Over 90% of Poles are Catholics and hand in hand with their faith is their devotion to the Black Madonna.The Black Madonna is both a religious and patriotic symbol for Poles.
When Lech Walesa was leading the Solidarity movement in the 1980′s he always wore a badge of the Black Madonna on his lapel. Also the late John Paul II was devoted to Our Lady and had a special affinity with the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. He even donated the bullet holed sash he wore during the 1981 attempt on his life to the monastery.
Legend has it that the the picture was painted by St. Luke on the surface of a cedar table although scholars date the picture to about the 13th or 14th Century.
The picture is kept housed inside a fortified monastery on a small hill called, Jasna Gora. It is believed the picture was brought to Jasna Gora sometime in the 14th Century and although nobody knows when people began venerating the painting as an icon, it was already thought miraculous when it arrived in Poland.
The Black Madonna can be found inside a small chapel, the walls of which are covered by various votive offerings in the form of crutches prosthetics, religious plaques etc. At the end of the chapel is an iron fence beyond which is the picture itself. Only at certain times of the day is the silver curtain lifted to reveal the Black Madonna and it’s hard not to get goosebumps at the moment when the trumpet fanfare plays and the Black Madonna is slowly revealed to Her worshippers.
As the picture’s fame grew it also attracted other unwanted attention in the form of robbers. In 1430 a band of Hussites invaded the chapel and slashed the face of the Virgin Mary with a sabre. The picture was later repainted but the scars on the face of Our Lady were left as a memento.
News started to spread of the miraculous qualities of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa. When the sick or ill prayed to it for health, they often were healed. When Polish kings or monks prayed to it for military victories, they won. As thanks for one such victory against overwhelming odds, King Kazimierz crowned the Black Madonna as “Queen of Poland”.
The monastery itself is worth exploring. Jasna Gora is a maze of courtyards and a climb up the monastery tower is a “must” for a fantastic view of the monastery and the surrounding areas.
The photo on the right is the papal sash worn by Pope John Paul II when he was shot. The bullet holes and blood can still be clearly seen. The Pope offered the sash to the Black Madonna as well as a gold rose.
There are several museums inside Jasna Gora so if you want to see the Nobel Peace Prize medal donated by Lech Walesa or the touching votive offerings created out of bread by concentration camp survivors then a visit is well recommended.
Although there may not be much else to see in Czestochowa I think it’s a lovely town with a beautifully designed centre. The long central avenue is pedestrianised in the middle and is reminiscent of a Parisian boulevard, a feeling that is supported by the many pavement cafes and bars. This tree lined avenue extends in a straight line from the hill top of Jasna Gora to another church at the opposite end. With shops and restaurants on either side there is plenty to keep you occupied. Surrounding the monastery is a picturesque park where you can relax and watch the world go by.
Perhaps the most telling demonstration of the Poles’ love for the Virgin Mary is the annual pilgrimage that takes place in August.
Pilgrims from every corner of Poland descend onto Czestochowa to pay homage to Our Lady of Czestochowa. What makes this pilgrimage more remarkable is that the pilgrims walk to Czestochowa every step of the way. Many pilgrims come all the way from northern Poland which demonstrates their devotion to the “Queen of Poland”.
Most towns in Poland will have a group of pilgrims who make this journey each year. In the first two weeks of August you will often see colourful groups of (mainly young) people waving flags and singing on the road en route to their destination.
If you are driving past such a group, beep your horn and wave and you’ll be rewarded with 50 people beaming and waving at you….an instant feel good effect !
Once they reach the centre of Czestochowa they walk up the main boulevard with Jasna Gora directly above them. The atmosphere is always joyful as they reach the culmination of their journey.
Each town’s pilgrims arrive ar different times and days so there is almost a constant procession of newly arrived pilgrims for the first two weeks of August.
The Warsaw pilgrims receive the warmest welcome as it is always the largest group to arrive and is accompanied by representatives from the Polish Air Force, Navy, Army and war veterans.