The Black Madonna
This exhibit will analyze “The Black Madonna” by William Sharp. This short story is a part of the magazine “The Pagan Review” which makes important contributions to the decadent movement. William Sharp also earnestly shows his investment in neo-paganism through this text. In order to make connections to decadence and paganism, this exhibit will look closely at the writing techniques and devices used by William Sharp and link them to the movements at the time.
The Pagan Review
The Pagan Review is an avant-garde magazine that was written and published by William Sharp. The Pagan Review had only one issue, which was made in August 1892. What is more interesting is that William Sharp published this from a cottage in Buck’s Green, Sussex, and did not go through the London publishing industry. (Denisoff “The Pagan Review in Context.”) At the time, the magazine was not viewed as something substantial. This is likely due to the lack of visuals in the magazine and the inexpensive paper that it was printed on. The magazine also used plain and featureless text laid out tightly in an economical fashion. (Denisoff “The Pagan Review in Context.”) These qualities, along with the fact that William Sharp seemingly did not try to find other contributors, made the magazine seem frivolous and uninspired. However, for William Sharp, this magazine does succeed in expressing what he wanted.
In fact, after William Sharp’s death, his wife proposes that despite only one issue being published, the project was a success for him. (Denisoff “The Pagan Review in Context.”) The goal of the magazine was to challenge the religion and ideals at the time by focusing on neo-paganism and spirituality. This is why the magazine is viewed as an avant-garde experiment now.
The Black Madonna was written by W.S. Fanshawe, which is a pseudonym of William Sharp. William Sharp was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1855. His family would go to the West Highlands in the summer, and at the age of 18, he lived with a community of gypsies for three months in the countryside, which shows that he spent a lot of time surrounded by nature in his youth, and is likely where his love of nature began to grow. He lived with his family until he moved to London in 1878. He also studied poetry, philosophy and occultism at Glasgow University. (Denisoff, William Sharp)
The Black Madonna
The Black Madonna is the first text to appear in “The Pagan Review” and has no illustrations. The poem that proceeds the story is much more wholesome and short. The Black Madonna begins with detailed and evocative descriptions of the sunset, a river, ancient trees, and a slab of stone. “A hot river of light streams through the aisles of the ancient trees, and, falling over the shoulder of a vast, smooth slab of stone that rises solitary in this wilderness of dark growth and sombre green, pours in a flood across an open glade and upon the broken columns and inchoate ruins of what in immemorial time had been a mighty temple, the fane of a perished god, or of many gods.” (Brooks) The fondness that William Sharp has of nature is seen here as well as his use of overwrought descriptions. In fact, the impact of nature on William Sharp when he was young likely helped his ability to write such descriptions. This is important as this type of wide-ranging vocabulary use in descriptions was common in other decadent works at the time. This seemingly unremarkable detail in William Sharp’s way of writing is able to align him with the decadent movement.
Decadence and Paganism
The Black Madonna contains various elements of decadence. The short story mainly follows Bihr’s transformation from praising and worshipping The Black Madonna to giving in to his lust and attacking her. He is punished for this by being put to death. Bihr’s death is described in this way, “in the glare of sunrise, a swarthy, naked figure, with a tiger-skin about the shoulders, crucified against the smooth white slope. Down from the outspread hands of Bihr the Chief trickle two long wavering streamlets of blood: two long streamlets of blood drip, drip, down the white glaring face of the rock, from the pierced feet.” (Brooks) His body and blood are elegantly phrased and seemingly wonderful to look at. At the time, the Aesthetic Movement had already had a lengthy run of popularity and was shifting into its final, decadent phase (Denisoff “The Pagan Review in Context.”) which makes sense, as William Sharp is contributing to it here. A major part of decadence is how the decay from good to evil can be beautiful. Clearly William Sharp is contributing to the decadent movement, describing death as something beautiful. Bihr is also punished by crucifixion, which is connected to Christianity, as it is how Jesus was sacrificed.
William Sharp also makes other connections to Christianity, such as how The Black Madonna says that she is “Mother of God,” the “Sister of the Christ” and “The bride of the Prophet.” (Brooks) But also, God, Christ, and the Prophet themselves. The Black Madonna “encompasses both genders and summarises the history of polytheism and monotheism.”(Coste) She states here that she is multiple divine beings; whomever people have worshipped, was actually her, despite their gender. This depiction of multiple gods prominently aligns the story with paganism. This transmutable ability of The Black Madonna is a neo-pagan idea, which William Sharp likely included this feature as a way to connect to neo-pagan readers.
The inclusion of Christianity connects to something that Catholics agreed on during the fin de siècle that modernity was defined by moral decay and that a rejuvenated church could revive it. (Burstein) Perhaps Sharp is saying that God will fail to stop moral decay and remain pure. This is because even though The Black Madonna has called herself many divine beings, the story implies that The Black Madonna was a mortal who ultimately gets burned alive in the statue. This is shown in this quote, “But this awe passeth into horror, and horror into wild fear, when great tongues of flame shoot forth amidst the wreaths of smoke, and when from forth of the Black Madonna come strange and horrible cries, as though a mortal woman were perishing by the torture of fire.” (Brooks) Perhaps this is where William Sharp disagrees with the past generations’ religion and ideals while proposing his own for the fin-de-siecle. (Murray) This is due to the priests killing The Black Madonna, and the holy figure of past religions that she represents.
Sexual desire being evil seems to be the main message of the story. The scene where he is attacking her is described as, “He sobs low, as a man amidst baffling waves; and in the hunger of his desire she sinks as one who drowns.” (Brooks) This is obviously an act of evil and is described as such. Curiously though, both The Black Madonna and Bihr are punished by the priests after she was sexually assaulted. This makes the message of condemning lust unclear, as the fact that The Black Madonna was also punished suggests that the story frames the priests as the true antagonists. Not only did the priests kill both Bihr and The Black Madonna, but they also were the ones who sacrificed children and young maidens, while The Black Madonna simply accepted them.
The Statue of the Black Madonna is also written about extensively. William Sharp describes the Statue in great detail and marks it as an item of great importance, perhaps even possessing spiritual qualities. This is shown by Bihr’s actions at the climax of the story, moments before he attacks The Black Madonna. “As he finisheth he turns towards the great Statue of the Black Madonna and, laughing, hurls his spear against its breast, whence the weapon rebounds with a loud clang.” (Brooks) The final act that cements Bihr as the one who has the position of power is shown by him hurling his spear at the Statue. The Statue is also capitalized in the story, and The Black Madonna is also punished by being burned alive inside the Statue. All of these elements point to the Statue as something spiritual. This concept that things have spiritual essence is a neo-pagan idea. It is likely included to express William Sharp’s spiritual feelings and contribute to his ideas for the neo-pagan movement.
William Sharp uses the decadent style and sexuality in his story The Black Madonna to describe his neo-paganist ideas. The neo-pagan elements are shown mainly through his descriptions of nature, and spiritual items. The Black Madonna also contains a plot that presents the decadent view that beauty can come from death and immoral things. His investment in neo-paganism is clearly shown in this work, and he is able to establish a connection between Neo-Paganism and Decadence during the fin-de-siecle.
Brooks, W. H. “The Black Madonna” The Pagan Review, 1892, Yellow Nineties 2.0, p. 5-18. https://ia600801.us.archive.org/31/items/ThePaganReview/TPR.pdf
Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth “Catholicism and the Fin de Siècle” The Edinburgh Companion to Fin de Siècle Literature, Culture and the Arts, University Press Scholarship Online, Sept 2018 https://edinburgh-universitypressscholarship-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/view/10.3366/edinburgh/9781474408912.001.0001/upso-9781474408912-chapter-006
Coste, Bénédicte. “Late-Victorian Paganism: The Case of the Pagan Review.” Cahiers Victoriens Et Édouardiens, Presses Universitaires De La Méditerranée, 22 Jan. 2015, https://journals.openedition.org/cve/1533?lang=en.
Denisoff, Dennis. “The Pagan Review in Context.” Pagan Review Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021. https://1890s.ca/tpr-general-introduction
Denisoff, Dennis. “William Sharp [pseud. Fiona Macleod, W.H. Brooks] (1855-1905),” Y90s Biographies, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/sharp_bio/.
Murray, Alex. “Fin-De-Siècle Decadence and Elizabethan Literature.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 2019. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/721857