Kraków's Czartoryski Museum houses Lady With an Ermine, one of the world's greatest non-religious masterpieces. In the city of Częstochowa, is a great religious treasure. The tale of the painting of Our Lady of Częstochowa, or Matka Boska Częstochowy. is intertwined with the glory and history of Poland. Legend holds that this portrait of the Virgin and the Baby Jesus was created by St. Luke the Apostle, and that Mary may have actually posed for him. It was found in Jerusalem by St. Helen, given to the Roman emperor in Constantinople, and credited with saving the city from an invasion of Saracens. Later given as a gift to Charlemagne, it was presented to Prince Leo of Ruthenia, once part of Poland but now in Ukraine.
The painting's history now becomes clearer. It came to be owned by Prince Władysław of Opole, Poland, who kept it in Belz, near Halicz. During an attack in 1382, a Tartar arrow hit the image of the Virgin in the throat, a mark which can still be seen today. He prince fled with the portrait to Częstochowa where he turned it over to the Pauline brothers at their monastery on Jasna Góra. The monks built a special chapel for the painting, which from then on came to be called Our Lady of Częstochowa.
Compare the same Madonna picture without and with the robe below:
In 1430, Hussite vandals stole the portrait, but their wagon with the picture loaded onto it would not move. One of the frustrated bandits struck the face of the Madonna twice across the cheek with his sword. Before he could come down with a third blow, legend says he was struck dead on the spot, and the other looters fled. Despite attempts at repair, the slashes on the Virgin's cheek remain to this day.
Once, the chapel burned to the ground, but the painting miraculously survived unharmed, except that the smoke had darkened it. From then on it also became known as the Black Madonna.
The most famous miracle attributed to it occurred in 1655, when Swedish forces has conquered all of Poland except for Częstochowa. The few defenders at Jasna Góra monastery prayed before the painting then defeated the invaders, who were soon routed from all of Poland. The following year King Jan Kazimierz declared the Black Madonna the Queen of Poland. It's chapel became the destination of visiting pilgrims from all over the kingdom.
In 1920 the Russians invaded Poland and reached the River Wisła. It is said that an apparition of Our Lady of Częstochowa appeared in the sky above the battlefield and the huge Russian army was then turned back by the much smaller Polish forces.
The dark days of World War II seemed to threaten the existence of the painting. In the first days of the war, Warsaw reported that it had been destroyed, but that was not true. As with Lady With an Ermine, Nazi Governor Hans Frank controlled its fate. The Nazi leaders were a superstitious lot, who supposedly feared the mystical power of the Black Madonna. German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels visited the shrine. A legend says that Adolf Hitler came to Częstochowa in disguise and viewed the painting.
Frank considered himself a good Catholic, despite carrying out the Nazi regime's policies of slavery, torture and mass murder. "I bow before the Polish Christ...prompted by my own conscience as a German Catholic," he once told an Italian reporter. But pilgrimages to the Black Madonna were prohibited, Frank said, because it would have been dangerous to the German occupation of Poland to allow thousands of people to gather at the shrine. He also forbade any public display of the picture.
The reporter did receive permission to view the painting in the chapel, accompanied by a couple of priests and SS men. They were followed in by a group of Poles who happened to be in the adjoining church, who were allowed to enter and tearfully pray before the icon.
Though the chapel was seriously damaged during the war, the painting of Our Lady was unharmed. The communist regime also restricted pilgrimages to Częstochowa, but as the years went by, more and more people defied the authorities. The two men credited with bringing down communism in Poland, Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa, were both devotees of the Blessed Virgin. Wałęsa always wears a Black Madonna lapel pin on his jacket.
Skeptics and investigators say that the painting is no older than the thirteenth century, that it was almost completely painted over in 1434 to repair damage, and restored yet again in the nineteenth century. But no matter. Our Lady of Częstochowa's reputation as a miracle worker and protector of Poland is quite intact and she remains a powerful symbol of Polish faith and perseverance.
Read article about Black Madonna from Czestochowa and Lady with Ermine.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska