THE QUEEN OF POLAND
One of the most famous black madonna images is housed at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Poland, Our Lady of Czestochowa.
In this depiction, the Virgin Mary is shown as the Hodegetria (One Who Shows the Way). She directs attention away from herself, gesturing with her right hand toward Jesus. The Christ child extends his right hand toward the viewer as blessing while holding the gospels in his left hand.
It's good to pause here and consider all that entails. Perhaps it is not simply that Mary is saying, Jesus is the Way. After all, Jesus is the way of peace. The Christ child, birthed through her, holds mansions within mansions.
The origins of the icon and the date of its composition are unknown. After being badly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430 - the wooden boards that backed the painting were broken and the canvas slashed - Medieval restorers erased the original image and repainted it, softening Mary's features and (regrettably) making her nose more aquiline.
THE FOLKLORE OF HER ORIGINS
The legend of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is as grand as legends get.
It tells us the panel for the painting came from a table crafted by Jesus himself while working as an apprentice to his carpenter father, Joseph. After the crucifixion, his mother takes the table with her when she goes to live in the home of a disciple, St. John. It is upon the top of this table that St. Luke paints her portrait.
The portrait is discovered by Helena, the mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great, among a remarkable group of treasures, on a trip to Jerusalem.
The locations of theses treasures is revealed to Helena thought divine vision. Along with the table, she finds True Cross of Jesus, nails from the crucifixion, the crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29), the chalice known as the Holy Grail, and more.
Carbon dating disproves the story, but surely the heart wishes to believe.
Surely the Black Madonna is so large, so vast, so unending in her love, she can hold this story for us.
The legend continues that Helena returns the painting to Constantinople, where it remains in a church until the eighth century. Threatened by war, it is carried for safekeeping to Eastern Poland.
In 1382 the Tartars invade but fail to discover the portrait when a mysterious cloud envelopes the chapel. Later, a local prince is ordered in a dream by an angel to take the picture to an insignificant, obscure village named Czestochowa.
A separate legend tells how the icon is being transported for safekeeping when it is stored overnight in Czestochowa’s monastery of Jasna Gora. On the following morning, when the image is returned to the wagon, the horses refused to move—a miraculous sign, it is thought, that it should remain there.
In another version, the balking horses are those of invading Hussites who in 1430 are attempting to take the icon. When the horses unaccountably stop at the village limits, however, the Black Madonna is abandoned.
There are many black Madonna icons that are claimed to be the original and all share a common set of recurring motifs including the refusal of an image to leave a certain spot, divine resistance, revenge taken for damage done.
Her Slashed Face
Myth is important.
We find ourselves in myth - especially religious myth - but when I look at the face of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, I see her sadness and I see her scars.
The slash marks.
The remainder and reminder of aggression and violence.
It is there, in that place of wounding and survival, where she speaks to me.
She speaks to me of all the women of the world who labor, who are beaten, who are sacrificed, who are ignored.
The women waiting at bus stops, the women on their hands and knees, the women who cry alone into the night.
Hers is a face that was erased and re-written. She was re-designed, made more pleasing for the viewer's gaze.
And yet, she remains.
Her essence remains.
The Black Madonna endures through violence and intolerance and rises for us as a medicine for our own hearts, weary from the violence and intolerance in our lives.
She looks at us through the scars.
We see her through the slashes.
Her eyes hold so much sorrow. Hers. Ours.
Sorrow of the world and for the world.
She is covered in soot. Centuries of votive candles burning in front of the painting have left their mark as dark residue. Centuries of prayers so earnest, they discolored her skin.
For centuries, there have been reports of miracles - spontaneous healing in front of the painting.
The heart wonders if it is the concentration of prayer - one candle flame after another burning - that bring on the healing, the same way the heart loves to imagine the young Jesus building the table, his mother carrying it with her to her new and grieving home, Luke painting her image, Helena waking in the night startled and inspired.
We are the scarred and grieving woman.
We are the century of prayer.
We are the dark soot, making our mark.
For Your Journal
Where have I been damaged? Where am I wounded?
Where have I damaged others?
Where are my scars and what do they reveal?
Come share your thoughts in Creating With the Sacred Feminine.