Growing up it never occurred to me to question the large elaborately framed picture of a black Mary, mother of Jesus, on the wall of my parents’ bedroom. I never paid attention to it, considered it basically just part of the wall. It was like when you see something all the time, you don’t even see it anymore. I had never even taken a good look at it or thought about why we had a Black Mary when we were white. After my Catholic mother passed away, my father painted the room and somehow Mary never made it back to her usual spot. I discovered her years later – banished to the back of the closet.
The picture, not exactly a painting, was more like a large colored picture on paper, almost like a page that had been ripped from a super sized Polish Catholic magazine, backed with wood and covered with glass. Every time I look at it now, I imagine peeling the picture off the wood and finding an original painting by one of the old masters or something. (I think I saw that on the Dick Van Dyke show when I was a kid.) The only things that keep me from doing that are that I will destroy the picture and it’s highly unlikely my Polish ancestors had a real anything.
Our Lady of Czestochowa
Our Lady of Czestochowa (click for pronunciation), also called the Black Madonna, is an icon of Mary that resides in a monastery in Czestochowa, Poland. The original is a painting of Mary and Jesus made on wood. This wood, according to lore, was a door made by Jesus and the picture was painted by St. Luke. The original painting is 19 X 13 X 1/2″.
The icon is quite beautiful and has an interesting history. The original Black Madonna hangs in the Monastery of Jasna Gora and actually has two different dresses which hang on it and are interchanged every Holy Thursday. One dress is made of precious jewels, the other is elaborately beaded on gold cloth. Even though the jeweled dress is much more valuable monetarily, the embroidered dress is also prized because the beads were assembled by peasant women. There used to be a third dress assembled from pearls of different sizes and shapes, but it was stolen off the altar and was never recovered. The crown, held by two angels, was a gift from Pope Pius X. It is gold and decorated with jewels. A previous crown was a gift of Pope Clement the XI in 1717. That was also stolen, along with the pearl dress. The portrait was painted on a canvas that was glued to a cypress table base. Xrays have shown there were previous canvases and nails before this final portrait was finished.
History of Our Lady
There are no written facts about the painting before the year 1382. Its origin is based on word of mouth and goes like this: Mary, in her later years, had many visitors and people who made pilgrimages to see her, as she was known to be an extraordinary person. Although many came to visit and pray with her, in those times it was mostly the wealthy who were able to travel. A group of virgins who had formed the first congregation of women under her guidance asked St. Luke to draw her portrait. He did it upon a table top in St. John’s home. Sixtus of Sienna stated,
“St. Luke, after completing the life of Christ, with brush and paints made a portrait of His Blessed Mother.”
Legend states that Jesus had built the cypress table that the picture was painted on. When he died, Mary moved to St. John’s home, taking the table with her.
For the next three centuries, the painting was handled and protected by the virgins in Jerusalem and hidden in catacombs. In 326 St. Helena, Constantine the Great‘s mother, located the painting and brought it to her son, who was building Constantinople. A church dedicated to Mary was built and the relic placed there.
Through word of mouth, the painting gained fame and worship as those who prayed before it were given special graces. Some years later, Emperor Izauryn had many holy objects burned in the city, but the painting was spared by his family who hid it in the palace. His wife gave it to Eudoxia, who gave it to her daughter, and so on for 500 years.
As Christianity spread from Constantinople to Russia and Russian rulers married Polish royalty, the painting found its way to Belzki’s Russian castle for the next 500 years. In the 13th Century the Tatars (Mongolians) attacked and an arrow was shot through the painting. This is where the throat scar comes from. When the Tatars came back later for another battle, Duke Vladislaus took the painting to hide it in Opole, Poland. He passed through the town of Czestochowa and decided to place the painting in a small wooden church there for safe keeping.
The next morning when the Duke was ready to leave, the painting was loaded into a wagon, but the horses would not budge. He prayed for guidance. Twice he dreamed that he should leave the painting there, so on August 26, 1382 he brought it to the Church of the Assumption. (This is why August 26 is the feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa.) The next day Vladislaus signed papers and dedicated the rest of his money to build a church, cloister and convent in Jasna Gora, which is what the settlement was called back then. The Pauline Fathers of Hungary were summoned to care for the relic because they were considered the holiest monks in Europe.
By this time the portrait was already known for its miracles. Poland’s first historian, John Dlugosz (1415-1480):
“Our Lady’s picture, one of ancient origins and famed for miracles, was brought to Jasna Gora by Opolczyk.”
In 1430 Hussites scarred the right cheek twice. They also stole the painting and shrine of mementos that were with it. They was later found beside a stream (which believers say produces miracles) nearby. Besides the cheek slashes, precious ornaments were missing and the base was broken. During the reign of Jagiello an artist tried numerous times to retouch the painting and remove the scars, but was unsuccessful. (Jagiello ruled from 1386 to 1434 so the retouching was attempted between 1430 and 1434.) I read in Novena to Our Lady of Czestochowa, printed by the National Shrine in Doylestown, PA:
“Damage was so extensive that a new canvas had to be placed on the old panel base, preserved as a relic – and the picture was repainted anew according to the sketch on the damaged canvases found beneath the top layers. The restored picture was painted without the crowns and costly dress which we see on recent paintings. The diamond studded dress was added in 1717 at the first coronation of the picture. The crowns were sent as a gift by Pope St. Pius X in 1910.”
As mentioned above, Mary’s face in the icon is black. None of the theories suggest she was African. Speculation is that after so many years of hiding and transporting the painting, it darkened. Another possibility is that because votive candles were burned in front of the icon, dust and soot may have colored the portrait. Back in the day, there was a tradition of kissing holy pictures, and as this picture was greatly admired and respected, surely many, many people venerated it. One should keep in mind that if it is true that if St. Luke did paint the portrait, he did it to her likeness and even though the hues may have darkened with age, the features represent the true Mary.
It is also intriguing because it is not a normal pretty, perfect portrait. Mary’s face has two scars on her right cheek and one slash on her throat. There are seven cuts on the portrait – on the neck, face and above the right eye. It’s still beautiful and the fact that it survived all this time is remarkable. I also find it interesting that although the original sustained damage, all subsequent copies of the image also incorporated the scars.
The original painting is in the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland – near Krakow. You can take a pilgrimage to the shrine with 206 Tours. I was surprised to learn this is the third most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. I assume the first two are Our Lady of Lourdes in France and Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.
There is also a chapel to Our Lady of Czestochowa in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
If you can’t make the trans-Atlantic trip to Poland or the Vatican, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa is in Doylestown, PA. I have been there. An elaborately decorated copy of the portrait is there. It’s stunning. I can’t even imagine what the original must look like in person. The shrine in Doylestown offers masses, novenas and retreats. They have a gift shop, cafeteria, rosary garden, and chapel where you can light candles. There are no hotels on the premises but there are motels nearby.
Miracles attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa
Many, many miracles have been attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa. There is a special book listing the miracles that is kept in the monastery of Jasna Góra. The library at Jasna Gora has 11,000 ancient books, including five texts dating from the 15th and 16th Centuries that contain stories of the miracles. Papal recognition of the miraculous image was made by Pope Clement XI in 1717. A large number of the miracles involve restored eyesight, successful battles, sicknesses cured, and resurrected deaths.
Europeans in the Middle Ages suffered from many epidemics. Cities would be deserted during these times as families abandoned their homes and hid in the woods. Since no one was around to farm the land, the after effect of disease and death would be famine. All of the towns around Jasna Gora were affected by these epidemics, but the city of Czestochowa never suffered from it. The people attributed this to the icon.
In 1655 the Swedes overtook Poland in war and most of the country became occupied. A group of Polish soldiers prayed before Our Lady. The fort at Jasna Gora battled for five weeks and finally the Swedish army retreated. This success was attributed to prayers to the icon.
In 1717 when the portrait was coronated, Valentine Rabenda, a student, was suffering from a problem with his vocal chords and had been unable to speak for four years. While praying for a cure, he cried out, “O Blessed Virgin!” and was able to then speak.
Several decades after this miracle, Poland was occupied by three different powers. Poles would sneak through enemy barricades to visit Czestochowa to draw strength from the icon. Russia knew of this and called the portrait the “main revolutionary.” Russian soldiers confiscated sacred medals and pictures of Our Lady.
In 1957 a reproduction was made to be used as a traveling icon. This picture traveled to every Polish church in the country. In 1966 it was placed under arrest and brought back to Jasna Gora with orders to not travel. A Communist government ruled Poland at that time. An empty frame and burning lamp traveled around the country instead. In 1972 the ban was lifted.
There are tons of recorded miracles and the book The Glories of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora lists pages of them. You can buy it for as little as $4.29 from Amazon.
Novena to Our Lady of Czestochowa
For those who are not able to visit the shrine, stjosaphat.wordpress.com has a Perpetual Novena that can be said in prayer to Our Lady. Click here for the site and novena.