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.
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.
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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