Most cathedrals were also home to Black Madonnas, of which about 400 to 500 are present in Europe, depending on how they are classified. There are at least 180 Vierges Noires in France, and there are hundreds of non-medieval copies as well.
Black Virgins have been associated by historians and archaeologists with mother goddesses, such as Isis, deities sometimes represented as black. Historically, Isis of Egypt was the first recorded appearance of a Black Madonna, other than the Paleolithic Venus figurines.
As the indigenous goddess worship evolved in Europe, statues of dark skinned Middle Eastern goddesses such as Inanna, Astarte, Artemis and Cybele were introduced to the European continent by Phoenician traders from 1550 BC to about 30 BCE. The Phoenicians came from the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon, Syria and Israel and were highly influential culturally. Indeed their phonetic alphabet is believed to be the forerunner of most modern alphabets.
The Roman invasion of Gaul (France) and other parts of Europe also encouraged worship of these goddesses. The cult of Isis was the dominant religion of the Mediterranean during late Roman times, and had spread into Roman-occupied lands, including Gaul. The city of Paris was devoted to Isis, as Lyon was to Cybele and Marseilles to Artemis.
Many of the black Madonnas exist in France, and date from around the time of the crusades, when Bernard of Clairvaux wrote numerous commentaries on the Canticles, comparing the soul to the bride, Our Lady. He was also known to have visited several shrines of the Black Madonna, for example: Chatillon and Affligem.
Ean Begg, author of The Cult of the Black Virgin, speculates that the genre developed from an esoteric popular religion common among the Templars and Cathars, perhaps as a complement to the impetus from Bernard. He even states that many of the Black Virgins in European cathedrals were brought from the near east by the Knights Templar. Lynn Picknett, author of Mary Magdalene: Christianity's Hidden Goddess, and The Templar Revelation, links the Black madonnas to Magdalene, whom, he thinks, may have come from Ethiopia, a darkskinned, powerful, and wealthy queen.
Many more Black Madonna myths and tales here.
Adapted from Wikipedia, Sophia Foundation, cassandraeason.com and The Templar Papers, Oddvar Olsen, 2006; Illustration: Statue of the Black Madonna, 11th Century, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Moulins, Allier, France, by Mangouste35, source Wikimedia