Thread of a Goddess

the black madonna in my life & art

I believe that I chose to be born in Poland. The Black Madonna is engrained in the Polish mind so my affinity to Her is normal. Historically speaking, She is the Regina of the country. Her most revered sanctuary, Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain) lies in the heart of Poland, the very centre of the land, and in the centre of the Polish psyche. It was to Her that I learned my first prayers and devotion. Across Poland, hundreds of churches and homes hold versions of the Black Virgin. She changes through different centuries and painters' perceptions, yet there is a constant, which I can recognize without a doubt,as Black Madonna.

I remember, in Kindergarten, I would sneak a small silver engraved Madonna to school and create an altar for her out of a hollow chestnut tree, softening the floor with grass and embellishing it with leaves. My friend Agnes and I would do quick signs of the cross so no one else would see. You didn't do that kind of thing in public places.

That year I attempted to visit the Black Madonna in heaven. I had all the plans made. I cut wings and decided to sneak out of Kindergarten and fly to heaven's kitchen to meet Her. Where else could I find the Great Mother? Of course she would sit in the middle of heaven's kitchen on her thronecrowned and beautifully dressed. My earthly mother, thinking my wings were garbage, threw them out. That was my last conscious desire as a child to connect with Divine Mother. From then on I would go to church because I had to. My grandmother lived at my house and insisted on it. After she left, I said that I didn't want to take part in all of that nonsense and refused to go for many years.

A long time passed before a began to look for Divine Mother again or realize she was looking for me. In 1981, I walked with forty-thousand pilgrims to the sanctuary of Black Madonna at Jasna Gora in Czestochowa. For me, it started out as a social event, and in fact I went only because my boyfriend and his friends were going. In my mind it was not a religious outing. From Warsaw it was two weeks of walking 30 km a day. Everybody walks, even the children and the elderly. The pilgrims come from all directions and meet in the heart of Poland. The pilgrimage to the Black Madonna is an annual event that has been going on for hundreds of years.

Just before you enter Czestochowa there is hill called Forgiving Hill where it is the custom for pilgrims to give confessions and forgive the past. On the journey, my boyfriend had left me for another girl I was very hurt and jealous of the other woman. But when I came to Forgiving Hill I was able to forgive what had happened on the journey, something in me had changed. The feelings of jealousy and pain dissolved and my heart opened. I was ready to meet the Black Madonna.

I entered Czestochowa, alone, on August 15, the day of Mary's Assumption. There were thousands of people on the streets. I was glowing. At that time, something heavy dropped out of my heart, and I loved everybody and everything.

The atmosphere in the Monastery hummed with all the people and candles and incense and chanted hymns. I could only spend a few moments with the picture of the Madonna because the monastery was packed and everyone wanted to see her. Her image was very powerful. Afterwards, our group held a mass in the field, where for the first time in many years, I took communion. I was with a very unusual group of people who were singing Hare Krishna and saying Shalom—greetings and prayers that were not Catholic. It was a very open and heart warming experience.

This experience with the Black Virgin opened a new period of search for me. Elated, I spent the rest of that year trying to integrate myself into the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. I went to several priests and they were nice but I found that there was just too much dogma. I took my first confession since I was a child, but had a clash with the priest. He started to preach at me and I didn't like what he was saying. I couldn't see a place for me in the structure of the church. The next year, at the time of the annual pilgrimage to Jasna Gora I was invited to go and see a Buddhist Zen teacher. I decided to go to the Zen centre instead of revisiting the Black Madonna.

As I started to practice Buddhism, I was introduced to a different kind of imagery than the Catholic images I grew up with. I was very drawn to the Tibetan form of Buddhism, it was very warming to my heart. The images of the Tibetan Tara were appealing to me and I became more and more intimate with Her images. A few years later I met a Tibetan Rinpoche and was given my first spiritual name—which refers to White Tara.

I worked for a time at the Zen centre in Warsaw, then in 1989, I moved to Canada to work at the Zen centre in Toronto. In the Zendo, I would choose to sit with Kannon (Kuan Yin) rather than Manjushri on his lion. Manjushri was magnificent and fierce, but I always preferred Kannon whether I wanted to meditate, have consolation or just have company. A few years after I had moved to Canada, I was given a picture book of the Black Madonna. It contained exquisite photographs of Her from all over Poland. I pondered why I had received the book after having practicing Buddhism for so long. I realized that I had a close affinity to both Tara and the Black Madonna., but there was a split in my heart. I was unsure if I was a Buddhist or a Christian. The coming year brought a number of changes into my life. I left the Zen centre and entered a dark period, during which it felt like I was sinking, I lost my connection to the images and concepts of both worlds, Buddhism and Christianity. There was a bottomlessness and a despair that I had never experienced before, which from I could only cry "Mamma".

My hands are my gift. I'm very tactile. I have an urge to create. I always wanted to connect with other people and I was trying to find out how to do it. While I was at the Zen centre in Toronto, I became interested in Shiatsu, thinking it could be a way that I could help people.

One day a woman came into my office wearing a quilted vest. It came about that I would do Shiatsu on her and she would teach me to quilt, we sort of bartered. Susan was a traditional quilter and a great teacher because she was so exact. She gave me a very good foundation, and acted as catalyst for the creativity which I had denied myself. In starting to make the quilts I began to go through a therapy. I did one quilt under her tutorial, and I have been developing my own techniques and expression ever since.

As soon as I started to use my hands in this way, images of goddesses and women flooded my mind. I had to create them. For me, quilting is a way to experience my feminine creativity awaken. It gives me a sense of purpose. When I create quilts I can feel the energy begin to flow and grow through me. At one time I had visions of five or six Madonnas in one hour and I made sketches of them. I had material to develop that would take years but it was something that I felt compelled to do. One of my quilts came to me in a dream. The images and ideas come from somewhere and it is through the creation process that I gain insight into the goddess and myself. The goddess threads herself into my work.

The image of the great mother is very strong for my personal psyche. Globally, the feminine is being called for in many ways. People are talking about her. She is awakening because we have come to the point in our civilization where there is a great imbalance between the masculine and feminine force. Nature wants to balance itself. Look at the amount of martial energy, violence and war in the world. Look at former Yugoslavia. Remember the apparition of the virgin Mary in Megugorje who called for peace. When she appeared, Bosnia was in a similar situation as Kosovo is today.

In 1996, I felt that if I wanted to pursue being an artist, I had to come out of the closet with my work. I had to make a statement. I applied for an exhibit at the art gallery of the University of Toronto. I was accepted but had to wait for over a year for my show, so I took it as an opportunity to prepare more pieces. The exhibit was entitled "Feminine Awaken", it was an exploration of goddesses. I investigated different archetypes which were calling for my attention, which wanted to reveal themselves to me.

My mother's name is Kalina. This name refers to a beautiful tree in Poland that bears red fruit. The root of her name is Kali. Kali has appeared to me many times throughout the years but I was always unable to grasp her meaning because of her fierceness and wild nature. Once, in a moment of inspiration, I saw my mother as a representation great mother Kali. She is the mother who appears to be devouring but who loves me beyond anything and who supports me giving all her guts and heart. To meet this dark mother and surrender to her is a life long lesson for me.

The Black Madonna has a connection with Mother Earth. She's not just the Queen of Heaven, and the Mother of God as the Catholics depict her. Somewhere in the Catholic history it was lost that she is the earthly mother as well. One quality of earth is darkness. The Black Madonna also reminds me of Kali, when you look at Her face, its not a smiling, beautiful face—She is very serious and maybe not the sort of mother that you would like to hug right away. I think something has been lost about her through history. She isn't only the giving, nurturing, caring mother—she is a fierce mother, who gives life but also takes life.

It is through quilting images of Divine Mothers from various traditions that I have been able to reconcile the images of Black Madonna, Tara and all goddesses in my heart. I am in tune with the feminine archetype. Because there are different cultures, she is depicted with different characteristics but underneath there is the same feminine energy. Through my work, if I'm open, she reveals herself to me.
Evita Schvallbe is a textiles artist born in Poland and now living in Action, Ontario. She plans to make a quilt of her attempted trip to heaven

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