The Masthead Mary and Our Lady of Chains
Two experiences formed the basis for the Black Madonna in the novel. One occurred during a visit I made to a Trappist monastery. In the church, on the left side of the apse, I came upon a statue of a woman which had once been the masthead of a ship. Surrounded by candles, she was five feet tall, carved out of wood. She appeared to have come from a 19th century ship and was deeply scarred. She didnt look the slightest bit religious. In fact, she looked a little pagan. There was a young monk, a novice, in the church, mopping the floor. He told me shed washed up on an island, landed in an antique shop, and that even though she wasnt Mary, she was bought for the church and consecrated as Mary. (Sadly, the last time I visited the church, she was no longer there.)
I fell in love with this masthead Mary. I decided on the spot that the Black Madonna in my novel would be a masthead that washed up on the shores of Charleston during slavery, and that she would become a mother to the slaves, bringing comfort and inspiring them to freedom. I sat on a bench near the statue with my notebook and wrote for over an hour. I imagined fabulous black women in grand hats in 1964, dancing around the statue, coming one at a time to touch their hands to her heart, a scene that I eventually put in the novel.
The other experience that helped me create the Black Madonna in the novel happened in 1993 on a trip to Crete. I visited a small Greek Orthodox convent where I saw a 12th century icon of a dark-skinned Mary draped in chains. Intrigued, I found an English-speaking nun, who told me the following strange story: Long ago, the icon was captured by the Turks and taken away to Turkey, but soon after the kidnapping, the icon miraculously of its own accord returned to the church. The Turks came back and captured it a second time, this time chaining it up. The icon, however, escaped yet again and returned to the church still wearing the chains, at which point the Turks gave up. The convent left the chains around it as a reminder.
With this in mind, I developed the story of the Black Madonna statue being confiscated and chained by the slave master, how she was said to always escape back to the Praise House, where the slaves kept her. I named her Our Lady of Chains, as my character, August says, not because she wore them, but because she broke them.