This article originally appeared in Polish at brewiarz.pl
Jasna Góra has a primary and privileged place among the numerous shrines in Poland. It is visited annually by between one million and two million pilgrims. They come to pray before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, famous for its many graces and permanently inscribed in the history of Poland.
The first and earliest document about the miraculous image is a Latin manuscript in the monastery’s archives. In this manuscript, we read:
The author of the icon is St Luke the Evangelist. At the request of the faithful, he painted the image of Mary with the Child on the top of the table where she sat. Emperor Constantine had the icon moved from Jerusalem to Constantinople and placed in a temple. There, the icon became famous for its miracles. Charmed by the miraculous image, the Ruthenian prince Leo, who remained in the Emperor’s service, begged Constantine to give him the icon. He transferred it to his principality and had it richly decorated.
The painting again became famous for its miracles. During the war waged in Ruthenia by Louis of Hungary, the painting was hidden in the Bełz castle. After Ludwik surrendered the castle, the king’s governor, Duke Władysław Opolczyk, seized the painting. During the siege of the castle by Lithuanians and Tatars, an arrow fell into the castle. It struck the right side of the image. Then the enemies were surrounded by fog, terrifying them. The prince rushed out at them with an army and crushed them. When he wanted to carry the icon back to his duchy, despite a large number of horses, the icon would not budge. Then the prince vowed to put up a church and monastery where he would place the painting. Then the horses moved slightly and took the painting to Jasna Góra. He placed it in the church, where the image again shone with miracles.Translatio tabulae Beatae Mariae Virginis quam Sanctus Lucas depinxit propriis manibus (Transmission of the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which St Lucas painted with his own hands)
The quoted document dates from the first half of the 15th century and may have been transcribed from an earlier document. Tradition has it that the icon was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on a table board from the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth. The icon was supposed to have been transported from Jerusalem to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine. Serving in the imperial army, the Ruthenian prince Leo wished to bring the icon to Ruthenia. The Emperor gave him the image; from then on, the painting was held in great veneration in Rus. The image may have reached Rus from Constantinople, as there was lively contact between the Byzantine Empire and Rus in the 11th to 14th centuries. It is also not impossible that an arrow wounded the painting during a battle. During the war waged by Casimir the Great and Louis the Hungarian in Rus, the painting was hidden in the castle of Belz. In 1382, Prince Władysław Opolczyk found it there. Having experienced many graces through the intercession of the Mother of God, the prince took the painting and brought it to Częstochowa.
The original Jasna Gora painting may have come from the 7th century so it would have been one of the world’s oldest images of the Mother of God. Analysis of the painting shows a strong resemblance to the images that Byzantine monks painted in Crete. In this case, the painting could have originated in the 10th century. From here, it could have found its way to Constantinople.
After World War II, another document was found at Jasna Gora, dating from 1474. It contains a more extensive description of the history of the miraculous painting, but it is full of legends. However, we also have a document of the utmost importance: two works that came from the pen of Jan Długosz (1415-1480). He lived in times that closely relate to the miraculous image – so he may have witnessed some of the events. Dlugosz writes about the miraculous image of Częstochowa several times.
Prince Władysław Opolczyk brought the Pauline monks to Częstochowa from Hungary. He gave them the wooden parish church in Old Częstochowa. Dlugosz gave us the exact act of relinquishment of this church by the then parish priest, Henryk Biela, to Father George Prior of the Pauline monastery in Buda, Hungary. Dlugosz reports that the act of transfer took place on 23 June 1382. On 10 August of that year, Prince Opolczyk wrote the decree to hand over the endowment he had granted to the monastery in Stara Częstochowa.
These donations must have been insufficient because on 24 February 1393, Prince Opolczyk renewed the act of endowment by his proxies. They were: the Cracovian Spytko of Melsztyn and Jan Tarnowski of Sandomierz. Długosz lists in detail what these endowments and benefits were. We also learn about the state of the monastery and church at the time.
The first pilgrims soon began to flock to the painting, experiencing many graces, from praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In time, they began to bring their votive offerings here. However, these also attracted thieves. At Easter 1430, two Polish lords and a Ruthenian prince attacked Jasna Góra. To cover their tracks, they used Hussite bands raiding in Silesia. At that time, the monastery was already famous for the miraculous graces received through prayer to Mary, depicted in the image of Jasna Gora. The attackers thought the monastery contained great wealth and treasures, as the shrine drew crowds of pilgrims to it for Marian feasts. When it became apparent that the monastery’s furnishings were relatively modest – they stole liturgical vessels and vestments, chalices, crosses and ornaments. The gold and jewels pious pilgrims had decorated the miraculous icon with were also stripped from it. Finally, they cut Mary’s face with a sabre.
At the request of the Pauline monks, King Vladislovas Jogaila allowed the damaged and desecrated painting to be taken to Krakow and entrusted its restoration – at his own expense – to court painters. It is believed that they came from Ruthenia and specialised in Byzantine art. They attempted to repair the painting and restore it to its original state. However, they applied paint using a new technique (tempera), which the old painting did not accept. This was because they were unfamiliar with the ancient encaustic technique used in Old Christian and Byzantine paintings, with which the original image was made. In this situation, either a faithful copy of the previous painting was made first, or one of the existing copies was reproduced. The work took a long time, perhaps as long as two years. This testifies to the great care with which they restored the icon. To emphasise their fidelity to the original, the artists even left traces of the wounds inflicted on the Virgin Mary in the original painting. They also kept the same boards on which the original was painted, although this cost them much extra effort.
However, the decoration of the robes was changed. The Angevin lilies on Mary’s mantle allude all too clearly to the coat of arms of the Angevin King Louis of Hungary. A book was probably also added to the infant’s hands. Only traces of the 1430 attack remain on the icon today. These are two parallel sword cut marks on Mary’s cheek, cut by a third inline with her nose. Also, there are several similar minor cuts on her neck (two more visible, the other four less so).
The books of the Częstochowa monastery confirm the extraordinary facts associated with the miraculous image. They were meticulously recorded in a separate book of graces. The oldest preserved description of miraculous healing comes from the year 1402. The fame of the Jasna Gora icon is also evidenced by the fact that copies were already being made. In 1390 Glogowek had one, in 1392, distant Sokal, and in 1400 even further Lepogolov in Croatia.
Polish kings and princes, such as Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (1448 and 1472), St. Casimir the King (1472), and St. John of Nepomuk (1448), prayed at Jasna Góra many times. Casimir the King (1472), Sigismund I the Old (1510 and 1514), Stefan Batory (1581), Sigismund III Vasa (1616, 1620, 1630), Ladislaus IV (1621, 1633, 1638, 1642, 1644, 1646), Jan Kazimierz (1649, 1656, 1658, 1661), Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1669, 1670), Jan III Sobieski (1676, 1683), August II Sas (1704), August III Sas (1734).
In 1655 the famous defence of Jasna Góra took place. On 9 November 1655, Count Wejhard approached Jasna Góra with 3,000 soldiers and demanded absolute surrender. The Prior of the monastery, Fr Augustyn Kordecki, refused. So the siege began. On 19 November, General Burhardt Miller and Colonel Waclaw Sadowski arrived. The siege lasted until Christmas, so over a month. Fr Kordecki had 160 soldiers and 70 monks at his disposal. Stefan Zamojski and Piotr Czarnecki commanded the defence of the monastery. Miller used the heaviest cannons to smash the monastery, church, and surrounding walls. He shot three hundred forty cannonballs weighing six or even twelve kilograms. Inspired by the defence, the nation rose in resistance. This forced Miller to leave Jasna Góra on the night of 27 December. He attempted to return and launch a surprise attack on 24 and 28 February and then on 9 April 1656, but without success.
The present image of the Mother of God, painted on a wooden board, ranks among the Byzantine icons known as Hodegetria, which means “the one who points the way”. The painting (measuring 122.2 x 82.2 x 3.5 cm) is set on three lime boards glued together, to which a 2-3 mm thick chalk mortar has been applied. The icon itself was painted in tempera on canvas. It depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary standing with the infant Jesus on her left arm. The Virgin Mary is wearing a red gown and has a blue cloak over it, decorated with Angevin lilies. Mary’s right-hand rest on her breast. Jesus is clothed in a crimson-coloured dress, richly gilded with ornaments, with the sleeves tightly clasped at the hands – just like Mary’s. He holds a book in his left hand while he raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing while pointing to Mary. The entire field of the halo of Mary and Jesus is filled with gilding. The background of the painting is green, which in the symbolism of Byzantine paintings, often expresses the fullness of the graces of the Holy Spirit. The Child of God has bare feet, which stand out against the richness of his robe. The mantle also covers the head of the Blessed Virgin as if with a veil. A golden star can be seen above the forehead on the mantle. The border of Jesus’ robe and Mary’s mantle has a wide gold border. Mary’s mantle has additional decoration in the form of artistic lace. In front of both figures, artistic and ornate robes and crowns decorated with precious stones are placed.
The Jasna Gora icon was restored several times. The first time was probably in 1682, in preparation for the 300th anniversary of the painting’s arrival. At that time, an unknown painter signed J.K. pinxit indignus servus, painted an oil painting depicting the history of the miraculous image. He placed this painting on the back of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. However, he did not carry out any conservation work on the painting itself. It was only done in 1705, twelve years before the coronation, by the monk Makary Szybkowski. On this occasion, he also repainted with oil paints the mantle and robe of Mary and the Infant; he also hammered 28 brass stars into Mary’s mantle. These were only removed by Professor Jan Rutkowski when he carried out a scientific examination of the painting and its thorough restoration in 1925-1926. In doing so, he also removed oil paint that others had applied in later years and soot from the faces of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. He also removed traces of nails nailed to the boards to attach the silver and gold dresses. He cleaned the boards of vermin and cavities caused by decay. The picture frames were also cleaned and protected. Between 1948 and 1952, a scientific examination was carried out using the most modern means. They took an X-ray. The painting was examined under a microscope using micropaleontological and mineralogical criteria. Finally, a technological and artistic-formal evaluation was carried out. The image was hidden during the Second World War (1939-1945). It, therefore, required another restoration. Conservator R. Kozłowski carried out the work.
It has long been the custom to adorn miraculous images of Mary with crowns. The first papal coronation of the Jasna Gora image took place in 1717. The crowns were donated by King August II the Strong himself. The Primate’s brother, Bishop Krzysztof Szembek, performed the coronation on 8 September 1717. The Bishop of Vilnius and the Bishop of Livonia were also present. The painting was carried from the church to the Knights’ Hall in solemn procession. There the papal decree was read, and crowns were brought. The painting was then carried solemnly into the church amid prayers, chants and cannon salutes. This was followed by the rite of imposition of the crowns and Holy Mass. After lunch, Vespers was celebrated, and the image was transferred from the church to the chapel. There the Litany of Loreto and Te Deum was sung. On the occasion of the coronation, costly vestments were placed on the image of Our Lady, made by the goldsmith Brother Makary Szybkowski. He made three gowns for the various ceremonies: dark blue embroidered with diamonds, blue with rubies, green with pearls, and various precious stones.
From 1817 onwards, solemn celebrations began to mark the coronation anniversary. In 1909, on the night of 22 to 23 October, the monk and priest Macoch stole the crowns from the image of Our Lady, the pearl robe and many valuables. He combined the sacrilege with the murder of an accomplice. For this, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Pope St. Pius X donated the new crowns for the coronation, which took place on 22 May 1910.
In 1957, following an appeal by Primate Stefan Wyszyński and a resolution of the Polish Episcopate, Poland began the Great Novena to prepare the whole nation to celebrate the millennium of Mieszko I’s baptism (966-1966). At the same time, a peregrination of a copy of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Czestochowa was ordered through all dioceses and parishes. The peregrination began on 26 August 1957 in the Archdiocese of Warsaw. Exactly one year earlier, on 26 August 1956, 300 years after the vows of King Jan Kazimierz, made in front of the picture of Our Lady of Grace in Lwów on 1 April 1656, the Polish Episcopate, in the absence of the imprisoned Primate Wyszyński, in the presence of about one million faithful, solemnly renewed those vows. On 5 May 1957, these vows were renewed in all Polish churches. The vows of King Jan Kazimierz were his personal commitment, while the Jasna Gora vows became the commitment of the whole Polish nation as a programme of the Christian life, set by the Great Novena before the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland.
The painting’s most famous and solemn coronation occurred in 1966 as part of the celebrations of the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland. It was performed by the Primate of the Millennium, the Servant of God Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. He was a great devotee of Our Lady of Jasna Gora, devoted to Her with filial trust. He was the founder of the Lay Institute of the Helpers of Our Lady of Jasna Góra, Mother of the Church, now operating under the name of the Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Institute.
The miraculous painting is held in great veneration by the Polish people. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła – Pope John Paul II – also prayed in front of it many times. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people every year come to the Shrine of Jasna Gora for Marian ceremonies (especially on 15 and 26 August), often walking pilgrimages for many days.
Today’s celebration originated from the initiative of Blessed Honorat Koźmiński, who, after the fall of the January Uprising, tried to unite the nation around the Queen of Poland – Mary. With the then Prior of Jasna Góra, Fr. Eusebius Rejman persuaded St. Pius X to establish the feast of Our Lady of Częstochowa in 1904. Pope Pius XI extended this celebration to the whole of Poland in 1931. He approved a new text of the Mass and breviary.