The Black Madonna of Czestochowa (pronounced Cheez-toh-ho'-va) is Poland's holiest and most important relic. This icon of the Virgin Mary with darkened skin and two scars on her face has a long and mysterious history. Jasna Gora monastery, near Katowice, is responsible for keeping this religious treasure safe.
The Black Madonna icon in Czestochowa is said to be painted on a panel that came from the table used by the Holy Family, or a copy of the original panel painted by Luke the Apostle. Unfortunately, dating the work precisely has confounded experts; restoration attempts have rendered discovering the exact century in which the icon was originally painted almost impossible. Experts say the icon could date from the 6th century to the 14th century.
Scholars do know that the Black Madonna originated in Ukraine and was brought to southern Poland by a prince and a band of monks in the 14th century. The monks set up the monastery there, and the monastery grew around this holy relic into the complex it is today.
The dark tones of the Black Madonna's skin are attributed to a legend that describes a fire that damaged the monastery but left the icon unscathed except for the discoloration of the pigments of the painting.
Czestochowa's Black Madonna, besides being connected with the Holy Family, is significant for the miracles that are attributed to it, and, subsequently, the cult of followers that has developed in Poland due to its powers.
In Polish culture, the Black Madonna is said to have repelled invading Swedes, cured illnesses, and thwarted robbers by becoming so heavy the icon could not be lifted by the thieves.
Pilgrims visit Czestochowa to pray to the Black Madonna, and some walk many miles from their home cities and towns in order to do so. The monastery complex has established quarters for visiting pilgrims, and on important feast days, the monastery becomes crowded with thousands of people.
Those who come to see the Black Madonna are lucky if the crowds are thin enough to see the icon without a long wait. A special corridor for tourists surrounds the main chapel where the Black Madonna is kept, visitors follow this corridor behind the icon and come out on the other side.
Those who want to see the icon must look carefully and be prepared, however. The Black Madonna is small, and her location at the center of the back of the chapel can be difficult to pick out for someone who doesn't know what he's looking for. Some tourists have complained that they didn't see the Black Madonna at all, even though they followed others around and behind the chapel.
Photos are permitted, but flash is not. As you view the Black Madonna, be sure to take note of the icon cover currently on display, this changes with the occasion. The jeweled covers are examples of rich artwork and images of the Black Madonna “wearing” all of them can be purchased in the monastery's gift shop. Also, take note of the amber rosaries that hang from the wall around the chapel and add a warm glow to the already rich surroundings.