Drawing on research originally presented at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Hawaii 2017, Dr Anna Hamling of the University of New Brunswick, Canada, examines the historical and cultural significance of religious icon the Black Madonna of Częstochowa to the people of Poland.
One of Poland’s greatest contemporary composers, Henryk Gorecki (1933–2010), once said:
Her image (Our Lady of Częstochowa) juxtaposes several ideals of womanhood: a powerful, heavenly queen, a suffering mother, a perfect nurturer…(the) scars a sign of suffering she shares with her worshippers. (Trochimczyk, 2003)
Gorecki’s words stand as a metaphor for his relationship with the suffering mother country of Poland that is represented through the painting of the Virgin Mary in the shrine of Częstochowa.
“Through Poland’s very turbulent history Our Lady of Częstochowa has always stood as the epitome of perfect motherhood, loving and forgiving.”
The Virgin Mary’s suffering is the essence of the Polish soul, Polish culture, Polish Catholicism, Polish history and of all Polish mothers. She has been the most powerful symbol of “Polishness” since the painting was brought to Częstochowa in 1382 when Poland was coming a nationhood. Through Poland’s very turbulent history (the Russian partitions, WWII, and post-war communism) Our Lady of Częstochowa has always stood as the epitome of perfect motherhood, loving and forgiving, protector of her children who shared her grief in losing her son to a violent death on the cross.
The story of the image of the Virgin Mary in Poland has its roots in legend. It is believed that the figure of Matka Boska Częstochowska was painted by Luke the Evangelist on a table top which was built by Jesus himself. It was discovered in the Holy Land by St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine and a collector of Christian relics. The piece was enshrined in Constantinople, where it remained for the next 500 years (Maniura, 2004, p. 67). The painting was then given as a wedding present from the Byzantine emperor to a Greek princess marrying a Ruthenian nobleman in 803 (Maniura, 2004, p. 98) before it eventually arrived in Poland in 1382. The Polish historian Jan Dlugosz wrote in his fifteenth-century work Liber Beneficiorum that the work of art was brought to the Pauline monastery at Częstochowa by Prince Wladyslaw Jagiello from a castle at Belz, Russia. Prince Jagiello invited monks from Hungary into Poland to safeguard the holy picture. Four years later, in 1386, at the monastery of Jasna Góra in the small town of Częstochowa, these monks established a shrine for the sacred painting. When the Hussites (the Czech forerunners of the Protestant reformation) attacked Jasna Góra in 1430, they damaged the work with arrows and by slashing the Virgin’s face with a sword. The legend continues with the monks rescuing the painting from a bed of mud, where a miraculous fountain appeared, which then they used to carefully clean the painting. It was said to have been repainted in Krakow, but the arrow marks and the gash from the sword remained and are clearly visible to this day.
With such a rich history the Black Madonna of Częstochowa is also famous for the miraculous liberation that occurred when Swedish troops were set to invade the city in 1655. With the Swedish army pressing around them a group of Polish soldiers prayed desperately at the feet of their revered icon for deliverance from the approaching threat. Miraculously, despite their overwhelming strength, the invading army retreated. In 1656, a year after the failed invasion, King Kazimierz of Poland declared Our Lady of Częstochowa to be “Queen of Poland” and made the city the spiritual capital of the nation. Thus, she became a symbol of protection and created a specific national identity that impacted on the entire population of Poland. In 1717, Pope Clement XI officially recognized the miraculous nature of the image (Maniura, 2004, p. 123).
The Virgin helped Poland again in 1920, when the Soviet Red Army massed for an attack on Warsaw at the banks of the Wisla River. In this case, the entire nation prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa and, on September 15, on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Virgin is said to have appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. The Russians were soon defeated in a series of relentless battles that later became referred to as the “Miracle at the Wisla River”. In 1925 Pope Pius XI designated May 3 a feast day in honour of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland (1939–1945) Hitler prohibited pilgrimages to Jasna Góra, but many Poles continued to make the journey in secret. On September 8, 1946, a year after the liberation of Poland, huge crowds of people gathered at Częstochowa and expressed gratitude to the Virgin Mary. Because of its strongly held devotions and the high number of followers during the communist era in Poland, Jasna Góra, the home of the Black Madonna, became known as the centre of anti-government resistance (Maniura, 2004, p. 138).
“The popular image of the “Queen of Poland” can be found in many Polish homes, where people pray for help in both personal and national safe-keeping.”
These historical events strengthen the belief of the Polish nation in the image’s miraculous qualities and inherent power. The popular image of the “Queen of Poland” can be found in many Polish homes, where people pray for help in both personal and national safe-keeping. John Paul II visited the monastery a few days before he became pope in 1979. He said:
The Poles are accustomed to link with this place, this shrine, the many happenings of their lives: the various joyful or sad moments, especially the solemn, decisive moments, the occasions of responsibility, such as the choice of the direction for one’s life, the choice of one’s vocation, the birth of one’s children, final school examinations, and so many other occasions. They are accustomed to come with their problems to Jasna Góra to speak of them with their heavenly Mother. (Maniura, 2004)
That devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa is an essential element of the Polish culture and nationality and it has been transmitted in the Polish “blood” for many generations.
The image was apparently rendered with original dark flesh tones, there being no evidence that the “black” colouration resulted (as some have claimed) later from smoke, fires or the discoloration of age. It is probably of fourteenth-century manufacture, consistent with the lack of provenance before 1384 when the icon appeared at the Jasna Góra monastery. However, this in no way diminishes its power as an image or the devotion it inspires in the Polish people.
Image | Miguel Palafox, Wikimedia Commons
Dr Anna Hamling first presented this research at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Hawaii 2017 in Honolulu, USA.
Maniura, R. (2004). Pilgrimage to images in the fifteenth century: The origins of the cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Mitchell, W. (1995). Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Trochimczyk, M. (2003). Mater dolorosa and maternal love in the music of Henryk Gorecki. 2003. Polish Music Journal 6(2). Retrieved http://pmc.usc.edu/PMJ/issue/6.2.03/Trochimczykmater.html