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20190822_192721Not many people know that Willesden in North West London has been a pilgrimage destination for many centuries. This derives from the village having an ancient spring, giving the place its name. Willesdune is the Anglo-Saxon for Hill of the Spring. The veneration object of the pilgrims’ devotion is the carved wooden statue of the Virgin Mary kept at the shrine of Our Lady in the very old church of St Mary Willesden.

What isn’t very old is the current statue itself, depicting Mary and the baby Jesus. It was created by sculptor Catharni Stern (1925 – 2015) and installed in the early 1970s. The other unusual thing – for this country at least – is that both mother and baby are black. But this is no post-Windrush thing. As far as we know, the Willesden Madonna has traditionally always been black, going back to medieval times, at least the mid 13C.
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There have been dozens of  black Madonnas in the Christian tradition, both east and west, going back to ancient times. Much academic study, debate and controversy have been spent on the subject and are worth looking into.

But getting back to ‘our’ one, the Willesden one, the original statue was destroyed along with many other Madonnas from around the country under Thomas Cromwell during the Tudor Reformation. That’s how things remained until the current statue was installed. And thank goodness it was, because to my mind, it’s a lovely piece of art and well worth the journey to see, whether or not you’re a Pilgrim.

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