Mystery of the Black Madonna

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“A Page, a King, a man hung upside down, the scales of Justice,                            and a bound woman surrounded by swords… 

This young adult book weaves the imagery of the Tarot with an intrigue around a mysterious wooden statue of our Lady, creating the kind of magical summer adventure that most of us only dream of experiencing. Although written for the young, it is a story that anyone who believes in miracles will enjoy.  Highly recommended for its atmosphere, the reader will also encounter an artist’s astonishing love-affair with color.” ~ Mary  K. Greer, author of Tarot for Your Self.

Follow the adventures of Sara, fictional granddaughter of the painter Henri Matisse, as she attempts to recover an ancient wooden statue hidden deep in a limestone cave near Nice, France.

A Tarot deck of fortune-telling cards, a neighbor’s honey bees and her grandfather’s painting lessons guide her on her quest.

Her companions Ludmilla, the Russian housekeeper; blind Jacques; his seeing eye dog, Ben; and Nathan, an American artist, help her along the way, but in the end, Sara must brave great danger to meet the Black Madonna face to face, and rescue her.

Sara’s story grew out of several diverse interests, all centering on that magical enchanted land known as “the South of France.”  Once home to Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Merovingians and Carolingians, it still carries traces of its many cultural layers, in the form of legends, fables, aphorisms, recipes and designs.  People here once spoke in their own tongue, Occitan the language of poetry and love.

These environs could inspire a thousand flights of imagination, but I had other sources as well.  Ever since the Impressionists fell in love with natural light and began painting outdoors, painters have flocked here to record olive groves, wheat fields, sea sides, and lavender fields in a dazzling array of color. 

Henri Matisse, one of my favorite painters, lived and painted in Nice for much of his life, he loved the city and left it many artworks in his will.  Aside from his mad juxtapositions of color and pattern, I love Matisse because, when he could no longer paint, he began cutting images out of colored paper in order to continue creating.


   There is something about his courage, good will, and out-of-the-box innovation that completely captures my heart.  His character in the book, though fictitious, reflects my impression of him, gathered from several biographies and a life-long familiarity with his art.

Tarot, first  introduced to me by Mary K. Greer, taught me much about the interplay between symbols and the day-to-day reality of ordinary life.  The cards open the doors to insights, ideas and imaginative flights I might never otherwise take.  In times of confusion they help me connect the dots between seemingly random events, and allow me to discern patterns in both my own actions and those of others.

Bees are sacred insects, long known for their connection to the feminine divine.  Their ability to make honey, humankind’s first sweetener epitomizes alchemical transformation.  Without the honey bee’s industrious pollination the world would have to forgo most of the fruits we know take for granted as part of our diet.  I’ve revered and honored them all my life; even as a little girl they seemed to me to embody all that is magical in this world.

The Black Madonna, enigmatic religious icons that dot the map of  Europe, have survived war, history, plague, prosperity, famine and modernization to retain an active spiritual impact to this day.  No one can adequately explain why or where they come from.  To me these dark-skinned Madonnas represent the fecundity of the Earth and the dark rich soil that feeds and sustains us, births and buries us.  In my dedication I thank my beloved husband John Irving.  He is my biggest fan, consistently supportive of all my endeavors and ever-willing to try something new, simply on my say-so.  He cheerfully dedicated a precious vacation to slogging around southern France searching for Black Madonna sites.  By the end of our pilgrimage she’d won him over to a place of respect and understanding, just as I hope she does with the readers of this book.

The story is set in the early 1950’s, shortly after the end of WWII.  Both my father and father-in-law fought and bled in France during that conflict.  After the war, about the time of Sara’s visit to her grandfather, I lived for several years near the bombed out remnants of Frankfurt, Germany.  The feel, the songs, the romance and horror of WWII wove through the fabric of my childhood, as they do through hers.  Though Matisse stayed out of the war by remaining in Vichy France, his daughter and wife were both arrested in Paris by the Gestapo, for working with the Resistance.

All these factors and more led me to Sara and her story.  But I can’t really say where tales come from or why they take the shape they do.  Sometimes I think we storytellers are simply scribes writing down the messages sent to us.  Who and why are mysteries beyond my comprehension – all I can say is, I’m grateful.

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