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 Black Madonnas: Our Lady of Czestochowa
Michael P. Duricy
The image of Our Lady in Czestochowa, Poland is among that small group of Black Madonnas recognized hroughout the entire world, largely due to the recent manifestations of public piety shown by the Polish Pope, John Paul II. 

The image is sometimes called Our Lady of Jasna Gora after the name of the monastery site in which it has been kept for six centuries.  Joan Carroll Cruz relates the following 'miracle story' regarding the selection of this site: St. Ladislaus determined to save the image from the repeated invasions of the Tartars by taking it to the more secure city of Opala, his birthplace.  This journey took him through Czestochowa, where he decided to rest for the night. 

During this brief pause in their journey, the image was taken to Jasna Gora [meaning "Bright Hill"].  There it was placed in a small wooden church named for the Assumption.  The following morning, after the portrait was carefully replaced in its wagon, the horses refused to move. Accepting this as a heavenly sign that the portrait was to remain in Czestochowa, St. Ladislaus had the image solemnly returned to the Church of the Assumption.

Another 'miraculous' aspect of this image is that its antiquity is so great that its origins are unknown, as if "dropped from the heavens."  Legend attributes its creation to St. Luke, the evangelist, who "painted a portrait of the Virgin on the cedar wood table at which she had taken her meals."  St. Helena, the Queen-Mother of Emperor Constantine is said to have located the portrait during her visit to the Holy Land and to have brought it to Constantinople in the fourth century.  After remaining there for five centuries, it allegedly was transferred in royal dowries until it made its way to Poland, and the possession of St. Ladislaus in the fifteenth century.

The legend continues: During Ladislaus' time, the image was damaged during a siege, by a Tartar arrow, "inflicting a scar on the throat of the Blessed Virgin."  In 1430, Hussites stole and vandalized the precious image, breaking it into three pieces.  Adding insult to injury:

One of the robbers drew his sword, struck the image and inflicted two deep gashes.  While preparing to inflict a third gash, he fell to the ground and writhed in agony until his death ... The two slashes on the cheek of the Blessed Virgin, together with the previous injury to the throat, have always reappeared - despite repeated attempts to repair them. 

However, modern scholarship has its own views on this legend.  Leonard Moss claims: "the figure is distinctly thirteenth-fourteenth century Byzantine in form."  In general, its Byzantine style is obvious, a variant on Hodegetria.  Janusz Pasierb states of the image that "in 1434 it was painted virtually anew" due to the extensive damage caused by vandalism.  He adds that "the authors of the new version were faithful to the original as regards its contents."  This might explain the persistence of the damage marks mentioned earlier.  Finally, note that Pasierb sees the prototype of Our Lady of Czestochowa as "a Byzantine icon ... which from the fifth century on had been worshipped in a church in Constantinople's ton hodegon quarter."

Miracles

The miracles worked by Our Lady of Czestochowa seem to occur mainly on a public scale.  During her stay in Constantinople, she is reported to have frightened the besieging Saracens away from the city.  Similarly, in 1655 a small group of Polish defenders was able to drive off a much larger army of Swedish invaders from the sanctuary.  The following year, the Holy Virgin was acclaimed Queen of Poland by King Casimir.  It is also recorded that Our Lady dispersed an army of Russian invaders by an apparition at the River Vistula on September 15, 1920.  In more recent times, the Czestochowa Madonna has also been acknowledged for her protection of and cooperation with the Polish nation.  Beyond these public prodigies: 
The miracles attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa are numerous and spectacular.  The original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora.

The image is not so well-known only on account of its history of miracles.  Its international reputation has been considerably enhanced because of the personal devotion of the current Roman Pontiff:

In modern times, Pope John Paul II, a native son of Poland, prayed before the Madonna during his historic visit in 1979, several months after his election to the Chair of Peter.  The Pope made another visit to Our Lady of Czestochowa in 1983 and again in 1991. 
 

Why is She Black?

A final question remains: why is Our Lady of Czestochowa black?  Cruz mentions a possible link to the Canticle of Canticles: "I am black but beautiful"; but concludes that "The darkness is ascribed to various conditions [e.g. accumulated residue from candles], of which its age is primary."  Broschart, by contrast, opines: the shrine was destroyed by fire, but the picture was not burned - however, the flames and smoke had darkened it and from that day it has been known as the "Black Madonna."

Recall that Moss saw the image as Byzantine in form, dating from the Medieval period.  He added: "the skin pigmentation is characteristic of this stylized portraiture." 

Interestingly, Ernst Scheyer, an art historian who studied the image, believed that "the present image was restored in the nineteenth century and painted somewhat darker than previously." 

Adding to all this confusion, a notable Swiss copy, completed by Kosmoski in 1956 and kept in the Hospice of the Great St. Bernard Pass, is much darker than the version in Jasna Gora, while a copy at a shrine in Doylestown, Pennsylvania is depicted in lighter flesh tones.  All of which makes the question of authorial intent extremely complicated.  Perhaps all that may be said of Our Lady of Czestochowa is that she may be called black, but she is certainly beautiful.  Her miraculous reputation, though, is beyond dispute. 

For further information on Our Lady of Czestochowa, refer to In Quest of the Black Virgin ... by Leonard W. Moss pp. 53-74 in Mother Worship:Themes and Variations (1982) by James Preston (ed.); Miraculous Images of Our Lady (1993) by Joan Carroll Cruz; Call Her Blessed (1961) by Charles B. Broschart; and The Shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (1989) by Janusz Pasierb.

The miraculous portrait of Our Lady of Czestochowa is venerated by many as an actual portrait of the Madonna, painted during her lifetime by Saint Luke the Evangelist on the top of a cypress-wood table.

Early history of the image is unknown. Saint Helena in her search for the True Cross in Jerusalem discovered the portrait in 326. Her son, Constantine, had a shrine built for it in Constantinople where it remained for 500 years. There it is claimed to have saved the city from attacking Saracens while being displayed during a battle.

Many years later the Emperor Charlemagne was offered the choice of any of the city's treasures, but he had eyes only for the image of Our Lady. Charlemagne presented the portrait to Prince Leo of Ruthenia. The icon was brought to Kiev and installed in the Royal Palace of Belz, where it remained for nearly 600 years.

In 1382 the image was damaged. An arrow from an invading Tartar struck it and left a scar on the neck which is still visible today. Prince Ladislaus Opolski decided to move the portrait to a safer haven.

Mary is said to have told Prince Ladislaus in a dream that Jasna Gora near Czestochowa was to be Her new resting place. Eventually the Polish Pauline Fathers became custodians of the icon.

The Pauline Fathers built a shrine for the portrait at Czestochowa and many miracles occurred there. It soon became the most famous shrine in Poland. The image has remained at Jasna Gora for 600 years.

In 1430 Hussites sacked the Jasna Gora monastery and the icon was further mutilated. A raider slashed at the image in an effort to claim the adornments of jewels and gold, cutting twice into the right cheek of Mary. The raider attempted a third strike, but then he suddenly dropped dead. Fearing Divine retribution, the others raiders fled.

Attempts to restore the image have not been successful. It is believed to be the will of Mary that Her scars remain as a sign to others who would desecrate Her shrine.

In 1920 the Polish people beseeched Our Lady to save them from impending Russian invasion. Her image appeared over Warsaw, causing a Russian withdrawal. Once again She showed Her support for Her people during times of oppression.

In 1928 the poet Hilaire Belloc visited the shrine. He left behind the manuscript of a beautiful poem:

 
 
 
Ballad to Our Lady of Czestochowa  

Lady and Queen and Mystery manifold 
And very regent of the untroubled sky, 
Whom in a dream Saint Kilda did behold 
And heard a woodland music passing by: 
You shall receive me when the clouds are high 
With evening and the sheep attain the fold. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 
Steep are the seas and savaging and cold 
In broken waters terrible to try; 
And vast against the winter night the wold, 
And harbourless for any sail to lie. 
But You shall lead me to the lights, and I 
Shall hymn You in a harbour story told. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 
Help of the half-defeated, House of gold, 
Shrine of the Sword, and Tower of Ivory; 
Splendour apart, supreme and aureoled, 
The Battler's vision and the Word's reply. 
You shall restore me, O my last Ally, 
To vengeance and the glories of the bold. 
This is the faith that I have held and hold, 
And this is that in which I mean to die. 

In 1948 during the Russian occupation of Poland thousands of people demonstrated their faith en masse on the Feast of the Assumption, even while Communist soldiers patrolled the streets.

Pope John Paul II, native of Poland, visited the shrine in 1979 and 1983.

During a papal visit to New Zealand in 1986 Pope John Paul II presented a magnificent copy of the icon to Maori representatives. 

On 1st October 2000 the New Zealand icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa was brought into the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hamilton, New Zealand by members of the Polish community. The traditional Polish dress of representatives on view and the recital of Polish/English prayers and hymns throughout the church service, reminded us of just how much the Polish people have become close and dear friends of Our Mother through the centuries. 

The icon remained in the Cathedral for the month of October.

Prayer to Our Lady of Czestochowa

O Mother of God, Immaculate Mary, to Thee do I dedicate my body and soul, all my prayers and deeds, my joys and sufferings, all that I am and all that I have. With a joyful heart I surrender myself to Thy love. To Thee will I devote my services of my own free will for the salvation of mankind, and for the help of the Holy Church whose Mother Thou art.

From now on my only desire is to do all things with Thee, through Thee, and for Thee. I know I can accomplish nothing by my own strength, whereas You can do everything that is the will of Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. You are always victorious. Grant, therefore, O Helper of the Faithful, that my family, my parish, and my country might become in truth the Kingdom where Thou reignest in the glorious presence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.


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