Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Lady of Czestochowa

The most famous icon in Poland is Our Lady of Czestochowa, which became known throughout the world after Polish-born Pope St. John Paul II visited it four times during his pontificate. Kept at the Pauline monastery at Jasna Gora, founded in 1382 in Czestochowa, millions of visitors from around the world pay a visit to her every year. This “Queen of Poland” became a symbol of the Polish people, often persecuted by their invaders and conquerors. Lech Walesa, face of the famous Polish labor union Solidarity, always appeared in public with a small lapel pin of “the Black Madonna”, seeking her intercession as he fought for freedom in Communist Poland. This storied icon has a fascinating past, caught in the middle of Poland's challenging history, and to this day remains a symbol of this proud nation.

Modern-day experts disagree on exactly how old the icon is, although most agree that it originated sometime in the ninth or tenth century. Popular devotion insists that the icon is much older than that, dating back instead to the time of Jesus. The most famous legend surrounding its origin is that St. Luke, author of the Gospel that shares his name, painted the icon upon planks taken from the table top used by the Holy Family. According to the oldest manuscript, the Translatio Tabulae written in 1474, the icon made its way from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fourth century by the efforts of St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine. The icon was found to possess miraculous effects when, during a Muslim attack upon Constantinople, the icon was hung on one of the walls of the city; the attackers were then routed by the city’s defenders.

In the ninth century the icon would eventually find itself in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great – Charlemagne – and he would retain ownership of the icon until it was passed on to Prince Leo of Ruthenia, who would possess it until the eleventh century, when it was given to Prince Lev of Galicia, where it would remain in a fortress in Belz until the fourteenth century. The Tartars invaded and attacked the fortress; with arrows raining down upon the fortress, the icon was hit in the face and throat. Finding the damaged icon, Ladislaus of Opole took it from the fortress in an attempt to save it from future destruction, bringing the icon to Poland in 1384. Staying in the town of Czestochowa, Ladislaus felt guided to leave the icon there upon a hill named Jasna Gora, inviting the Hungarian Order of St. Paul the First Hermit (the Paulines) to Poland to take care of the icon. A monastery and fortress were built on Jasna Gora and the Paulines have been entrusted with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa ever since.

In 1430, Hussite raiders attacked the monastery with viciousness, hoping to rob it of the riches they believed were offered as gifts of devotion to Our Lady. Not finding any riches, the raiders killed several monks, ornaments and votives attached directly to the icon were broken off and stolen, and Our Lady's face was slashed several times with a sword. Upon leaving the monastery, they took the icon, broke it into several pieces, and threw it on the ground in front of the chapel. Horrified by this blasphemous act, Greek icon writers from Rus were brought in to restore her. They fixed the wood together, repainted the icon, and adorned it with gold and silver before returning it to the monastery. She was restored several more times since the fifteenth century in order to remove the dirt and oil, soot, flaking paint, and damage done through climate changes, touching, and even tremors.

Scientists are still fascinated with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, taking x-rays of her in order to learn more about her. They have found that the linden wood of the icon was older than the icon itself, and their x-rays have located several of the original holes in the icon that were used for holding votive candles. The encaustic technique was used on the original icon, which means that colored pigments were added to heated beeswax in order to create the icon6. When the icon was put back together after its destruction, the iconographers created an icon using multi-layers of tempera paints on a chalk primer, which was applied on a canvas pasted to the original boards of linden wood; however, the original damage done by the arrows and swords remain on the surface of the wood, so they were transferred to the new icon, as well.

The broken icon is held together with a Gothic-style frame that is “painted in vermillion with ornaments of stylized acanthus leaves entwined around a gnarled staff”. On special occasions the icon will be displayed covered in silver and gold-plated engraved sheet metal, which depict scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Scourging at the pillar, and the Crowning with thorns. In the icon Mary's mantle and dress are blue, a color that is often associated with Our Lady, and they covered in lilies – fleur de lis – which are symbolic for Mary, purity, virginity. Above Mary's head on her mantle is a six-point star, which is also a traditional symbol for Mary - Stella Maris - as well as King David. Jesus and Mary, both with halos, also have skin that’s darkened and discolored due age, people touching the icon, and soot from burning candles and votives.

For many Western Christians, especially non-Catholics, the use of icons is something that is unknown or perhaps misunderstood. Whereas the predominant devotional tool used in the Catholic West is statues, for Eastern Christians it has been the icon. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 787 AD, reaffirmed the veneration of icons in prayer and their use in the liturgy. St. John of Damascus (b. 676 AD, d. 749 AD), staunch defender for the veneration of icons, wrote in his Apologies that devotion to images is really devotion to the persons depicted, which traces itself ultimately to devotion to Christ.

When we contemplate the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, we meditate upon what the icon is trying to tell us. The imagery of this icon is known as ‘hodegetria’, Greek for “she who shows the way”; it is an iconographic depiction of Mary holding Jesus. The Virgin Mary is depicted holding Christ in her left arm, forming a throne for him, and pointing to him with her right hand, always leading us ultimately to her Son. Our Lady gazes at us; the Child Jesus, holding the Gospels and giving us a blessing, has his head turned towards Our Mother, but his eyes turned towards us, inviting us to him. We see the New Adam and New Eve beckoning us, drawing us closer, where Christ blesses us, he who reveals himself to us in the Scriptures. The physical characteristics of the icon also speak to us: the sword slashes on Our Lady's face are seen as a sharing in the suffering of her Son; their darkened faces are seen as the effects of being wounded by our sins.

Our Lady of Czestochowa is intertwined with Polish history. In 1655, the Swedish Lutheran Army invaded Poland in order to “save” it from the Catholic religion. The Swedes, working with the cooperation of many Polish princes eager to obtain larger fiefdoms, much of Poland fell to the invading army – until they reached the monastery at Jasna Gora; barely 300 defenders repelled multiple attacks by 3,000 invaders, and after 40 days of failed assaults, the invaders retreated. Many attribute the monastery’s miraculous defense and the repulsion of the Swedish invaders from Poland to Our Lady’s intercession.

In 1920, Russia amassed a large army on the Vistula River, planning an invasion of Warsaw. On September 15, on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, an image of Our Lady appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. Worried that this was proof that Warsaw would be protected by Our Lady’s intercession, the Russians withdrew their troops. Our Lady of Czestochowa has been credited with this ‘Miracle of the Vistula’. She has also been credited with saving the city of Czestochowa from plague and pestilence; “the original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora”.

As Poland continued to struggle under invasions and being partitioned, it was their firm Catholic faith that kept them going, leading them to believe that they would be free from oppression one day. Jasna Gora became the spiritual capital of Poland and Our Lady was declared the Queen of the Polish Crown in 1656. The Second Vatican Council gave a new term to Our Lady – Mother of the Church – and Poland’s own St. John Paul II would routinely refer to her as such. Mary has had such a pivotal place in Polish history, most notably in the devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, that it is hard to find a Pole who doesn’t know and love this icon. The symbolism of the icon, with its call for us to come to Christ through his mother and through the Scriptures, reaches into the heart of all mankind. Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Mother of the Church, please pray for us.



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