Black Madonnas: Our Lady of Czestochowa

Michael Duricy

[Digitized image of Our Lady of Czestochowa]

The image of Our Lady in Czestochowa, Poland [at right] is among that small group of Black Madonnas recognized throughout the entire world, largely due to the recent manifestations of public piety shown by the reigning 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 Blessed John Paul II:

In modern times, Karol Wojtyla, 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 as John Paul II.  He 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.  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.


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This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Michael Duricy , was last modified Tuesday, 02/05/2013 16:30:46 EST by Michael Duricy . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.