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Our Lady of Częstochowa

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It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself, painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built. It has hung in this church for more than 600 years.

August 26 is the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland.

For more than 600 years, her tranquil face, scarred by assaults by arrow and sword, has looked out over a pilgrim-filled church built in her honor, on a hill called Jasna Gora, not far from Krakow. She has been through battles and wars, handed off from emperors to kings and hidden away in catacombs. People have prayed for her help, walked on their knees in pilgrimage to see her, and left their crutches behind after being cured of their ailments. Hundreds of miracles have been credited to this miraculous image and Our Lady of Częstochowa’s intercession over centuries.

A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.
A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.

For Poles, she is everything. She was officially proclaimed Queen of Poland in 1656 by King Jan Kazierz, who consecrated the country to the protection of the Mother of God. She has since been revered as protectrice and a symbol of Polish nationalism and religious liberty. Most parishes in Poland have shrines dedicated to her.

There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.
There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.

But the story of this miraculous image begins long before that.

It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself. It was painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built when he was apprenticing to be a carpenter with Joseph.

This is just the very beginning of the 19” x 14” miraculous portrait’s life.

  • Some say it was hidden away for years after it was painted to survive the siege of Jerusalem, around AD 70.
  • Then, in 326, Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem to find the relic. She brought it back to Constantinople for her son, who built a church near his palace for it.
  • Stories are told of residents carrying the painting through the streets of Constantinople to successfully repel an attack by the Saracens.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, coral necklaces and mementos of prayers granted.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, jewelry, medals, and mementos of prayers granted.
  • Later, Emperor Izauryn ordered many holy objects to be burned in the empire. His very own wife, Irene, hid the painting in the palace and began a tradition of passing the painting down from empress to empress in the court of Constantine.
  •  Through intermarriage of Russian royalty with those of Constantinople and later with Polish royalty, the painting found its way to the Belzki Castle, where it remained for 500 years.
  •  During attack by Tartars on Prince Ladislaus’s fortress in 1392, an arrow soared through the chapel window and struck the painting in the throat.
  • The scars on her face were made by a sword during an attack by the Hussites, a Christian movement of the King of Bohemia, in 1430. (By the way, attempts were made by artists to retouch the scars, but they always reappeared.)
At Jasna Gora
At Jasna Gora

Prince Ladislaus wanted to keep the painting safe from repeated invasions. He stopped in Częstochowa on his way to his hometown, and the horses could not move the carriage from its place. Twice, he dreamed that the painting should remain on the spot, a hill called Jasna Gora, or Bright Hill. This happened on August 26, 1392, and brings us to where we are today.

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Children celebrating their first communion before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa at Jasna Gora.

He built a chapel, a convent, and a cloister on the hill, entrusted the most pious monks to care for the painting.

More than 600 years later, the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa is still celebrated at Jasna Gora. As are the many miracles credited to her intercession.

Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

 


There is also a National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


This is not exhaustive or entirely accurate history of the miraculous image at Jasna Gora as many sources seem to copy and/or contradict each other.  However, this post meant to give a sense of the journey and impact of this relic and what it means to the people of Poland.

My primary source is a book of miracles attributed to Our Lady’s intercession called “The Glories of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora” by Marian Press, along with stories  on the websites Roman Catholic Saints, Holy Spirit Interactive, and others.

The Barn

This morning before I set off on my journey, a dragonfly appeared hovering above my windshield. I was in a parking lot in a shopping mall, nowhere near a field or marsh. And it hung there as began to drive, flying just a few inches ahead of me, like it was leading somewhere. It stayed with me for a good ten seconds, and disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared.

* * * * *

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“There’s a barn up here with a beautiful painting of Our Guadalupe on it. I want to stop and take a picture of it,” I said. Cheryl and I were careening down a four-lane highway in rural Calvert County, better known for conservative Republican farmers than a Mexican barn-painting Catholic.

“We should travel across the country and write a book called ‘Mary in America,” Cheryl said, going on to explain the coffee table book we could work on together. She’d take the pictures of the people, places and things – and I’d write the stories.

I spotted the barn and hung a U-turn, rolling to a stop on the shoulder with cars whizzing by. Cheryl leaned out the window with her camera.

“Back up a little,” she said.

I backed up and the 4-foot-high panel under the eaves of the red barn came into better view between a powerline and pole. There was Our Lady of Guadalupe in all her glory. Green robe covered with stars, bursts of light behind her, angels at her feet. The plywood was weathering. The artwork was beautiful.

Next the red barn was a line a pick up trucks, and I couldn’t see the house for the trees.

“Back up a little more,” she said.

As I inched backwards on the highway, I saw a pickup truck approaching along the shoulder in my rear view mirror. The truck was twice the size of my little hatchback, jacked up on enormous wheels with rack of spotlights affixed to the top like Mickey Mouse.

“Oh my gosh, it’s the person who lives here!” I say.

He pulls into the driveway and rolls down his window. Halfway.

“We’re admiring your Mary. Is it okay if we take a picture,” Cheryl says, as she hops out of the car and approaches the truck.

By the time I get there, she’s run closer to the barn, and I’m looking up at the man behind the wheel. The cab is lined in blue flame upholstery. He’s about 250 pounds with a day’s growth of a beard and short, curly blond hair. He’s not Mexican. He’s 100 percent Calvert County. White, male, and country.

“I’ve passed this Mary before on your barn and I had to stop this time,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, with a slight smile. His teeth were small compared to the rest of his body. “I asked a lady at my church to paint it for me. I saw what a wonderful job she had done before, so I asked her to paint Mary for my barn.”

He was warming up.

“I’d like to build a little structure to keep off the rain.,” he said proudly, “I used to have a light for it, but the kids kept running over it with the lawnmower.”

I laugh, and we introduce ourselves.

“I’m glad you like her,” he says.