MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘The Black Madonna of Czestochowa’, Jasna Góra Monastery, Czestochowa

The Blessed Virgin Mary is certainly the most recognized woman in history. The tender images of the Madonna and Christ Child have inspired artists across all ages and arts-forms. Most of us are familiar with her conventional depictions in art – fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde and cloaked in blue. She is an epitome of virtues that endears to every soul.

However, lesser-known is the contentious representation of the Blessed Virgin called the Black Madonna. We may at once gravitate naturally to question – ‘Why is she black?’ But before we associate faith to colors, let’s understand the background and devotion towards the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, also known as, Our Lady of Czestochowa.

The painting is executed in tempera on primed canvas. The Blessed Virgin is seen in a standing posture with Christ Child in her arms. She bears an oval face distinguished by a long narrow nose, tiny lips, and deeply expressive eyes. The half-closed eye-lids lend an almost melancholic and contemplative expression to her beautiful face.

The Blessed Virgin gazes at us while pointing to her Son as the source of salvation. This traditional theme was well known in the East and was called ‘Hodegetria’ – meaning – ‘the One Who Shows the Way’. In turn, Christ Child extends his right hand in benediction while in His left hand He holds a closed book symbolizing Wisdom. The fact that the Infant Jesus holds a codex as opposed to the earlier scroll could serve as an indication that the symbol was a later addition.

Although the Blessed Mother and the Child do not regard each other, yet their unquestionable union is emphasized through various elements. Notice the golden halos that surround their heads, their gestures as they hold on to each other, and the motifs upon their cloaks. The Madonna’s robe is decorated with the famous ‘fleur-de-lis’ (lilies) symbolizing purity while Christ Child is dressed in a cloak adorned with rosettes, symbolizing love.

The most distinctive feature of this painting is the visible reddish ‘scars’ on Mary’s right cheek. The legend concerning the scars can be traced to the Hussites, members of a Czech pre-Protestant Christian movement. In 1430, the Hussites stormed and sacked the Pauline monastery. While attempting to get away with the stolen icon in their wagon, the horses refused to move.

In frustration, the Hussites tried to destroy the icon by striking the Virgin’s face. Legend states that at their third attempt to strike the Blessed Virgin, the plunderer fell to the ground and writhed to death. Attempts to repair the scars have proven difficult because of the medium of execution of paint.

The history of the painting is shrouded in mystery. According to a legend, it was painted by St. Luke on a wooden kitchen table from the home of the Holy Family. The most widely accepted theory is that the icon was gifted by Constantinople to a Russian nobleman in the Middle Ages. Eventually, it was acquired by a Polish Prince, Ladislaus of Opole who gifted it to the Pauline monks at the monastery on Jasna Gora in 1382. The icon has been associated with several great moments of victory in Polish history. It is dearly loved and revered by its people and pilgrims from all across the world.

This brings us to the speculation – Why is the Madonna of Czestochowa black? The answer would be more technical than symbolical. The Madonna and Child were originally painted in dark olive tone, as was common in the east. Soot from the fires it survived and the smoke from the endless votive candles have contributed to its darker tone over centuries. Irrespective of the details, the icon serves its function. Mother Mary continues to lead us closer to Jesus.

We recall the famous words of St. Pope John Paul II during his visit to his home country in June 1997. Standing before the icon he proclaimed these words that continue to resound as a prayer for all generations: ‘Totus Tuus! I am all yours! I consecrate to you the whole Church – everywhere and to the ends of the earth! I consecrate to you humanity; I consecrate to you all men and women, my brothers and sisters. All the people and the nations…Mother accept us! Mother, do not abandon us! Mother be our guide!’ Amen.

© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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