The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
The Black Madonna has a global following. In Britain and Ireland the Black Madonna still remains a neglected mother.
The Black Madonna has a global following. In one day's event she can have more visitors than a season's worth of Manchester United fans visiting Old Trafford. The Madonna of southern Poland is the third biggest pilgrimage shrine in the Catholic world. But few British and Irish pilgrims will have heard of her. Even fewer will have visited.
The well-trodden routes to the calming waters of the French Pyrenees at Lourdes, the dry heat and dust of Portugal's Fatima and the rocky route to the Galician-Celtic Santiago de Compostela, north-west Spain, all act as familiar backdrops to pilgrims' tales. These paths recall only too well the stories behind the blisters and aches, which are part of the pilgrimage adventure.
In Britain and Ireland the Black Madonna still remains a neglected mother. Bejewelled in velvet robes and golden crown, the Mother of God holds gently, but securely, the Christ Child in her left arm. With an intensity of stare that knows suffering past and suffering to come, this is no woman of timidity, but a woman of steel.
Protected by huge thick iron gates, the Czestochowa Virgin has a stilling effect on the large and robust crowds. With the presence of a traditional teacher, she demands attention, complete attention. Pilgrims feels pierced by her Mona Lisa-like gaze no matter where they stand. It has a tangible effect. As one regular disciple said: "She brings comfort to those in discomfort, and discomfort to those in comfort."
Reading her biography, the reason is clear. This Blessed Mother has been protecting Poland, even Europe, against hostile invaders. Reportedly the icon dates from Luke the Evangelist. Tradition says it was painted on a table made by Christ himself.
After long spell resident in the Holy City of Constantinople she arrived in Poland in 1382. Fleeing with the Polish army, the enemy Tartars in hot pursuit, the icon was struck and scarred by an enemy arrow.
Since then the Black Madonna of Czestochowa has been very active. It is understandable that the Madonna is more reminiscent of the Gospel's Martha rather than Mary. Having a chapel, and then a cathedral, built around her, she certainly has had an impact. Attacked and slashed in 1430 by the pre-Reformation Hussites, the icon is also credited with the 1655 sudden and unexpected Swedish army retreat. Polish defeat had looked as much a certainty as Robert Mugabe's victory in the one-candidate Zimbabwe election.
Credited for the victory, the Madonna was declared the "Queen of Poland" in 1656, a title that exists to this very day. Her works did not remain in the mists of history: in 1920, as the Soviet Red Army was bearing down on the beleaguered Polish nation, the Poles prayed fervently for delivery. The date was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15, and an apparition of the Blessed Virgin reportedly appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. The Russians were repelled and defeated. The Blessed Virgin icon had come up trumps again.
More modern scenes of celebration credited to the Black Madonna have included the 1.5 million people who gathered at the announcement of Nazi defeat.
Fast-forward to more recent events and Czestochowa witnessed similar scenes with the end of totalitarian Communist rule. With regular visits from the Holy Father Pope John Paul II, and the 2006 pilgrimage by Benedict XVI, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is truly recognised as an international place of holiness.
The area around Czestochowa is in transition. Formerly the industrial heartland of the country, it was severely hit by the demise and fall of Communism. But Katowice and the surrounding area is re-inventing itself as a hub of business and commerce. Because of this there are plenty of hotels, restaurants and coffee shops springing up, so the wandering traveller will have no problem finding amenities.
This may be the ideal time to visit. There are enough western conveniences to make the travel not too burdensome, but there is enough of the old pre-1989 way of life to still make it fascinating. And the pilgrimage city of Czestochowa could not be more convenient. To miss the Jasna Gora Monastery would be the equivalent of a Edinburgh Waverly train passenger asking the whereabouts of the famous castle.
The monastery is not just easy to see but easy to find: simply follow the crowds. Line after line, group after group, of men women and children, all ages, marching their way to the top of the hill. If you even find that your feet cannot keep up, no worries: use your hearing. There is usually a leader with a magnified sound system leading prayers or hymns all the way to the top. That's one of the beauties of this pilgrimage: it caters for the eye, the foot and even the ear.
The 350-foot high bell tower stands guard on top of the hill, dominating the city. The Jasna Gora Monastery is not so much a place of humble whispers but a place of defiant posturing. The baroque building, and its fortress-like defences, promises from each brick discomfort to foe and comfort to friend. At the heart of its tripled-layered protective shield is the very heart of the Polish nation, the Black Madonna.
To understand Poland one must understand the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. It may be said, with the rapid secularisation of Europe, to understand Europe one must understand Poland. And there is no better place to begin than the Polish "Lourdes".
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