making black Madonnas since the 13th century and there are many different theories as to why they have done so.
Dr Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba who has written a book about the subject says “the Black Madonna speaks to an ancient cultural memory of the African origins of humanity, representing the original mother of Earth’s children.”
I spent a long time looking at the Black Madonna. I lit a candle and placed it in front of her and had just finished saying a prayer for my grandchildren when a tiny woman came up to us.
She had a wrinkled face, bright red lipstick and white hair up in a knot on top of her head. She was wearing a plaid wool skirt and a white cardigan. Her old-fashioned lace-up shoes tapped on the stone floor.
“I have something else to show you,” she said. We followed her and she walked to the front of the church and up a couple of steps holding onto the brass railing.
She stopped in front of a stone on the floor engraved with Desmond Tutu’s name. She told us in her gentle voice that the world-renowned South African archbishop’s ashes were buried there.
The woman explained that St. George’s had been one church that kept its doors open to all races during the apartheid era in South Africa and the beautiful historic building was where Desmond Tutu’s body lay in state before his funeral.
I had long admired Archbishop Tutu who not only fought tirelessly to end apartheid in South Africa but also championed the ordination of female priests in the Anglican church and was outspoken about equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.
I was so glad the lovely woman, who turned out to be a volunteer guide at the church, had taken the time to show us the Nobel Prize winner’s final resting place.
As we exited the church I noticed there were quotes by Desmond Tutu engraved on the windows of the cathedral.
I love it when I travel and meaningful experiences like finding the gravestone of one of the world’s greatest human rights activists just happen ‘by accident.’