The Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa

The painting of Our Lady is the very heart of Jasna Gora (Hill of Light) Częstochowa [chen-sta-ho-va], drawing crowds of pilgrims to it. This Sanctuary was not built after a Marian apparition, as is usually the case for major holy sites. The painting itself is the mystery, the fulcrum and the atmosphere of the Jasna Gora Shrine.

Photo of the Black Madonna IconPhoto of the Original Black Madonna Icon

It was painted on a wood panel measuring 1222 x 822 x 35mm (1). Mary's face dominates the painting and observers find themselves immersed in her eyes. Regardless of the angle they look at Mary, she looks back at them. The face of the Child is also turned towards the pilgrim, but his eyes are looking elsewhere. The two faces have a serious and thoughtful expression adding to the emotional tone of the painting. There are two parallel slashes and a third horizontal cut mark our Lady's right cheek. On Mary's neck there are six scratches, two more visible than others. Jesus, dressed in a scarlet tunic and supported by his Mother's left arm, has his right hand raised in a magisterial gesture, of sovereignty and benediction. His right hand holds the Bible. The right hand of the Virgin rests on her breast, as if she were indicating the Child (Hodigitria type icon). The Virgin's blue robe and mantle are decorated with lilies, symbol of royalty. A six-pointed star is featured on Mary's brow. Important features are the auras around Virgin and Child since their brightness contrasts with the dark facial tones. The background is dark green.

The painting is frequently called the "Black Madonna”. It refers to skin tones of Mary and Jesus. The image was painted with colours diluted with fused wax, which were subject to natural darkening due to age. Additionally countless pots of incense and wax candles were burnt in the proximity of the picture, and it survived a fire in 1690, all of this contributed to it's darkening.

The icon belongs to the “Hodigitria” type (literally "Waypointer” or “Leader”), which amongst the various types of images of Mary is most popular [2]. The Blessed Virgin points with her right hand to Christ, who said of himself: “I am the way (to the Lord)". Therefore, in this kind of depiction "Hodigitria” never appears without the Child Jesus. Thus conforming to Orthodox belief, that the Conceiver of God (Mother of God) only has validity as a “Pointer of Way" to Heaven or as a “Preparer of the Way to Salvation" in conjunction with her Son.

The iconographical original of the “Hodigitria” comes from Antioch in the Orient [2]. From there, through Jerusalem it went to Constantinople in the 5th century. It has survived the iconoclasm of the 8th century, when Emperor Leo III, the Syrian, forbade the veneration of images in Byzantium and ordered that they be destroyed. However it was eventually destroyed and lost during the Turks' conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Only a few copies survived to these days, among them Our Lady of Czestochowa is the most famous one.

A scientific research into the Black Madonna painting made in years 1925-26 and

1948-52 confirmed its Byzantine origin dating between the 6th and 9th centuries' [1][3][5).

The icon was painted by unknown artist on canvas covered wood board. Canvas was removed during the restoration following the damage to it in 1430. This restoration took place at the court of King Jagiello and Queen Jadwiga (canonised in 1997) in Cracow, then capital of Poland. Restoring specialists added ornaments to the Mother's and Child's robes and some light and shade effects to the picture [1][3][5]. They also used paint to highlight gently the sword cuttings on Mary's face. They had to overcome the problem with unsuccessful application of the tempera colours on the image obtained with coloured fused wax.

For a long time it was believed that, the restorers scraped away the ancient image and painted a completely new one over the miraculous panel. However the most recent studies of the Icon, done by the rector of Warsaw Art Academy, professor W. Kurpik, revealed that the restoration and conservation works, apart from the mentioned additions, were narrowed down to the filling of dents and missing paint fragments only [1].

The Icon's age or pictorial and historical values are of no great importance for Christianity. But the ability to be the source of miracles based on a religious conversion is all that matters. These miracles and conversions can happen on a personal level with God through Mary, but it can also influence the life of the whole nation. In Poland we have a good example of it.

A Legend

We are told that St Luke the Evangelist was an artist, and he had the happiness of knowing Mary personally. We also know that Mary, after the death of her Son remained upon earth for twelve years, and must have been seen and remembered by many. As God's own Mother she was the masterpiece of His creation. So there were early Chris tians who asked St Luke to depict the most Blessed among women. The religious meaning of it can be read that the picture was born of the faith of the Church [3][4).

So St. Luke painted it on the top of a cypress wood table, which came from the home of the Holy Family. When Mary saw it, she was so pleased that she wished her blessing to accompany it wherever it went [4].

St Luke was said to have painted two images of Mary, one of which found its way to Italy and was kept in Bologna where it is still venerated [1].

The other was said to have been removed from Jerusalem where it was for nearly 300 years. It was brought to Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the mother of Constantine the Great (first Christian Emperor of Rome; *~280; +337) and placed in a specially built church. The portrait remained there for five centuries.

Over the years, many enemies laid siege to Constantinople and the icon became a centre of hope for the people of the city. Once when the city was under attack and the chapel caught fire, everything was destroyed except a small section of the wall with the painting of Mary and Jesus. The intense heat and soot from the fire had darkened the already dark olive features of Mary and Jesus.

Eventually it was given as a gift by the Byzantine Emperor to a Ruthenian (a Russian from Polish eastern provinces) nobleman Lev in acknowledgement of his military achievements [1]. The portrait was installed in the Royal Palace of Belz, where it remained until 1382.

Due to frequent threats of invasion of Tartars and concerned for the safety of the painting, Prince Ladislaus Opolski, the governor of Ruthenia, decided to move it to one of his castles in Upper Silesia.

On the brow of limestone hill called Jasna Gora within a few paces of the town of Czestochowa, the horses drawing the wagon with the painting stopped. No amount of coaxing or goading could make them go on. Mary appeared to Ladislaus in a dream and told him this was to be Her new home. The Miraculous Image was placed in a small wooden church and given to the care of the Latin Rite Hermits of Saint Paul who are still there to this day.

The legend tells us further, that after the sacking of the Jasna Gora shrine by robbers in 1430 the picture was placed on a cart with other booty, but the horses could not move the wagon. The looters threw the painting off the wagon and the horses moved. One of the riders seeing the jewels and gold covering the painting slashed it twice with the sword. When he went to strike it a third time he fell dead. The other riders fled for fear of Divine Retribution.

Repeated efforts by skilled artists to patch the scars failed. Each time the facial cuts reappeared. It is believed, that it was the will of Mary so the scars should remain as a sign to all that would want desecrate Her Shrine.

The History

In the year 1382 begins the remarkable history of this miraculous painting. That year, while in the castle of Belz the icon was reported to have been damaged during Tartar invasions of the eastern Polish province of Rus (Ruthenia). An arrow pierced it, leaving a scar, which is still visible on the Madonna's neck [3]. After defeating the Tartars the governor of Ruthenia, Prince Ladislaus Opolski brought the painting to Czestochowa. He presented it to the Pauline Monks, whom he had brought to Jasna Gora to found a monastery earlier that year [1][3].

After bringing it from Belz to Czestochowa, the fame of the picture of Our Lady soon spread far and wide. This monastery became the site of constant pilgrimages and the custodian of numerous, priceless votive offerings. Unfortunately, such valuable gifts attracted a gang of Bohemian, Moravian and Silesian (Husites) robbers who sacked the monastery on Easter Day, April 14", 1430 [1][5]. They stole all the painting's valuable gift offerings and disfigured it by slashing it with the sword cutting twice into right cheek of Mary. They also broke it into three pieces by throwing it to the ground. The icon was restored in Cracow, then capital of Poland and king's residency.

Jansa Gora Monastery and Shrine

In 1466 Jasna Gora was attacked again, this time by the army of the Bohemian King. These raids convinced Polish King Ladislaus IV to erect a wall around the monastery and work was begun in 1638 transforming the sanctuary into a Marian Fortress' [1][5). As history shows, these fortifications sur rounding the shrine were finished just in time before another danger.

In July 1655 Poland was invaded by Swedes coming from the north with the aim of building a Grand Baltic Empire, bonded by Protestant faith. On November 18th, 1655 after capturing most of the country and forcing the Polish King to hide abroad, Swedes approached Jasna Gora. “We will have that hen-house in three days”, the Swedish General Muller said contemptuously as he stood beneath the ramparts of the monastery [5].

However, despite heavy artillery assault of 36 cannons, attacks and tight siege by 3000 strong Swedish regiment, the monastery with only 70 monks, 170 soldiers and 20 Polish noblemen (1) held out. After forty days the Swedes withdrew. The attack on Jasna Gora was considered more as a violation of religious sentiments then as of political or military importance. So, although the Pauline Abbot Father Augustyn Kordecki led the defence, its success was attributed to the protective influence of Our Lady of Czestochowa. This was of tremendous significance for the entire Kingdom as after this victory the whole country rose up against the Swedes, who had to retreat.

This led to a proclamation that the Mother of God be Patroness and Queen of Poland declared by King John Casimir returning from exile in 1656. This was an act without precedence for a political figure and it took place in the cathedral of Lvov. He pronounced his vow to consecrate the country to the protection of the Mother of God, and the nation's destiny was entrusted to Her from that moment [1]. The king's vow was duly confirmed and ratified by the two houses of the Polish Parliament (5). Jasna Gora became therefore a symbol of religious and political liberty for the Polish people. But the fortifications of the monastery had to stave off more attacks in 1656, 1702, 1704 and 1705.

In 1683 King Jan III Sobieski prayed here for success in his crusade against the Turks, who invading Christian Europe, laid siege to Vienna at the time. He put himself and his army under the command of Our Lady. It is said that after the famous Vienna victory, when Europe was saved for Christianity, he stated "I came, I saw, God won” [3]. On his return he visited Jasna Gora again, gave thanks to the Black Madonna and laid some trophies from the battle as a votive offering.

The popularity of Blessed Mother of Czestochowa during the 16th and 17th centuries is visible in growing numbers of copies of the painting then being produced. As was the custom of the time, the painting was decorated by costly dresses' of silver, gold and precious stones (5]. It was to protect an especially venerated icon from dust, soot and smoke [2]. The most famous is 'the dress' covered with diamonds and rubies. Currently Jasna Gora posses seven of such dresses, each with its own name [3]. They are displayed at different times, hence the difference on various depictions of the Icon. The painting is encased in a triple, richly embellished ivory frame. The importance of Jasna Gora is in being a shrine for the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Kings, the gentry and the common folk in ever increasing numbers visited the shrine. The icon was the reason and a witness of numerous miracles of healing of the soul and body of the pilgrims. Over 1000 recognised miracles have occurred here, accounts of which are being kept in the monastery with the dates as far back as 1402 [5]. The icon is therefore known as the miraculous picture.

In 1716, Pope Clement XI signed the Act of Coronation and it took place on September 8th, 1717 in the presence of about 200 000 faithful.

During the tragic decline of the Polish State (18th and 19th centuries) Jasna Gora continued to serve as a fortress against the enemies. It was used by Casimir Pulaski and Confederates against the Russians for three years 1769-72, and in the times of Napo leon's wars 1806-13 [1]. But of more significance it was a point of reference for the oppressed nation, so the image of Our Lady became a pledge for a free Poland.

In 1909, vandals again tore off the gold crown and the ‘dress' of pearls. This sacrilege was repaired with the help of Pope, St. Pius X, who furnished a new crown [1][5]. The new coronation took place on May 22nd, 1910. Pope after Pope had granted spiritual favours to pilgrims visiting the Shrine, enriching it with many privileges.

The victory over Bolshevik armies in the battle of Warsaw, so called “Miracle of the Vistula” on the Feast of Assumption, August 15th 1920 was attributed to Our Lady's intercession. This victory saved not only the newly reborn Polish State but also prevented invasion by communists into Europe, devastated by the Great War. It is also believed she helped in the successful struggle against communism in 1980-89. Thus the Nobel Peace Prize received by Lech Walesa was offered by him to the Black Madonna and is kept in the monastery treasury.

Both the shrine and the famous picture it houses have survived two World Wars, a Nazi and a Communist occupation in recent times.

During the 44 years of Communist rule in Poland, the state police entered the shrine only once - on July 21s, 1958, when they alleged Catholic publications were being issued there without approval of the state censor (5).

Today the Jasna Gora fulfils various functions. It is primarily the destination of countless pilgrims from all over Poland and other countries. It is the spiritual home of Pope John Paul II (a copy of Our Lady of Czestochowa adorns the altar of his private chapel at Castel Gandolfo). As a Pope, he visited Czestochowa six times. During the 1979 visit he entrusted the faith of the Universal Church, his entire homeland, all mankind and all of himself to the Virgin and proclaimed "Mother I am yours and all that I have is yours.” [1]. He made an offering of a golden rose and set it on the altar of the Mother of God. In 1981, after the assassination attempt on his life, he deposited there the blood stained part of his robe.

The monastery often hosts conferences of the Episcopate and scientific sessions. There are three museum expositions there.

Three times a day the cover of the picture is raised, when Pauline Brothers play a solemn fanfare of trumpets. The Holy Mass is celebrated eight times a day (3). Every 50 years the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa is taken out and carried in a procession around the ramparts of the monastery. Although it was not the due time for such a ceremony, it occurred in 1956, the 300th anniversary of the proclamation of Mary as the Queen of Poland, when the picture was exposed to more than a million people (5).

Today, Our Lady of Czestochowa looks out from her shrine at Jasna Gora and inspires faithful throughout the world.

Modern day saints who also had an affiliation with this shrine, Our Lady of Czestochowa include St. Faustyna Kowalska and St. Maksymilian Kolbe.

[1] J. Pach OSPPE; W. Robak OSPPE; J. Tomzinski OSPPE - "Sanktuarium Matki Bozej Krolowej Polski, Jasna Gora" - Internet Site: www.jasnagora.pl
[2] "Athos” - Orbis Pictus 21; Hallwag Ltd. Berne, Switzerland, 1968.
[3] Fr A. Wierzbicki - "Our Lady of Czestochowa" - Video film produced by “Studio Obiektyw”, Warsaw, Poland.
[4] Rev. W. Raemers, C.SS.R.- "The Mother of Perpetual Succour" - The Australian Truth Society Record; 6th Edition; Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, 1950.
[5] “Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland” - “Catholic Leader” Press, Brisbane, Australia, 1965.
[6] J. W. Pobog-Jaworowski - "History of the Polish Settlers in New Zealand 1776 - 1987”. CHZ “Ars Polona”, Warsaw, Poland, 1990.
[7] A. Dudek SCHR - "Kronika czterdziestolecia 1959 - 1999"- Towarzystwo Chystusowe w Australii i Nowej Zelandii, Sydney, 1999. (In Polish)

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© 2001 Jacek Drecki.

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