Each year, one painting draws millions of pilgrims and tourists to the non-descript Polish city of Częstochowa. Nestled in the industrial town of 300,000 is the historic monastery of Jasna Góra (meaning Mountain of Light), where the painting is housed. The painting, of course, is Our Lady of Częstochowa, also known as the Black Madonna. 

For centuries, reports of miraculous events and healings have been associated with this image of Our Lady. Centuries of votive candles in front of the image have covered the original colors of the portrait with soot, giving Mary’s fair complexion a dark hue. The portrait is a unique combination of eastern Byzantine and western Latin art. 

The icon’s history is as tumultuous as Poland’s history, and the two histories are tightly intertwined.

Although there are various versions of the history of this famous portrait, legend holds that the icon was originally painted by St. Luke on a tabletop that Jesus constructed. While Luke painted the Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary told the Gospel writer everything about her life. 

After centuries of obscurity, in 326AD, the painting was discovered by St. Helen when she went to the Jerusalem to search for the true cross of Christ. St. Helen then passed it along to her son Constantine, who later had it displayed on a wall in Constantinople while the city was under siege by the Saracens. The invaders were quickly routed and the image was given credit for saving the city.

The image changed hands for centuries until Charlemagne is said to have gained possession of it, then passing it on to Prince Leo of Ruthenia (then Hungary). In the 11th century, Ruthenia was invaded and the king, his small army and the country were spared after praying to Our Lady for divine assistance. The invaders were covered in a cloud of darkness and, in their confusion, started to attack each other.

Finally, in the 14th century, Prince Władysław, Duke of Opole, prompted by a dream, requested that 16 Pauline monks from Hungary bring the holy image to Poland while establishing the Jasna Góra monastery in 1382.

In 1430, Hussites attacked the monastery and tried to take the sacred portrait. One marauder struck the painting twice with a sword and was immediately and inexplicably struck dead. Those cuts and another arrow wound to the image are still visible on the image today. 

In 1655, Poland was overrun by Swedish marauders in the war that is known today as The Deluge. The entire country—except for Jasna Góra—had been conquered by the Swedes. The monks miraculously held off the enemy forces for 40 days, thereby changing the momentum of what had been a devastating war. Miraculously, the rest of Poland was able to drive out the Swedes. This remarkable event prompted the coronation of Our Lady of Częstochowa, naming her the Queen of Poland in 1717, when the entire country was placed under her protection. 

In 1920, as the Russian army was approaching the Vistula River in Warsaw, an imagine of the Our Lady of Częstochowa was seen in the clouds over the river on September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. After a series of battles, the Russians were defeated in what is known today as the “Miracle at the Vistula.” 

During World War II, the Nazi’s prohibited pilgrims from going to Jasna Góra, although many still risked death by doing so. In 1945 after the liberation of Poland, 500,000 Poles went to the holy site in gratitude, followed by 1.5 million Poles who gathered a year later on September 8, 1946, to rededicate their country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Under Soviet communism, the Soviets also tried to keep pilgrims from the site. Undaunted, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla and other church leaders helped to arrange a tour of the Black Madonna around Poland. Since the fall of communism, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of pilgrims to the Częstochowa.

Averaging about 14,000 pilgrims on any given day—more on Marian Feasts—Częstochowa is truly the heart of Polish Catholicism and the country’s devotions to Our Lady as Queen of Poland. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have made the trip to Jasna Góra on foot. The practice is still followed today with an average of 100,000 people each year walking from all over Poland to the Jasna Góra. (For those not inclined to walk to Częstochowa, trains and buses run there regularly from Krakow.)

Pope Saint John Paul II was intensely devoted to the Virgin Mary and to her icon at Częstochowa, making four pilgrimages to Jasna Góra while pope (1979, 1983, 1991, 1997). In 1991, the sixth World Youth Day was held at Częstochowa. Pope Benedict XVI also visited the shrine during his papal visit to Poland in 2006. 

There is much to experience behind the fortress walls of Jasna Góra. The image of Our Lady of Częstochowa is in the small 15th century Gothic chapel, with a much larger baroque church adjacent to the chapel. Also within the walled complex is the monastery where the Pauline monks still reside which features a priceless collection of books, a museum and the treasury. The treasury includes gifts offered to Our Lady by kings, queens, presidents and popes for prayers answered. Among the many treasures are swords and scepters, a rosary made from dried bread in a concentration camp, tear-gas cylinders the Soviets used against Solidarity protesters in the 1980s, and Lech Walesa’s 1983 Nobel Peace Prize.

Masses are said throughout the day at the shrine, which includes an adoration chapel. Pilgrims should know that the chapel and church, because of the architecture, are not quiet places. With thousands of pilgrims bustling through a day, the site should not be considered for a retreat of silent contemplative prayer. You might, however, consider praying the Litany of Our Lady of Częstochowa. This beautiful prayer reflects the collective struggles Poles have experienced through the many difficult years of the Second World War followed by the oppressive Soviet Communist regimes. 

Litany of Our Lady of Częstochowa

Lord, have mercy. 
Christ, have mercy. 
Lord, have mercy. 
Christ, hear us. 
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us. 
God the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us. 
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us. 
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, pray for us. 
Mother of God and our Mother, pray for us. 
Mother of those who place their hope God's providence, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are deceived, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are betrayed, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are arrested in the night, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are imprisoned, pray for us. 
Mother of those who suffer from the cold, pray for us. 
Mother of those who live in fear, pray for us. 
Mother of those who were subjected to interrogations, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are subjected to interrogations, pray for us. 
Mother of those innocents who have been condemned, pray for us. 
Mother of those who speak the truth, pray for us. 
Mother of those who cannot be corrupted, pray for us. 
Mother of those who resist evil and tyranny, pray for us. 
Mother of orphans, pray for us. 
Mother of those who have been attacked or taunted because they wore thy image, pray for us. 
Mother of those who are forced to sign declarations contrary to their conscience, pray for us. 
Mother of mothers who weep, pray for us. 
Mother of fathers who have been so deeply saddened, pray for us. 
Mother of suffering Poland, pray for us. 
Mother of always faithful Poland, pray for us. 
We beg thee, O Mother in whom resides the hope of millions of people, 
grant us to live in liberty and in truth, in fidelity to thee and to thy Son. 

For more information about visiting Jasna Góra, go here: http://www.jasnagora.pl/

And for information about the Papal visit during World Youth Day: http://krakow2016jasnagora.pl/?p=174&lang=en