The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
Poland’s Most Revered Icon

The painting itself has more mystery than history. Legend says St. Luke painted the image on the table top in the home of the Holy Family 2,000 years ago. The story is that the Emperor Constantine took it from Jerusalem to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Six hundred years later, the Russian Prince Lev was given the painting by a Turkish dignitary as a reward for his military triumphs, but it was seized during a war with the Poles and brought to Czestochowa in 1384..

Art scholars and historians disagree with the legend. They say the original painting was a Byzantine icon created around the Sixth or Ninth Century. They agree Prince Ladislaus of Opole brought it to the monastery in the 14th Century. But, the historians say, the painting now on display is not the Byzantine original.

In 1430, robbers ransacked the church. They broke the wooden boards that backed the painting and slashed the canvas. The Virgin’s face and neck were ripped


Attempts to repair the painting failed, blurring the original. About three years later, the image was wiped from the canvas and a similar image painted in its place.

However, the original, sharp features of Orthodox icons were softened by European hues and techniques; the nose was made more aquiline. The distinctive tears the Madonna seems to shed are actually lines painted to represent the rips made by the thieves’ knives, say the historians.

Nobody knows when people began venerating the painting as an icon, but it was already thought miraculous when it was brought to Poland.

When the sick or ill prayed to it for health, they often were healed. When Polish kings or monks prayed to it for military victories, they won.

In 1655, 3,000 Swedish troops besieged the Jasna Gora monastery. Defending it were just 170 soldiers, 70 monks and 20 noblemen.

The monks and their troops won.
It inspired the rest of the nation to rebel and the Swedes were routed. This "Miracle at Jasna Gora" was attributed to the intervention of the Mother of God, and her painting. The following year, King John Casimir consecrated his lands to the protection of the Holy Virgin, thus linking nation and portrait.

The tradition has never wavered in the 400 years since, not even when Poland was partitioned, wiped off the map from 1795 to 1918. It doesn’t really seem to matter that the Madonna isn’t black, or that its origin isn’t Polish.

The bottom line is that the Poles always survived against long odds. At the center of each critical battle was the Black Madonna.

When the Russians were at Warsaw’s gates in 1920, thousands of people walked from Warsaw to Czestochowa to ask the Madonna for help. The Poles defeated the Russians at a battle along the Wisla (or Vistula) River. Today, every school child knows the victory as "The Miracle on the Wisla."

During World War II under German occupation, the faithful made pilgrimages as a show of defiance. That spirit deepened during the atheistic years of Soviet-enforced communism. Government attempts to stop the pilgrimages failed.

In the early 1980s, Walesa didn’t drape himself in the Polish flag when he was leading the outlawed Solidarity movement; he placed an Our Lady of Czestochowa lapel pin on his jacket. Poles knew it to be a subversive message.

The national and religious connections are extensive--"Pan Tadeusz," the national poem of Poland, extols the painting’s power in its opening lines--but the high point of the modern era is Walesa’s Nobel Peace Prize, which rests in the monastery’s museum.

Now that Poland is independent again, monks hope the painting’s religious meaning will deepen, and its political significance will fade. The chapel is covered with canes, crutches, medallions, pendants, rosaries, wedding rings--all left by pilgrims who felt the Black Madonna changed their lives.

"What people experience here is a mystery," said Father Jerzy Tomzinski, the former director of the monastery. "I have lived 70 years of my life behind these walls, listening to confessions, watching people come to God. The relics you see on the walls are the mysteries of their lives, left here as testament. There is no way to say what all of it means. It simply is."

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