House at the Black Madonna
alchemy,  architecture,  astrology,  BabaBarock,  baroque,  churches,  folk beliefs,  Magic Bohemia,  magic prague,  Prague and Bohemia,  saints and relics

Secrets and legends of Prague’s House at the Black Madonna

The statue seen by millions of tourists hints at alchemical mysteries

Even if you visit Prague for just one day, you are likely to pass by the House of the Black Madonna, near the start of the Royal Route  between the Powder Tower and Old Town Square.

The Cubist-style house, designed as a department store, dates back to 1912, but the name comes from a sculpted Madonna and Baby Jesus that were preserved from a Baroque-era building that stood on the same spot. The statue sits inside a gilded cage on the corner edge of the building, which now houses a café and an art museum dedicated to cubism.

The meaning of Black Madonnas divides scholars. One theory links them to alchemy. The Black Madonna is seen as the source of the primal material (materia prima) from which everything else flows. Several early alchemical texts link the image of the Madonna and child to the Ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and her son Horus.

Alchemy drew much of its inspiration for magic from texts allegedly from Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, though many were written much later. Blackness is linked to the latent fertility of the universe before the creation of light – the unknowable and infinite. It is also related to ideas such as night giving birth to day, and the darkness of fertile soil and the abundant seas.

House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna

Black was also the shade associated with the first step in the process of creating the philosopher’s stone to turn base metal into gold, the nigredo. This was followed by a white (albedo), yellow (citrinitas) and then a final red phase (rubedo) that unleashes the base material’s full potential.

While alchemists in the 16th and 17th centuries may have interpreted Black Madonnas this way, they were likely made in black for more pragmatic reasons.

One popular theory is that fertility fetish statues from pagan religions meant to represent Mother Earth were used as models for Madonna statues by early Christians, and qualities like darkness were carried over. This aligns with the idea of sacred pagan groves and shrines being converted into churches and pagan deities being repurposed as saints to help to propagate Christianity.

Another theory is that the statues simply reflect the models that were used. Some Black Madonnas were created in the Byzantine Empire, now part of modern-day Turkey. The artists based them on the look of local people, who tended to be darker than the average person from Western Europe.

Others claim that the dark wood has no meaning. It was simply what was available for the sculptors. Dark wood tends to be very hard and durable, so the statues would last a long time. The current authorities in the Roman Catholic Church say the color has no special meaning.

House at the Black Madonna
House at the Black Madonna
Original House at the Black Madonna before 1911
Original House at the Black Madonna before 1911

Afinal theory that used to be popular is that the dark tones of both the statues and painted icons were due to centuries of smoke from incense and votive candles. But modern examinations of the Madonnas show that the coloring was most likely intentional. Some statues and icons have even been made lighter after renovations, which has stirred some controversy.

A few icons include a quote from the Song of Songs: “Nigra sum sed formosa filia Jerusalem.” This translates to, “I am Black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem” (according to the New Revised Standard translation). The exact translation and meaning of the passage is widely debated in religious forums. But at the very least, this quote shows that the color is not an accident.

Saved from destruction

The statue that you see at the House of the Black Madonna today is actually a copy from the late 1990s when the building underwent restoration. The original is in the possession of the Prague City Gallery (GHMP) and is sometimes displayed at the House of the Stone Bell at Old Town Square.

The exact origin of the hardwood statue isn’t clear, but it dates to at least the 17th century. The Baroque house that used to stand on the corner of Celetná Street and Ovocný trh was also known as At the Golden Grille (U Zlaté mříže).

Inside the House at the Black Madonna
Inside the House at the Black Madonna
Entry to the House at the Black Madonna
Grand Orient Cafe in the House at the Black Madonna
Grand Orient Cafe in the House at the Black Madonna
Cubist-style coat hooks and a newspaper rack
Cubist-style coat hooks and a newspaper rack

It was used as a townhouse by the noble Granov family, which also oversaw the administration of Ungelt, the walled-off zone for foreign traders, and had a palace there as well. Preservationists protested when the Baroque townhouse was destroyed to make way for the current Cubist building. They were unsuccessful but at least the Black Madonna and golden cage were saved and installed in the new department store.

The building was changed into offices during the communist era and then into a museum after 1994. A Cubist-style cafe was re-created based on photographs and opened in 2005. 

Even before the Black Madonna was there, the corner had a reputation for the occult. A few meters away from the house is the start of Templova Street, where the Knights Templar had a base. After the order was abolished in 1312, the remaining knights reportedly met in secret in basements there. Traces of altars and some inscriptions have been found during renovations.

Czech Tourism states that there is a legend that Black Madonnas are often above an underground tunnel complex. A network of tunnels runs under and around Old Town Square, including underneath the House of the Black Madonna, but they are not open to the public.

The long road to meeting the Emperor

Celetná Street is also part of the Alchemical Route, which eventually leads up to Prague Castle. In the time of Emperor Rudolf II, in the early 17th century, mages and occult practitioners would first stay at an inn located at Celetná 29, known as At the Golden Angel. It is just across the street from the House at the Black Madonna.

The golden angel, if you examine the attributes, is actually the Roman god Mercury or his Greek equivalent Hermes. He has a cornucopia, a winged caduceus, and a laurel wreath. Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great) is the central figure in alchemy.

Further along the street, there is a white peacock and a black sun, both alchemical symbols. Closer to Prague Castle on Nerudova Street you can find a red lion with a chalice. So the Black Madonna can be seen as one of several alchemical markers along the route for those in the know.

Emperor Rudolf’s chief astrologer and personal physician Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku allegedly lived at the end of Celetná Street on Old Town Square at the House of the Stone Lamb, also called At the Unicorn. In order to gain an audience with the emperor, an alchemist after waiting a sufficient amount of time at the inn would finally get the chance to impress the chief astrologer. If that went well, it could eventually lead to a meeting with the Emperor.

Winged Mercury (or and angel) with a cornucopia and caduceus
Winged Mercury with a cornucopia and caduceus
House at the Black Sun
House at the Black Sun

Other Black Madonnas in Prague

This is the most prominent Black Madonna in Prague, but not the only one. There are several other statues and icons in churches and a museum.

Another Black Madonna statue sits in the Santa Casa (Holy House) at the Loreta in the Prague Castle district. The shrine, a free-standing elaborately decorated house in the middle of the monastery complex, has several depictions of Mary including a dark wooden statue behind a golden fence.

The house is a full-scale copy of the Basilica della Santa Casa in the town of Loreto in the hills of the Marche region of Italy. The shrine is supposedly the house where Mary lived and home to Our Lady of Loreto, a highly venerated Black Madonna. The Christian legend holds that angels transported the house from Nazareth to Italy.

Black Madonna in the Santa Casa of Prague's Loreta
Black Madonna in the Santa Casa of Prague's Loreta
Black Madonna in the Santa Casa of Prague's Loreta
Black Madonna in the Santa Casa of Prague's Loreta
Santa Casa inside Prague's Loreta
Santa Casa inside Prague's Loreta
Black Madonna in Our Lady Under the Chain, via Prague 1 Town Hall
Black Madonna in Our Lady Under the Chain, via Prague 1 Town Hall
Black Madonna in St. Thomas' Church in Malá Strana
Black Madonna of Montserrat in Emauzy
Madonna of Březnice, via Wikimedia commons, public domain
Madonna of Březnice, via Wikimedia commons, public domain
Madonna statue over a doorway on Truhlářská Street
Madonna statue over a doorway on Truhlářská Street

A third Black Madonna statue is in the Emauzy monastery in New Town. This one is a loose copy of the Madonna of Montserrat from a monastery in the Catalonia region of Spain. Benedictine monks brought this copy to Prague in the early 1600s.

There is also one above the doorway to  a residential building on Truhlářská Street, though this one actually may be simply due to pollution darkening the stonework. When the rest of the building was cleaned, the Madonna was left black, though.

Painted and framed Black Madonna icons with gilding and jewels can be seen in the back of the Church of St. Thomas and by the altar of Our Lady Under the Chain, both in the Malá Strana district. The origins of these are lost in time.

The final one is part of the National Gallery’s collection of medieval art in the St. Agnes Cloister. The Madonna of Březnice is notable for including the passage from the  Song of Songs around Mary’s halo. The icon is dated 1396 and is a copy of another now lost Madonna that was inspired  by an icon allegedly painted by St. Luke

An image of St Luke painting a Madonna icon is on a house sign near Prague’s Loreta. The figure is used as the basis of the Four of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague

St Luke and a Madonna icon
St Luke and a Madonna icon
Four of Pentacles Prague Bohemia magic tarot
Four of Pentacles from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd

An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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