There were very few stops on my pilgrimage more anticipated than seeing the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (Polish: Matka Boska Czestochowska).
Legend attributes the icon to St. Luke the Evangelist, who supposedly painted it on a plank of cypress wood from a table top from the house of the Holy Family. This is rather unlikely, as the Madonna is depicted with robes decorated with fleur-de-lis, a common design in the Middle Ages to depict royalty.
Further, the painting is created in the traditional composition and style associated with Orthodox iconography. Historical and artistic analysis points to 14th-century Jerusalem as its origin. It was then brought to Czestochowa via Constantinople and Belz, Ukraine, in August 1382 by Duke Władysław Opolczyk.
The difficulty in dating the icon stems from the fact that the original image was painted over after being badly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430. Had the icon’s medieval restorers been familiar with the encaustic method (paint made from pigment mixed with melted beeswax and resin and after application fixed by heat), they would have realized that unless the icon’s old paint was prepared, the new paint over it would simply slough off. According to the medieval chronicler Risinius, the restorers’ unfortunate solution to the problem was to scrape away most of the original paint and repaint over the bare wood.
Whether its origins are ordinary or extraordinary, the Black Madonna is an icon of tremendous spiritual importance to the Church and to the Polish and Ukrainian peoples.
She Shows the Way
The icon depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ in the “Hodegetria” (One Who Shows the Way) style where the Blessed Virgin directs attention away from herself and toward Jesus. The Child looks forward in blessing while holding the Gospels in his left hand.
Among the multitude of miracles and graces attributed to the icon: saving Jasna Góra (Bright Mount) Monastery from 17th-century Swedish marauders. In gratitude for this miracle, King Jan Kazimierz proclaimed Our Lady of Czestochowa queen and protector of Poland on April 1, 1656.
The darkness of the Black Madonna is a result of the dark wood upon which the icon was painted and/or centuries of sunlight, soot, candle and incense smoke and pollution. The icon also carries two deep scars on the Blessed Virgin’s right cheek; they were inflicted by a crazed Hussite soldier in his attempt to destroy it. Other historical records suggest the damage was caused during “The Deluge,” the Swedish invasion and occupation of Poland-Lithuania from 1655 to 1660.
Despite several attempts at repairing the scars, they have reappeared.
The Black Madonna is now closely associated with Poland, just as Our Lady of Guadalupe is associated with Mexico. Every family has a copy of it hanging in their home, and Poles who have the means will frequently make pilgrimages to visit it.
I walked into the hushed monastery chapel, which is a great deal smaller than I had expected. The Black Madonna is relatively close to the congregation, though clearly out of reach.
My attention was directed from the Virgin to the Child in her arms.
All around me grown men were crying and women clutched infants to their chests, looking imploringly at the icon.
I felt overwhelmed and humbled. My own hopes and prayers fell away from me, and I prayed for the people around me who seemed so much more in need.
The icon is exposed only for short periods of time. When the metal curtain slowly descends to cover it, a group of elderly Polish ladies enters to clear the chapel of pilgrims. I suspect most people wouldn’t leave unless strongly encouraged to do so.
Either way, I didn’t have sufficient time before the icon; I could have easily spent the day there.
As I got up to leave, a woman — I’m unsure if she was a pilgrim or if she was on the staff at the chapel — handed me a Polish prayer card with an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. My Polish friend translated the prayer on the back for me:
“Holy Mother of Czestochowa, you are full of grace, goodness and mercy. I consecrate to you all my thoughts, words and actions, my soul and body. I humbly beseech your blessings and especially your prayers for my salvation. Today I turn myself to you, good Mother, totally, with body and soul amid joy and suffering to obtain for myself and others your blessings on this earth and eternal life in heaven. Amen.”
Along with the Memorare, it has since become one of my favorite prayers.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
PL 42-225 Czestochowa 25, ul. O. A. Kordeckiego 2
48 34 3-777-777
Planning Your Visit
Poland has a very moderate temperature, but, like everywhere, the seasons can have their extremes. Masses are celebrated throughout the day. The screen covering the icon is raised at 6 a.m. and lowered at various times throughout the day.
The nearest airport is in Krakow, which can serve as a base for exploring the area. The best way to get to Jasna Góra is by train. A round-trip ticket from central Krakow will cost €1.5. Trains leave from Krakow Glowny main station. It’s important to dress respectfully, modestly and appropriately. Photos are not allowed in the church.