Goddesses, Queens, and Black Madonnas: an Artful Salute to International Women's Day

March 8th is International Women's Day, so let's celebrate with a historical tribute through time. Here's to the goddesses, temptresses, mothers and lovers! [all but two of these photos are mine]


From the earliest days of human history, women were venerated for their miraculous ability to generate new life, so fertility and fecundity were highly prized by our ancestors. Here below is the goddess Artemis, object of a fertility cult in the ancient city of Ephesus (now in Turkey). I saw this version the other day on the base of Cellini's dramatic statue of Perseus holding up the severed head of Medusa. Are those multiple breasts? eggs?? gourds? or perhaps testicles?!? Read here to know more.

Artemis of Ephesus around the base of Benvenuto Cellini's "Perseus & Medusa," Florence

Speaking of breasts: here's a statuette from the ancient Minoan civilization that flourished on the island of Crete in the 2nd millennium BC. This figurine was discovered in the ruins of the palace of Knossos, but without her left arm or head. The British archeologist Arthur Evans was known to take liberties with his restorations, so he glued on a random head AND a random cat on top of that! She was dubbed "the snake goddess" but we may never know what her actual role was.

The "snake goddess," Heraklion Museum, Crete

These go WAY back: two funeral stele from the neolithic civilization of northeastern Italy, from the 4th-1st millennium BC! Dozens of these sandstone tombstones have been found in "Lunigiana," from La Spezia (near the Cinque Terre) to Carrara, representing the sexes at their most basic. Man holds a sword or a hoe (= warrior and farmer) and Woman basically has reproductive organs. Pretty reductive for both genders, but it shows how, in the end, it's all about survival!

Funerary stele, Museo Civico Archeologico, La Spezia

Jumping forward in history, we find this elegantly styled tomb from the Etruscan era. The Etruscans arrived in Italy around 1,000 BC and settled in the area between Tuscany and Rome, leaving behind a wealth of funerary art. They were also quite liberal in their attitudes towards women, who were allowed to eat meals together with their men (which they couldn't do in Roman times!), and they got to lie arm in arm with their husbands in the afterlife.

Etruscan couple on the lid of their sarcophagus, Villa Giulia Etruscan museum, Rome

Around that same time period, the Ancient Greeks were becoming masters of the art world. Here is a copy of the original statue of Athena that was placed inside the Parthenon in 438 BC. This is a 2nd century copy made of ivory and gold leaf, and shows Athena, protector of the city, victorious in war, and patron of the arts. Nice to see we've moved beyond merely childbirth. ;-)

Athena of Varvakeion, Archaeological Museum, Athens

Moving on from Classicism, here is a Black Madonna from Puglia. It was originally Byzantine and is carved out of Lebanese cedar, and supposedly the very WHITE baby and Baroque clothing were added later once it reached southern Italy. The are many "black virgins" and it's a complex tradition influenced by earlier cultures and the long history of Christianity. Read more about it here. [this one is NOT my own photo]

The Black Virgin of San Severo, Puglia

For example, could this have been an inspiration?? This is from the Egyptian era (later period, after 600 BC) and seems perfectly in line with Christian iconography.

Egyptian mother goddess, Archaeological Museum, Florence

The loving mother figure is found around the world, and appears in East Asia as Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. This photo is from a trip I took a few years ago to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. Date unknown!

Guanyin, Goddess of Compassion, Taiwan

And check out these 11th century Mother Goddesses from the Hindu tradition in India (the one on the right has a boar's head)! It sure is a world away from the flattened out and fully-clothed madonnas coming out of Europe at the time!

Mother Goddesses, Uttar Pradesh (India) at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

And if you want multiple arms for multiple hugs, try this Avolakitesvara (Southeast Asian version of Guanyin, Goddess of Compassion) as seen at an outdoor temple on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand. (ah, back when we were able to travel!!)

Goddess of Compassion, Koh Samui, Thailand

Below her you find even more iterations with even more arms. You're bound to feel better after a big hug from her! :-)

The elemental female can also be rendered in symbolic ways, like this extraordinary well in Sardinia. It's 3,000 years old and yet the bricks are carved with clinical precision. The opening of the structure lays spread, welcoming the visitor down through a stony birth canal to a fresh-water spring. It's also synched with the seasons so the sun shines down the stairs onto the water at the equinoxes, and once every 18.5 years the full moon shines through the little hole at the top. This architectural wonder celebrates Mother Earth herself. Read more about this astounding place here.

Pozzo di Santa Catarina, Sardinia


Sometimes women did stuff that had nothing to do with children! Here's "The Liberty of Poetry" from the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Sculpted in 1877 it is thought to have influenced the design of America's Statue of Liberty. She's also reminiscent of that statue of Athena we saw earlier!

The Liberty of Poetry, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Half a world away in Sri Lanka, here is her Hindu counterpart, the goddess of art, knowledge, music and wisdom. She is part of a trinity of goddesses along with Lakshmi (wealth, fortune, love, beauty & joy) and Parvati (fertility, love, marriage & children).

Goddess Saraswati in a Hindu temple north of Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sometimes the Goddess of Compassion walks among us, like when she stands up against war.

Anti-war mural, Sardinia

Or when we organize globally to combat violence against women.

Protest against violence against women, Granada (Spain) 2019

And don't forget our female sports heroes! These women are competing in various sports and winning trophies (in what are apparently the world's first bikinis!). [This also is not my photo; I went there in 2001, several years before I had a digital camera]

"Room of the Gymnasts," Roman floor mosaic, Piazza Armerina, Sicily

I salute this Queen!

Tomb statuette, Villa Giulia Etruscan Museum, Rome

And this one!

Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian; 6th c. mosaic San Vitale, Ravenna

And this one! :-)

Queen Elizabeth statuettes, seen in the south of France

To the goddess in all of you, whatever your gender in this world! <3

Abandoned Minoan site, Amorgos Island, Greece

If you'd like to support my efforts, stuff a few bills into the goddess tip jar! And thank you!

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