A pilgrimage to see the sacred icon
“Why do you care about Our Lady of Częstochowa? She is our Madonna!” Okay – there’s a question I'd never heard before. I was standing in the middle of a small museum in Poland that outlined the history of the apparitions of Our Lady of Jasna Góra. My interlocutor was an Eastern European priest, a fellow student making the pilgrimage to this holy site. From his perspective, since Mary appeared in many different nations throughout the world, each nationality or geographical area should have a particular devotion to Mary under the title most geographically relevant to them.
While I was caught off guard by his question, I could sort of see his point. After all, it is Our Lady of Guadalupe who is the patroness of the Americas – so as an American, I probably should start with finding out more about her, right? And, yet, out of all of the Marian sites I have visited, Our Lady of Częstochowa made the deepest impression.
Jasna Góra: The Luminous Mount
The bus ride from Krakow to the Jasna Góra Monastery was interesting, to say the least. While it was only supposed last about two hours, we found ourselves at a roadside bar enjoying beers after our bus broke down. Having been fortified by some hearty pilsners, we arrived at the monastery complex, which houses the miraculous image of the Black Madonna.
While just as bustling with pilgrims as Lourdes or Fatima, the aesthetic of Jasna Góra Monastery conveys a distinct quiet beauty. Perhaps because the monastery is perched upon a hill, it is evident immediately that it is a place set apart from the rest of the world. I’m sure the Hungarian monks who founded it in 1382 were looking for the same sort of contemplative refuge that I found so welcome during my visit.
The monastery complex is now built out in the baroque style, complete with a bell tower over 100 meters tall that chimes Marian hymns every fifteen minutes. Among the eves of the monastery colonnades, the basilicas and chapels, and the surrounding grounds, it was all too easy to lose track of my group. To be honest, I didn’t mind; the spirit of this place prompts one to seek some prayerful silence, even if that means simply jostling through the crowds to find a quiet space on the wall to sit and think.
After wandering for a while, I finally recognized that the pilgrims were gravitating towards a particular area – the chapel that housed the icon of the Black Madonna. It is from this icon that Our Lady of Częstochowa draws her name and the reason for which this site is so well known.
The intriguing history of the icon seems to be a mix of factual history and folklore. The places it has been and the people it has come in contact with seem like the making of fantastical historical novel. Tradition has it that this icon was written by St. Luke the Evangelist. Moreover, it is said that the icon was crafted upon a table that is believed to have been built by Jesus himself! From there, the ever-solicitous St. Helen (mother of Constantine) discovered the icon and sent it to Constantinople, where it remained for the next 500 years.
After this slight intermission from the icon’s riveting history, in 803 A.D., the Byzantine emperor gifted the icon to a Greek princess to a Ruthenian nobleman (wondering if you are the only person unfamiliar with Ruthenia?). There it remained in the royal palace at Belz, located in what is now the western Ukraine, for another 600 years.
The icon first came into contact with the Polish people when the Polish army looted the city of Belz in 1382. During the skirmish, the icon was struck by an arrow. The story goes that a miraculous cloud enveloped the chapel where the icon was enshrined. The king ordered a monastery built in Częstochowa to house the image, and soon a cathedral was built with a designated chapel for the icon.
A few decades later, Częstochowa was attacked by the Hussites, who slashed the icon with a sword and left it immersed in blood and mud. One story recounts that when the Hussites tried to make off with the image, their horses refused to move. Another tells of a Hussite who struck the image twice, but when he tried a third time he was overcome by pain and died in agony. When the monks tried to recover the painting, a miraculous spring appeared in which they cleaned the image before proceeding to restore it.
So many centuries later, the miracle for which the icon is best known took place. In 1655, Częstochowa was facing invasion by the Swedes. The Polish people prayed fervently in front of the Black Madonna, praying for her intercession and protection. The enemy retreated.
Again in 1920, the Poles were fighting to protect the sovereignty of their nation, this time from the Russians. On September 15, as the Red Army stood on the other side of the river, ready to attack Warsaw, Our Lady answered the prayers of the Polish Army and appeared in the sky. The Polish army defeated the Russians in a numbers of battles, thereby averting invasion.
It is no wonder that the Black Madonna is known as the Queen of Poland. She has truly protected the Polish people, fought for them, and listened to their pleas. The devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa among Eastern Europeans is rooted in thankfulness for her solicitude for them.
Where She Leads Us
I finally made my way into the chapel, pressed to the wall by the throngs of pilgrims. We stood transfixed by this Lady who had survived many years, traveled great distances, and done so much for the people who sought her assistance.
It seemed to me that her face is somewhat mournful, a woman who has endured sorrow herself, who perhaps understands the travails of those asking for her aid. She gestures with her hand to her little son, Christ, never seeking to draw attention to herself. He, in turn, raises a hand to bless us.
After visiting and learning more about Mary under the title of Our Lady of Częstochowa, I can understand why the Polish people have a particular affinity towards her, a sense of belonging as her children. And yet, the story of this icon that has spanned the history of the Church and harkened on more than once to her people’s aid, recalls to all of us the extent to which Mary offers her mantle to us. Just as in the icon, Mary always points the way to Christ, but does so by demonstrating his love through the protective gaze of a mother.