Black Madonna Icon Faces

This is translated from Polish that appeared on and titled ‘Dar wotywny Jagiełły’ and written by Fr. Jan Stanisław Rudziński OSPPE

The place and time of origin of the Miraculous Picture of Our Lady of Jasna Gora are still a matter of debate. It is generally accepted that the Picture was given to the Pauline Fathers of Jasna Gora after Władysław Opolczyk founded the Jasna Gora Monastery. It is historically certain that the Image was profaned and severely damaged in 1430 and then restored in Kraków. According to Mikolaj Lanckoroński in his work Historia venerande imaginis Beatae Mariae Virginis quae in Claro Monte in magna veneratione habetur (ca. 1517), the Miraculous Picture, after the masterly integration of the board and the repair of the painting, was then, by order of King Władysław Jagiełło, ‘decorated with gold, silver and jewels from the treasury of the Royal Majesty’. These decorations are the silver and gold plates that are still preserved. They cover the background and the circular halos surrounding the heads of Mary and the Child. They are decorated with a trimmed and engraved motif of a cloud frieze with a rayed sunburst. As is common in iconography, the number of these clouds and rays is symbolic. There are 56, corresponding to the traditional length of the Mother of God’s earthly life. The nimbus surrounding the head of the Infant Jesus contains 33 clouds and rays. This number corresponds to the length of Christ’s earthly life. In the upper part of the painting, the background – apart from the figures of Mary and the Child – is filled with four plates of irregular shape with engraved scenes of the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Child and two Passion scenes – the Flagellation and the Exaltation. These plates were made in Kraków and are an outstanding work of the Kraków goldsmith’s workshop of the 1530s.

 Following the spirit of Gothic art, which was fond of symbolic commentary, both the frame of the Image, which dates from that period and the engraved scenes on the gilded plates were enriched with ornaments and representations with cryptic content. The ornaments on the frame of the Image, which is formed by a thread of acanthus wrapped around a dry branch, have multiple meanings, according to the medieval interpretation of the world. It can be interpreted as both a positive and negative symbolic sign. The acanthus thread growing out of the gaping maw of a lion or masquerade was an abbreviated representation of the Tree of Life. Among other things, the Tree of Life was identified with the Tree of the Cross, the fruit of which was Christ bringing redemption to mankind. According to such symbolism, the withered, debarked Tree of the Cross or the leafless, knotted branches, seemingly dead, signified eternal life, in contrast to the living acanthus tendrils subject to the law of death. The acanthus, which wraps around a knotted branch on the frame of the Image of the Mother of God, belongs to the regular, ‘ordered’ world of flora and can be interpreted as a positive sign drawn from Marian symbolism. The combination of the dry and leafy branches evokes the typological symbolism of the Old and New Law, the Synagogue and the Ecclesia. It also contains an allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy of the stem that will grow from the trunk of Jesse, often formulated in the motto Virgo-Virga (Virgin-Branch). In this sense, the Virgin Mary descended from the tribe of David, is the new ‘branch’ from which Christ grows. She is the symbol of the Church and the Mother of the Church. A living branch of the lineage of the kings of Israel, wrapped around a dry branch – the Tree of the Cross – bearing eternal life. At the same time, this symbolism contains the idea of Mary’s collaboration in the Work of Redemption. The rhythmically recurring motif of the living and dry thread forms a continuous, closed ornament, which can be called Hortus Conclusus – ‘Closed Garden’. This theme was prevalent in Gothic art. “The Enclosed Garden”, in which the Virgin Mary reigns with the Child, often assisted by angels and saints, signified heavenly paradise in the direct sense and the mystical sense, referred to the notion of the Virgin Mary’s virgin motherhood – the Flower in the guarded garden that gave birth to the Saviour.

 The idea of Redemption is the motif of the symbolic representations on the two gilded panels covering the Image’s background. In the scene of the Annunciation, next to the figure of the Archangel Gabriel showing the Virgin Mary the ribbon containing the Angelic Salutation, the other end of the ribbon is held by an eagle in its beak with its wings spread wide. The eagle – regarded as the king of birds and worshipped in ancient cultures as the personification of deity and the sun – was identified in Christian symbolism primarily with Christ and the Church. It was a sign of the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Last Judgement. It imagined God’s power, might and love and heralded the victory of goodness and rebirth through baptism. The royal bird facing Mary in the scene of the Annunciation, therefore, signifies Christ concealing the power of the Divine Majesty through Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation to redeem humanity from original sin.

Complementing this allegory is the symbolic scene at the bottom of the composition, depicting a falcon hunting a hare. The falcon signifies goodness overcoming weakness, lust and sin, identified in medieval art with the hare. The scene of the Adoration of the Child also contains symbolic commentary. Below the figure of the kneeling Virgin Mary, adoring the born Child, the scene of hunting the hare, chased this time by a falcon and a dog, is once again depicted. In this setting, the dog can be interpreted as a symbol of faithful love and devotion, which help good to overcome evil and sin. Of particular note is the bird perched on the roof of the Bethlehem stable. It is a magpie taking flight, which has always had a negative meaning due to its inherent predatory qualities. It was a symbol of hypocrisy, lies, sin and Satan. However, its black and white plumage was sometimes linked with mourning and death. In such a role, she often appears in Italian art, accompanying scenes of Christmas as a foreshadowing of the passion and death of the newborn Saviour. And in this sense, as a tragic memento, it accompanies the scene of the Virgin Mary’s adoration of the infant on the pall of Jasna Gora. The two passion scenes – the Flagellation and the Entombment – full of dramatic expression and dynamism – depict the stages of the Saviour’s Passion preceding His death on the cross.