“Our Lady of Jasna Góra is a teacher of beautiful love for everyone.” St. John Paul II
I first heard of the Black Madonna icon 30 years ago – when I was on a concert tour of Poland.1 We had a day off between performances, and our hosts asked whether we would like to go to Częstochowa to see it. I wasn’t Catholic then, and to be honest, it all sounded a bit strange and ‘otherworldly’. But at the same time, I was intrigued. It all came to nothing, though. The musician I was travelling with wasn’t interested, and we ended up taking the train to Kraków instead.
Over the years, the “Black Madonna” would pop up in conversation from time to time – always mentioned with such an air of quiet awe and reverence that I regretted not having taken that opportunity to go see her. So you can only imagine how excited I was when I discovered that a trip to Jasna Góra – the monastery in Częstochowa where the Black Madonna is enshrined – was included in the itinerary of my recent pilgrimage to Poland.
My First Encounter with the Black Madonna
We arrived at Jasna Góra in the early evening. After dropping our luggage in our rooms, we immediately headed to the Chapel of the Mother of God to venerate the image. From the moment that I stepped into the chapel, I realized that photographs of the Black Madonna simply do not do her justice. How different it was to see her in person! In my journal that night, I wrote, “Our Lady is breathtakingly splendid – her sorrow so perfectly expressed in the icon.” As I gazed at Mary’s image, I felt powerfully drawn to her. I realized that she understands better than any earthly mother our sorrows, heartaches, and trials. There is no suffering that she has not shared with us, no sorrow that she has not experienced. In Mary we have a Mother who not only understands us, but who journeys with us and loves us unconditionally. All she wants to do is to wrap us up in the folds of her protective mantle.
I understood then that the Black Madonna is not famous because of her beauty or appearance, but because of her love. It is a motherly love that leads her to intercede unceasingly with her Son on our behalf. And how could He say “no” to such an amazing Mother? Her presence is so powerful that I felt as though I could have reached out and touched her.
The History of the Black Madonna
There is no certainty about the origin of the Black Madonna. However, according to legend, St. Luke the Evangelist painted the icon on a tabletop used by the Holy Family and built by Jesus himself. The icon was later discovered by St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who took it to Constantinople where it was enshrined for the next 500 years.2 From there, it was taken to Russia.
Many miracles were attributed to the Black Madonna, and it had been worshipped for centuries before arriving in Poland. Yet it bore the marks of the ravages of time. The icon is called the “Black Madonna” because of the soot residue that discolours the painting – the result of centuries of votive lights and candles burning in front of the image. The Polish army brought it to Jasna Góra in 1382, after fleeing the Tartars who had struck the Madonna in the throat with an arrow. Even then, it wasn’t safe. On April 14, 1430, a band of Hussites (pre-Reformation reformers) attacked the monastery. “After entering the Chapel of the Mother of God, they tore off the painting of Mary from the altar, stripped it of valuables, and cut the face of the Madonna. After that, they [threw] the painting on the ground, causing the icon to crack into three parts.”4 The image of our Blessed Mother was left desecrated in a puddle of blood and mud. Although artists have tried on several occasions to repair the arrow mark and the gashes left by the swords, the marks keep re-appearing and are still visible today. They help us remember that our Mother has suffered, too – that she is one of us.
Now, twice each day – at mid-day and again in the evening – a silver screen (dating from 1723 and depicting the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) slowly descends in front of the painting. Marked by solemn ceremony and accompanied by special prayers, hymns, and the sound of trumpets, the screen covers (and protects) the image of the Black Madonna when she is at rest.
Miracles of Our Lady of Częstochowa
Although a multitude of miracles have been attributed to Our Lady of Częstochowa, the most famous one happened in 1655 when Swedish troops were about to invade the town. A group of Polish soldiers prayed fervently in front of the icon, asking the Madonna for deliverance, and the enemy retreated. A year later, “King John Casimir declared Our Lady of Częstochowa ‘Queen of Poland’ and made the city the spiritual capital of the nation.”5
In 1920, the Madonna again came to the aid of her people. “The Soviet Russian Red Army gathered on the banks of the Vistula River, preparing to attack Warsaw. The citizens and soldiers fervently prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa, and on September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, she appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. The Russians were defeated in a series of battles later dubbed the ‘Miracle at the Vistula.’”6
The painting is in the style of a Byzantine icon of the Hodegetria type – which is a Greek word that means, “She who shows the Way.” The description refers to an iconographic depiction of the Virgin Mary in which she holds the Child Jesus at her side while pointing to Him as the source of salvation for mankind. In the painting of the Black Madonna, the Child Jesus holds a book in His left hand, “extending His right hand like a teacher, ruler or in a gesture of blessing.”3
“Dressing Up” Mary
One thing that always puzzled me before visiting Jasna Góra was why pictures of Our Lady of Częstochowa all looked so different. I wondered which image was the real one. The answer was a surprise. They are all the real one, because though the icon itself never changes, every five years they dress Mary in new “clothes.” When I asked a Polish friend why they do it, she just shrugged and said, “She’s a woman, and all women love to dress up. We love her, and we enjoy making her look beautiful.”
The practice of decorating the miraculous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa dates back to medieval times. The oldest ornaments included halos that were fastened to the painting. Votive offerings – including expensive jewels – were often nailed directly on the icon. Sometime around 1585, the votives were removed from the icon and nailed to boards on either side of the altar. “By the mid-17th century so many jewels had accumulated that they were placed in patterns and sewn to velvet backings – the beginnings of the Madonna’s modern-day dresses or wardrobes. These were named according to the gems and ornaments adorning them.”7
Some may wonder why Jasna Góra is so famous. After all, unlike other Marian pilgrimage sites, there are no relics of saints to venerate and no Marian apparitions have ever taken place at this spot. It’s not a sacred place because a significant event in the life of Jesus or Mary took place here. There are many beautiful treasures sheltered within the walls of the monastery, but even these do not account for its renown. People come to Jasna Góra with one single purpose: to have an encounter with the Black Madonna. And no one is disappointed. For never has it been known that anyone who flies to Mary’s protection, implores her help, or asks for her intercession is left unaided. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The Black Madonna is also known as Our Lady of Jasna Góra, or Our Lady of Częstochowa – the town in which the image resides.
2 “Jasna Gora Monastery, Częstochowa,” Sacred Destinations; available from http://www.sacred-destinations.com/poland/czestochowa-jasna-gora; Internet; accessed 20 August 2015. According to the latest research, the icon was made at the turn of the 12th century. It was later damaged and repainted on the old board after the mid-14th century (the new painting was made by an Italian artist). Cf. Jerzy Tomziński and Jan Golonka, Jasna Góra: Shrine of Our Lady of Jasna Góra Guide (Jasna Góra – Częstochowa: “Paulinianum” Pauline Order Publishing House, 2011), 14-15.
3 Tomziński and Golonka, Shrine of Our Lady of Jasna Góra Guide, 77.
4 Ibid., 18.
5 “Jasna Gora Monastery, Częstochowa,” Sacred Destinations; available from http://www.sacred-destinations.com/poland/czestochowa-jasna-gora.
7 Georgene Bramlage, “The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland,” HubPages; available from http://georgenembramlage.hubpages.com/hub/the-black-madonna-of-czestochowa-queen-of-poland-czestochowa-poland-feast-day-august-26; Internet; accessed 21 August 2015.