by Jabriel Hasan
April 2015

“I feel her in unexpected moments, her Assumption into heaven happening in places inside me. She will suddenly rise, and when she does, she does not go up, up into the sky, but further and further inside of me” (Kidd 302). Lily Owens’s lines at the conclusion of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees capture the essence of the main character’s inner search for a mother through her projection of the Virgin Mary as the great, spiritual heroine. In basing the novel’s theme on the life of bees, Kidd exposes the reader, through Lily Owens’s journey for inner peace, to a natural, revolutionary world subject to the survival and success of its most powerful, feminine element, the Queen. The structure of beehives in the natural world substantiates the powerful idea of the natural need for a Queen—a concept contrary to patriarchal society, yet incorporated into—and sometimes even the basis of—ancient faiths.

It is this ancient, spiritual quest for the mother that directs The Secret Life of Bees. It is the mother Lily Owens lost in her biological mother’s accidental death; the mother who she then finds in her housekeeper, Rosaleen; in August, the barren, virgin mother figure; and from August, to the purest essence of a Mother: the Blessed Mother, the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. Kidd does not use the conventional Eurocentric archetype of the Madonna to capture this essence. The author builds the story around the figure of the Black Madonna, a medieval, Roman Catholic depiction of the Virgin Mary, often enthroned as a Queen, with dark brown skin. Through the Black Madonna, we are able to view Mary through the lens of feminist social critique. We see Mary, not a glorified servant of an invasive, male deity, but rather a woman who is the Queen of the spiritual force in creation, the mother of all creation, the sacred and Divine Feminine. In The Secret Life of Bees, the Black Madonna archetype becomes the superhero of the novel and of all creation.

Kidd’s choice to unify the characters around the Black Madonna instead of the numerous Eurocentric depictions of the Virgin Mary is not coincidental. The Black Madonna’s role in The Secret Life of Bees captures the essence of this archetype, which is its power to defy social constructs. “I traveled to Europe to see some of the Black Madonnas,” Kidd wrote, “…and found them to be images of startling strength and authority. The stories reveal rebellious, even defiant sides” (Kidd 9). Since the time of their emergence in Medieval Europe, the color of Black Madonnas has intrigued the masses. Some argue that their color, particularly of early icons like the Virgin of Czestochowa, is an unintentional byproduct of heavy smoke from votive candles and incense burning through the centuries. They would argue that their aesthetic metamorphosis enhances the icon’s mystery, but means nothing about the artist’s intended message. Yet, this does not explain the intentional use of dark paint or wood in later depictions. Historical and theological contexts substantiate explanations of blackness. “I am black but beautiful,” verse five of chapter 1 of Song of Solomon, states. This line, attributed to the Queen of Sheba, is rooted in defiance: the ability to defy socially constructed preconceptions of color connotation. “I am black but beautiful was useful as an interpretive aid to bridge over the grave dissonance felt between blackness/sinfulness and beauty/virtue, as in the iconography of black skin religious art” (Scheer). While carrying the negative connotation of sinfulness, the color black is also connected to earth’s rich fertility, as with black soil. Artists’ use of rare woods, like ebony, to craft the Black Madonnas greater emphasized the Madonnas’ sacred unity with Earth’s life-giving power (Scheer). This connects the Virgin Mary, expressed through the Black Madonna, with ancient goddesses associated with the concept of Mother Earth, and essentially the idea of the defiant, Divine Feminine. She bears sacred, sustaining life to us, while transcending our racialized constructs of beauty and virtue.

The Gnostic Gospels, as well as Biblical accounts of Mary, illustrate the capacity of holy, feminine power to transcend social constructs, supporting the idea that defiance is the Black Madonna’s essence. The Gnostic Gospel, “The Thunder, The Perfect Mind,” presented early Christians with a divine, feminine power discussing her superiority over human conceptions and prejudices: “For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin” (Robinson). Some of the lines could almost be read as references to the Virgin Mary: “I am the ruler of my offspring. But he is the one who begot me…And he is my offspring in due time, and my power is from him” (Robinson). Her power is from God, yet God emerged from Mary, so she, in a sense, rules with the Divine. These notions relate to the ancient concept of the Theotokos, of Mary being enthroned with God as the bearer of God, the bearer of salvation.

The book of Luke also depicts Mary in a revolutionary way that shows her defiance of social construct for the sake of bearing the Divine to the world. The Magnificat, or The Song of Mary, when understood in the context of Mary’s predicament as an unwed mother in the ancient Middle East, is grippingly radical, making Mary a heroine of hope for the oppressed and for all women: “For [God] hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For he that is mighty hath magnified me…all generations shall call me blessed..He hath put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek…and the rich he hath sent empty away.” God became incarnate in a woman who would have been grouped in the same category as prostitutes. What is perceived as black (sinful), is actually beautiful (virtuous). She is black, but she is the Madonna. The story of Mary is the ultimate rejection of, thus superiority over human, social constructs. Kidd magnifies this interpretation of Mary and feminine power in The Secret Life of Bees using this archetype.

“The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…they called her our Lady of Chains because she broke them.” Our Lady of Chains is, literally, the Black Madonna’s representation in The Secret Life of Bees. She started as the masthead of an old ship that washed up along the banks near a plantation during the time of slavery, but became the hope of the slaves. The master, wanting to take this beacon away from his subservients, chained the figure up nearly fifty times. Nevertheless, Our Lady of Chains, with her fist jutting out into the air, miraculously escaped every time she was chained (Kidd 109-110). The statue becomes a symbol of freedom to the enslaved: “Our Lady filled their hearts with fearlessness and whispered to them plans of escape. The bold ones fled…and those who didn’t lived with a raised fist in their hearts. And if ever it grew weak, they would only have to touch her heart again” (110). The Black Madonna personifies freedom to the enslaved. While common Catholic characterizations and depictions of Mary are Our Lady of Sorrows, the Virgin of Tenderness, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, characterizing her as Our Lady of Chains is radical and revolutionary. Even more radical, Our Lady of Chains does carry racial significance in The Secret Life of Bees. The main character, August, noted “…when they looked at her, it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what’s divine could come in dark skin…everybody needs a God who looks like them” (141). Similar to the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the significance of the Virgin Mary’s appearance is not simply because she was the Virgin Mary. Her appearance in the likeness of the people symbolizes her solidarity with the people to whom she appeared: “Black Madonnas…have been the rallying cries for oppressed peoples struggling against persecution” (Kidd 9). The Black Madonna embodies our ability to defy social constructs. Building on the concept of the divine, sacred feminine, Our Lady of Chains represents the feminine power to bear freedom and salvation through the giving of life, a spiritual force that cannot be chained.

The idea that woman cannot be chained because her divinity alludes to the concept of the Black Madonna as a heroic representation of the autonomous woman. It must be noted that Our Lady of Chains stands alone in The Secret Life of Bees. While the fact that she is the mother of Jesus is acknowledged in the novel (as in countless depictions throughout art history) she is described as standing alone without baby Jesus. Her divine feminine power elevates her to being worthy of her own icon in history and for the women in The Secret Life of Bees.

The Catholic Church officially interprets Mary as “the embodiment of all women, because she is both the mother and the maiden. By creating the impossible, it suggests to the real-life woman that there’s always something wrong with her, because she doesn’t embody the ideal” (Shadle). Interpreting the Virgin Mary in Sjoo’s feminist line of thought supports the notion of the Black Madonna as a representation of feminine power through autonomy, by existing in and of herself, regardless of chastity. In this light, August becomes the embodiment of the living Black Madonna in the book. She is a powerful maternal figure unbetrothed to a man. Kidd does not specify her chastity or lack thereof, but rather emphasizes her autonomy and defiance against social institutions: “It’s not that I am against marrying, Lily. I’m just against how it’s set up,” August says (146). She goes on to list a slew of ways she would be expected to become her husband’s subservient if she were married. It is the social institution that she cannot accept. She cannot deny herself the power she would lose having to cater to her husband for life. August embodies the original concept of the Virgin, characterized historically by Queen Elizabeth I, that woman is autonomous and most powerful when she does not officially, explicitly submit herself to man through patriarchy’s construction of marriage. August characterizes the Black Madonna as autonomous in power, as well as a mother figure to Lily: “I am control and the uncontrollable” (Robinson). The Black Madonna stands alone as a heroine in The Secret Life of Bees.

“I live in a hive of darkness, and you are my mother, I told her. You are the mother of thousands (Kidd 164).” Lily’s line to Our Lady of Chains is pivotal in her search for a mother, a mother she is finding–like the other women in the book–in the Black Madonna. These lines symbolize the first stages of her acceptance of the Virgin Mary, symbolized through the Black Madonna, into her spiritual being. The idea of the Black Madonna being “the mother of thousands” also symbolizes the Virgin Mary’s correlation to the Queen Bee, who is also the mother of thousands (164). Like the Queen Bee, the Black Madonna, standing alone, is not simply an expression of motherhood, but a symbolic expression of unity under the leadership of a feminine force. The Queen Bee mates, though is never subject to any of the male bees in the hive, and she continues to be the mother, unifying force, throughout the colony. In the book, the Black Madonna literally becomes the divine beekeeper in the Boatwright sisters’ Assumption Day ritual. They place the statue of our Lady of Chains into the bee colony house in hopes that, through her divine power, she will ensure a good harvest for the Sisters. Kidd noted from her travels, “I will never forget coming upon Medieval references, which associated the Virgin Mary to the Queen Bee.” In understanding this correlation, Lily enters deeper into the Boatwright sisters’ metaphysical world. The idea of the Virgin Mary being the Holy Mother is not an inherent function of our Lady of Chains or the Black Madonna as a general archetype. The Holy Mother concept relates back to early Christian perceptions of Mary as the Theotokos–the Mother of God.

The Theotokos, or Mother of God, defines Mary’s official place in the three liturgical traditions of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism. “Any development of a Mariology whose fundamental principle is not the divine motherhood would violate the direction sanctioned by all tradition” (Semmelroth 16). In occupying the complex role of Mother of God, Mary becomes both a source of sacred, feminine power through God, the Father, yet the Son, emerges through her: “I am the wife and the virgin…I am the ruler of my offspring. But he is the one who begot me…And he is my offspring in due time, and my power is from him” (Robinson). The Boatwright sisters de-emphasize the masculine nature of God altogether, experiencing God’s most powerful expression in Our Lady of Chains, the Black Madonna’s likeness. Lily had originally questioned the importance of the Queen Bee to the sisters, saying “That’s all she does, lay eggs?”, to which August responded, “Egg laying is the main thing…she’s the mother of every bee in the hive, and they all depend on her to keep it going. I don’t care what their job is–they know the queen is the mother. She’s the mother of thousands” (149). Without the Queen, the colony basically dies (287). Again, it is this idea that all power is unified in her essence, that she, alas, is the bearer of life for God, the bees, and the Boatwright Sisters.

With both God, the Father and God, the Son becoming a part of her colony, the Virgin Mary, expressed through the Black Madonna, becomes the essential expression of the Feminine Godhead in The Secret Life of Bees. In this light, the Virgin Mary also encompasses this expression in the Church. Mary becomes larger than her biblical reality. “The fact that we know few details about concerning Mary’s life is no proof to the contrary. It is Mary’s attitude that establishes her…and her attitude follows from her being rooted in God” (Semmelroth 32). Mary rises to an archetypal symbol greater than what can be literally translated from biblical text, greater than merely a masthead from a ship. August’s explanation to Lily explains this: “You know, [Our Lady of Chains] is really just the figurehead off an old ship, but the people needed comfort and rescue, so when they looked at it, they saw Mary, and the spirit of Mary took it over. Really, her spirit is everywhere” (Kidd 141). The Virgin Mary, through the Black Madonna, became their freedom. May released herself into Earth through death, freeing June to love fully; freeing August to be the figure both Lily and Lily’s mother needed in their lives, and this all linked back to Our Lady, Our Lady’s colony of freedom. “What is bound will be unbound. What is cast down will be lifted up. This is the promise of Our Lady” (228).” Theologians echo much of this symbolism. Dr. Shadle, Professor of Theology at Marymount University, notes: “The most important symbolic meaning for Mary is that she is a symbol for the Church…Mary is the embodiment of what the Church is supposed to be” (Shadle). Mary becomes a powerful spiritual force defining the purity of love, the purity of the sacred heart painted on Our Lady of Chains. The Catholic faith makes most explicit that we reach the divine through her. “In the medieval imagination, God was almost inapproachable because he is so fearful, whereas, it is precisely because she is a woman that she is so much more approachable” (Shadle). Devotionals, like the rosary and the Sacred Heart of Mary, allude to this connection between God and Mary without neglecting God, the Father. Yet, the essence of Our Lady of Chains persists: we reach the Divine through her. For the Boatwright sisters, she becomes the Divine.

The Black Madonna becomes the essential experience of the Sacred, Divine Feminine. The women of The Secret Life of Bees reach the sacredness of Divine love, power, and freedom through the Black Madonna. She defies all; she bears all. She holds power over the centripetal force, binding all together–as the perfect Mother would. “And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary too, not only the power inside of you, but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for human life. Not just to love–but to persist in love” (Kidd 289). The Black Madonna becomes the unleashed expression of Mary’s ancient place in the Church. The Church becomes her bee colony, and she is its sustenance.

Works Cited

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.

“Monica Sjoo Quotes.” Monica Sjoo Quotes (Author of The Great Cosmic Mother). GoodReads.Inc, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.

Robinson, James M. “The Thunder, Perfect Mind — The Nag Hammadi Library.” The Thunder, Perfect Mind — The Nag Hammadi Library. The Nag Hammadi Library, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.

Semmelroth, Otto. Mary, Archetype of the Church. New York: Sheed, 1963. Print.

Scheer, Monique. “From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries.” The American Historical Review 107.5 (December 2002): 1412-1440.

Shadle, Matthew Dr. Personal Interview. November 2014.

 

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