About 62 miles from one of the Poland’s largest cities Krakow, stands Czestochowa, a historic town on the river Warta, known for one of the country’s most significant treasures, the icon of the Virgin Mary. The picture is kept in Jasna Gora monastery, which takes care of it and many other artefacts, like the medal from the Nobel Peace Prize received by the former president Lech Walesa in 1983, who played a crucial role in fighting communism in the country. The monastery is an official national Historic Monument, and the city is often considered to be the capital of religion in Poland. Jasna Gora was founded in 1382 by Pauline monks from Hungary and has since been a destination for pilgrimage, part of which is often even done by some believers kneeling their way through, mostly because of the painting of the Virgin Mary, which is thought to be the Protector of Poland, and is valued as such, not only by church fathers but also by every Pole.
This is why, every year, on August 6, a pilgrimage leaves Warsaw and takes about nine days to conquer the 140 mile distance to the monastery. Even Pope John Paul II secretly visited the pilgrim during the World War II, when he was still a student, as the tradition took place during the German Nazi occupation as well - in great secrecy, of course. He was the one to bring more widespread publicity to the painting as well, when he prayed in front of it officially in 1979.
The pilgrimages continued even during the long period of communism in the country, when it was best not to show any signs of religiousness, so it is safe to say that, up to this day, the monastery has been visited by a few million pilgrims over hundreds of years. Today, the monastery is equipped with quarters for visiting pilgrims, as it often happens, especially on feast days, that the monastery becomes crowded with people. This is why, if you ever find yourself near Czestochowa, be sure to pay the monastery a visit, even if you become outraged at the crowds preventing you from viewing the painting closely. You will be able to see it, though; as there is a special corridor which visitors follow that leads them to the viewing of the painting. Please note that once you enter the monastery, it is advised that you make your way in silence as a way to show respect, and you will most probably see visitors kneeling in front of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the holiest and most important relic of the Polish Catholic believers, carried away by deep thought and prayer. The icon has special covers over it, which tend to change with occasion. She has covers with robes and crowns made out of gold and jewels that suit a queen, so take a note of the one she’s wearing. Just be careful of the times the picture is unveiled and veiled, which you can check beforehand on many websites.
The monastery of Jasna Gora is worth visiting also because it houses a 600th Anniversary Museum with interesting artefacts. Besides the already mentioned Nobel Peace Prize, it also keeps safe rosaries made from breadcrumbs by concentration camp prisoners, as well as military mementos and all kinds of offerings given by pilgrims to the Virgin Mary and the monastery itself.
Now let’s look closely at the importance of the icon. Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of god, who gave virgin birth to the son of god after an immaculate conception, is one of the most important figures in Christianity and Catholicism, so it’s easy to understand how her picture has come to be so treasured. Even more so if you bear in mind that about 85% percent of Poles are Catholics. Poland has adopted Catholicism in 966, and ever since then, religion has played a very important role in the life of the nation, and Christian traditions are deeply rooted into Poland’s identity.
The icon of the Virgin Mother is a painting that is about four feet high. Virgin Mary and Jesus are shown in the composition called ‘’hodegetria’’, or ‘’the one who shows the way’’, as she is pointing to her son as the source of salvation for humankind, while he keeps his hand raised as a sign of blessing. Madonna has scars on her face, and both her and the skin of Jesus is darker than expected, which point to the fact that the painting has indeed a turbulent history. Another common early Christian portrayal of Mary is through the vision of the assumption into heaven, as she is said to have gone there with her body and soul united.
The history of the icon is partly unknown, as its origins are yet to be determined. Actually, its original image was painted over after Hussite raiders (heretical Catholics who fought with combined Orthodox Catholics in the 15th Century) damaged it in 1430, as it was then considered to be the only restoring method that would work on the picture.
The wooden boards that used to back the painting were smashed as well, even though it is said that the picture was painted by St. Luke, or Luke the Evangelist (one of the four authors of the canonical gospel) on parts of the cedar table that was used in the Last Supper, or the table which Mary used to have her meals on, during her time on earth.
It is said that the painting got discovered as early as in 326 AD, by St. Helena, an Empress of the Roman Empire and the mother of Constantine the Great. She is thought to be the one who took it to Constantinople and given it to her son as a gift. Then, it is believed that the painting got in possession of the Duke of Opole named Wladyslaw Opolczyk who got it from the Castle of Belz. A legend says that when Wladyslaw was passing Czestochowa in August of 1384, with the picture with him, his horses refused to go any further. In his dream he was advised then to leave the icon at the Jasna Gora monastery, which he did, and it stayed there ever since. Another fact, however, points to the fact that the painting might have been brought to the monastery by the Pauline monks from Hungary, who held Jasna Gora at the time, as there is a golden fleur-de-lis, or a stylized lily design, painted on the Virgin’s blue veil, which is the same symbol painted on the coat of arms of a Hungarian Anjou dynasty.
Either way, what is known for sure is that the painting of the Virgin Mary has been in Poland for over 600 years. It is loved and respected so that there are many miracles attributed to the painting. People who visit the monastery often pray to Mary to help them with her miracles, too.
She is thought to have saved the monastery from a Swedish invasion, which took place during the Second Northern War, in the winter of 1655. As the Swedes tried to take over the monastery, seventy monks and a hundred and eighty of local volunteers held off as many as four thousand Swedes for forty days and managed to turn the course of the war. This is where the king Jan Kazimierz Waza decided to crown the icon, or Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen and Protector of Poland. The coronation took place on April 1, in 1652. The icon had crowns added to the picture, and although often stolen, they kept being replaced by gold and jewels.
Going back to the Hussite Wars and Madonna’s miracles, another story says that when they stormed the monastery, they also wanted to steal the icon. Again, the horses refused to go any further no matter how hard the Hussites tried, so one of them just threw it off the wagon and then run his sword on the image. The first two strikes are visible on the image and look a lot like scars on the face of the Virgin Mary. It is said that when the plunder went on to deliver a third strike, he fell to the ground and screamed in agony until he died at the spot. And no matter how hard restorers worked on getting rid of the scars from Madonna’s face, they keep reappearing. The Virgin Mary also has a scar on her throat, from when a Tartar arrow struck it in the beginning of her stay in the monastery. That scar, too, keeps reappearing. In 1920, when Russians were nearing Poland, thousands of people walked to Czestochowa to ask Madonna for help and, in return, they did manage to defeat the Russians.
Another interesting fact is that Madonna and Baby Jesus are painted in bit darker color than it was common at the time, which leads to the fact that the picture has probably survived a fire as well. No doubt about it, the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has been through a lot.
Numerous Pontiffs have also given praise and recognition to the image, like Pope Clement XI, who issued a Canonical Coronation for the icon in 1717, then Pope Pius X who replaced then stolen crowns of the icon in 1919, and Poland’s own Pope John Paul II, who gave the icon another set of crowns.
The painting is also recognized by the Orthodox Christians, as the icon has been repainted twice at least, and is believed to hold Orthodox origins.
On 26th of August, the church and the believers celebrate the feast day of Mary, the Queen of Poland, since pope Prius X made it official in 1904. Two days later, on the 28th, the church celebrates the feast of the assumption.
It is interesting to know that there is the American National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Pennsylvania, in Doylestown, known also as the American Czestochowa. It is a shrine that was founded in 1953, and it houses a reproduction of the Black Madonna icon of Czestochowa, but also the heart of the Poland’s second prime minister, Ignacy Jan Pederewski, who wanted it to be buried in the United States.