Our Lady of Czestochowa: Poland’s Black Madonna

November 12, 2013

The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has been intimately associated with Poland for the past 600 years and is an integral part of Polish culture and identity.

Saint Luke the Evangelist, according to tradition, is believed to be the original artist of this painting in which Mary is depicted holding the Christ Child. Legend says that he painted it on a cedar table top from the house of the Holy Family, a table possibly made by Jesus himself. As he painted, he listened to Mary speak about the life of her Son, information that he later used in writing his Gospel.

The image remained in the Holy Land until discovered by St. Helena of the Cross in the fourth century. The painting was taken to Constantinople, where St. Helena’s son, the Emperor Constantine, erected a church for its enthronement.

After the portrait became the possession of the Polish prince, St. Ladislaus, in the 15th century, it was installed in his castle. 

Tartar invaders besieged the castle and an enemy arrow pierced Our Lady’s image, inflicting a scar. Repeated attempts to fix the image, artistically have failed.

Tradition says that St. Ladislaus was determined to save the image from repeated invasions, so he intended to move the image to his birthplace of Opala. 

While traveling through Czestochowa, the horses stopped and refused to move. St. Ladislaus understood this to be a sign from heaven that the image should stay in Czestochowa; thus he replaced the painting in the Church of the Assumption, Aug. 26, 1382, a day still observed as the feast day of the painting. 

The saint wished to have the holiest of men guard the painting, so he assigned the church and the monastery to the Pauline Fathers, who have devoutly protected the image for the last 600 years.

In 1430, the Hussites successfully stormed the monastery and stole the image. After putting it in their wagon, they traveled a short distance, but then the horses refused to go any farther. 

Recalling the former incident that was so similar, the heretics threw the portrait down to the ground, which shattered the image into three pieces. One of the plunderers drew his sword and slashed the image twice, causing two deep gashes; while attempting a third gash, he was overcome with a writhing agony and died.

The two slashes on the cheek of the Blessed Virgin, together with the one on the throat, not readily visible in copies, have always reappeared after artistic attempts to fix them. 

The portrait again faced danger in 1655 by a Swedish horde of 12,000, which was routed by the 300 men guarding the image. This event led King John II Casimir Vasa to “crown” the Holy Virgin as “Queen and Protector of Poland.”

In 1717, Pope Clement XI acknowledged the miracles associated with the icon.

On Sept. 14, 1920, when the Russian army assembled at the River Vistula, in preparation for invading Warsaw, the Polish people prayed to Our Lady. The next day was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Russians quickly withdrew after the image appeared in the clouds over Warsaw. In Polish history, this is known as the Miracle of Vistula.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered all religious pilgrimages to be stopped. In a demonstration of love for Our Lady and their confidence in her protection, a half million Poles went to the sanctuary in defiance of Hitler’s orders. Following the liberation of Poland in 1945, a million and a half people expressed their gratitude to the Madonna by praying before this miraculous image.
Twenty-eight years after the Russian’s first attempt at capturing the city, they successfully took control of Warsaw and the entire nation in 1948. 

That year, more than 800,000 brave Poles made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary at Czestochowa on the Feast of the Assumption, one of the three feast days of the image; the pilgrims had to pass by the Communist soldiers who patrolled the streets.

Today, the Polish people continue to honor their beloved portrait of the Madonna and Child. 

The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is still enshrined at Jasna Góra Monastery, above the city of Czestochowa in South Central Poland. 

Because of the dark pigment on Our Lady’s face and hands, the image is affectionately called the “Black Madonna.” The pigmentation is ascribed primarily to age and the need to keep it hidden for long periods of time in places where the only light was from candles, which colored the painting with smoke.