Einsiedeln, Switzerland’s mysterious Black Madonna

Einsiedeln's mysterious Black Madonna (Photo: Bob Taylor)

EINSIEDELN, Switzerland, March 29, 2014 – For more than ten centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have journeyed to pay homage to the Black Madonna in the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln, Switzerland. Yet for traditional travelers, Einsiedeln goes largely unknown.

The mysterious black statue which resides in the center of Einsiedeln’s monastery is clad in elegant brocades embroidered with floral accents of gold. In her left arm, the Madonna holds the Christ child, who himself holds a black bird.

Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln  (Photo: Bob Taylor)
Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln (Photo: Bob Taylor)

Situated approximately 20 miles southeast of Zurich, Einsiedeln was settled in the Finsterwald, or Dark Forest, of northern Switzerland. (www.myswitzerland.com) It can be reached in about an hour by car or by train from Zurich via Wadenswill.

Toward the end of the 8th century, a 40-year old monk named St. Meinard went searching for greater solitude to practice his religious beliefs. Arriving at the place which is now Einsiedeln, he entered the Dark Forest and eventually built a small hermitage.

Among Meinard’s few possessions was a statue of the Virgin Mary given to him by an abbess from Zurich. Over time, Meinard became known for his piety and kindness, and his statue was said to possess miraculous powers.

One particular feature made the Madonna stand out from all others. It was black.

Diorama of Bethlehem, Einsiedeln  (Photo: Bob Taylor)
Diorama of Bethlehem, Einsiedeln (Photo: Bob Taylor)

Local folklore claimed that years of candle smoke had darkened the statue. Before long the ebony figurine gained a reputation for having a magical aura. St. Meinard made his Black Madonna part of his altarpiece and, in a day when superstitions ran high, mythology grew about the many miracles attributed to “Our Lady of Einsiedeln.”

One day Meinard rescued two ravens that were being attacked by hawks and, as legend goes, the ravens became the monk’s allies for the remainder of his life.

Two thieves murdered the saint in 861 during a robbery attempt. As they fled into the village, the ravens followed them, squawking loudly until the killers were apprehended by the alerted townspeople at a nearby inn.

For the next 80 ears small groups of Benedictine monks came to live in the area now known as Einsiedeln, or “The Hermitage.” Over those decades, Meinard’s tiny hermitage was transformed into the Lady Chapel which was said to have been consecrated by Christ himself.

In 948, on the eve of the consecration, the bishop who was to perform the ceremony had a vision of the church being filled with a brilliant light as Christ approached the altar. The following day as  proceedings began, a voice spoke to the bishop saying the chapel had already been divinely consecrated. Sixteen years later Pope Leo VIII confirmed the miracle, and the Abbey of Einsiedeln has been a major pilgrimage site ever since.

The original Black Madonna was replaced long ago by the statue which is seen today. In 1799, while restoring the present Madonna, Johann Adam Fuetscher wrote that there was no doubt the face had “initially been flesh-colored.”

Following the restoration, the devoted common people demanded their precious Madonna be painted entirely black.

Now completely enclosed in the Lady Chapel within the nave of the magnificent Baroque basilica of the expansive abbey of Einsiedeln, the Black Madonna is praised daily by the monks at 4:30 p.m., an on-going ritual that has taken place for 400 years.

The beauty of Switzerland   (Photo: Switzerland Tpiros,)
The beauty of Switzerland (Photo: Switzerland Tpiros,)

The location of the current Black Madonna chapel is believed to rest over the site of Meinrad’s original hermitage.

Whatever the true significance may be, approximately four hundred Black Virgins are now located throughout Europe. Some say the mysterious statues reside in natural energy centers, many of which are remote, which are believed to have been focal points for centuries for numerous earth mysteries.

Though pilgrimages have abated in recent years, the monastery still offers much for visitors. The breathtaking Baroque basilica itself is stunning.

For more than a thousand years, Einsiedeln has been a center of learning and a residence for numerous saints and scholars who have studied its priceless collections of letters, manuscripts and music.

Abbey Library, Einsiedeln  (Photo:  Bob Taylor)
Abbey Library, Einsiedeln (Photo: Bob Taylor)

The abbey library contains nearly a quarter of a million volumes that are still in use by the community of 60 monks in residence today.

Also worth viewing is the inestimable collection of stringed instruments including some by  Stradivarius and Amati.

With its highly regarded academic reputation, the abbey features a school for approximately 360 advanced students from all over the world. Entrance

Einsiedeln's classic violin collection  (Photo: Bob Taylor)
Einsiedeln’s classic violin collection (Photo: Bob Taylor)

requirements are strict and only the best and the brightest are accepted.

Just a short walk from the monastery is the Diorama Bethlehem which is said to be the largest nativity scene in the world with over 500 carved wooden figurines.

Equally famous is the Panorama, a 300-foot long, 30-foot high painting depicting Jerusalem and the Crucifixion.

For active travelers, Einsiedeln is a popular ski destination featuring three ski areas including ski jumps.

The tiny, yet delightful, community is compact. From the railway station at one end of town to the abbey at the other takes ten minutes or less to walk without stops.

Nestled within lovely rolling countryside, the journey from Zurich to Einsiedeln is a visual feast. It’s an ideal day-trip in Switzerland where the mysterious Black Madonna, and her magic, awaits.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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