Our Lady of Czestochowa is the most well known and most revered of the many Black Madonna icons found in the East. Not only is this image honored in the traditional way as an icon, but like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Czestochowa has earned the dedication of an entire nation. She has been credited several times with saving Poland from invaders and providing a national identity when that country was divided. The Polish people not only admire her as an aspect of the Virgin Mary, but they relate to her as their queen and credit their existence as a nation to her help.
Like the majority of the Black Madonna statues, it is said that Our Lady of Czestochowa was created by Saint Luke. The historical legend of this painting is that the Virgin Mary actually sat for it after the Crucifixion when she was living in the house of Saint John the Evangelist. The cedar wood the icon was painted on was from a table made by Jesus Christ when he was a carpenter. During the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, the early Christians hid the painting away. It was rediscovered in a.d. 326 when Saint Helena, the elderly mother of Constantine made her trip to the Holy Land in her search for the True Cross. Among the relics she brought back with her to Constantinople was this icon. Constantine erected a church to house the image, and it was revered by the citizens of that city. The icon remained in Constantinople for five centuries, escaping destruction during the reign of the Iconoclasts (746–843). This was a movement in the Eastern Church that strictly forbade the existence of religious images. All icons and holy pictures were ordered painted over or destroyed. It is said that the wife of the emperor who ordered it burned, hid the icon away instead. In the ninth century Constantinople’s emperor offered Charlemagne any treasure he wanted in the city in gratitude for his help in defending them against the Saracen invaders. He chose this icon and later presented it to Prince Leo of Ruthenia. It remained in his castle at Belz, Russia, for the next five hundred years. In 1349, an invasion mounted by the Tartars from the east threatened Belz. Prince Ladislaus, the town’s ruler decided to take the icon to a safer place. As he was making his plans, an arrow fired by the invaders came through the window and embedded itself in the painting. It was the prince’s intention to take the painting to his birthplace in Opala. While he stopped to rest in the town called Czestochowa, the image was brought to Jasna Gora (“bright hill”) and temporarily placed in the Church of the Assumption. On August 26, 1382, when the prince attempted to continue his journey, the painting became too heavy for his servants to carry. He took this as a sign from the Virgin Mary that this painting should remain in Czestochowa. Searching for the holiest men he could find to create a shrine, he brought in an order of Hungarian monks dedicated to Saint Paul the Hermit to guard the icon. This is also where the first writings on the painting start to be recorded.
The followers of a heretic priest John Hus of Prague stormed the church in 1430. In an attempt to rob the jewels embedded in the icon, one of the men started slashing at the icon’s face. As he was about to slash it the third time he fell dead. This terrified the invaders into leaving. The icon, however, fell and broke into three pieces. Grecian painters familiar with the style of iconic painting were brought in to restore it, and by 1434 it was virtually completely repainted. However, the two slashes in the face have continually reappeared despite repeated attempts to repair them.
In 1655 a small army of three hundred Polish soldiers were gathered at the foot of the monastery. They were challenged by a force of twelve thousand Swedish invaders. In one of the greatest victories in European history, the small army of Poles successfully routed the invasion. Though the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa had always been regarded as special and miraculous, this victory was considered spectacular proof of the intercession of Mary through the icon. On April 1, 1656, King John Casimir proclaimed Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen of Poland and said vows putting the country under her patronage and protection. On September 3, 1717, the apostolic delegate staged a national coronation of the icon. A crown, given to Poland as a gift from the pope was created to fit on the head in the image. In the late eighteenth century, Poland had a very weak central government and it was gradually separated and divided up by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Throughout this time, under foreign domination, almost every Polish church had a copy of Our Lady of Czestochowa and the people consistently referred to her as the Queen of Poland. Until the country’s restoration in 1918, the shrine at Jasna Gora served as a spiritual capital and a vital link for the Polish people with their true homeland.
In the last century, on September 14, 1920, the Russian army was gathered at the river Vistula in preparation for an invasion of Warsaw. The Polish people prayed to Our Lady of Czestochowa for a miracle. The Russians dispersed the next day when they saw the image of the Virgin Mary in the clouds over Warsaw. In Polish history books this is known as the Miracle of Vistula.
The Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora keep archives of all the individual claims of healings and miracles due to the intercession of Our Lady of Czestochowa. National devotion to her remains very strong, and her shrine has been a popular pilgrimage site since her arrival in the late fourteenth century. As the people of that country suffered through division and annexation, the Nazi invasion and Communist rule, they have always remained steadfast in keeping her feast day.
Many people are puzzled as to why Our Lady of Czestochowa is dark-skinned. Different explanations are given: the ancient paints have darkened over time, or it was made darker when it was overpainted in the fifteenth century, or that centuries of candle smoke have blackened the image. It is also commonly said that when the original shrine at Jasna Gora was destroyed by fire, though the painting, miraculously, did not burn, it was darkened by the flames and smoke and from that day on it has been known as the Black Madonna.
In the early part of the twentieth century the original crown for the icon was taken by thieves, but an elaborate new crown was created to replace it. In some images, Our Lady of Czestochowa wears this elaborate crown and in others, she wears the royal blue veil of the Virgin Mary.