An island is defined by the sea. Its spirit is the spirit of the sea. And as well as the spirit of Britain it is also the spirit of the island of Cuba. In its capital city of Havana the devotion to the Virgin of Regla, the Virgin of the Rule, is paramount.
The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier described Regla as the “city of magic”, “the city of mystery, which is always ruled by an atmosphere of wonder”. The icon of the Virgin, after which the settlement is named, sits in the church there, across the bay from Old Havana, and she is black. She is so because the icon derives from St Augustine of Hippo, the African, and the first of the two greatest theologians of the Church. In his Confessions he recounts the tale of a dream his mother St Monica had.
"In her dream she saw herself standing on a sort of wooden rule, and saw a bright youth approaching her, joyous and smiling at her, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But when he inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping (not to learn from her, but to teach her, as is customary in visions), and when she answered that it was my soul's doom she was lamenting, he bade her rest content and told her to look and see that where she was there I was also. And when she looked she saw me standing near her on the same rule." (Book III, 9.14).
It is said that Augustine himself carved the icon of the Virgin of the Rule to represent this vision, and as Bishop gave her face the colour of his congregation. On the destruction of his city by the Vandals, a few years after the fall of Rome, she was taken to Spain by monks who followed his Rule. During the passage from Africa to Spain, in the Straits of Gibraltar, a terrible storm was overcome, and thereafter the Virgin of Regla became the patron of seafarers. She found her sanctuary in the town of Chipiona, on the other side of Cadiz from Trafalgar. And from there, over 12 centuries later, she was taken to Cuba, where she soon became the patron of the bay of Havana.
The bay was crucial to the Spanish Empire. It was where the gold they took from South America was kept safely, provided with a haven, on its journey back to Spain. Havana is known as the key to the Gulf of Mexico, and this image still appears on its coat of arms. Its fall to the British in 1762 was a blow to Spanish prestige. The British held Havana for less than a year, giving it back in exchange for Florida, but they had a profound effect on the city. They changed its economy from one in which all business was conducted under the licence of the Spanish crown to one in which free trade flourished.
In Havana, the Virgin of Regla rediscovered her devotees of African descent. For the blackness of the Madonna, the association with the sea, and the resulting fact that her colours were blue and white, meant that she was recognized by the descendents of the Yoruba people of Nigeria as the Christian incarnation of their great mother goddess Yemaya. Her name derives from the Yoruba words "Yeye emo eja" which mean "Mother whose children are like fish." And, like the syncretism of Pico della Mirandola, which lay behind the Renaissance, this syncretism has proved immensely fruitful in inspiring the artists who have made contemporary Cuban culture the equal of any other in existence today.