The Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland is the most popular Marian site located in Eastern Europe. For most of the last six centuries, Jasna Gora has been the most accessible major Catholic shrine in an area largely isolated from the rest of Catholic Europe by the Protestant churches in Germany and Bohemia and the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Ukraine. Because of this, a pilgrimage to see the monastery’s famous Icon of the Black Madonna became the alternative of choice for those in Eastern Europe who could not make it to other Catholic holy sites in the west. The arrival of the icon at the monastery in the 14th century also makes it one of the oldest major Marian shrines in the world.
The origin of the Icon of the Black Madonna is something of a mystery. According to legend, it was painted by none other than Luke the Evangelist, and the board on which it is painted was supposedly part of a piece of furniture from Mary’s house. Scholars who have studied the picture suggest that it is a later work, but in a style that obscures its geographical heritage or period of time in which it was created. In all likelihood it was painted sometime between the 5th and 10th centuries and probably came from the the Byzantine Empire.
One thing that is agreed upon is that the icon arrived in Czestochowa in 1382 AD. It was brought from Russia, where it was already a highly venerated object, by Prince Vladislav Opole. How Vladislav acquired it is not certain, but it was probably brought back as war booty. He provided funds for the establishment of a monastery in which to keep the Icon, and staffed it with Pauline monks from Hungary. By the end of the 14th century, the Jasna Gora Monastery was up and running and overflowing with curious pilgrims. Unfortunately, barely fifty years later, Czestochowa found itself in the path of the Hussite revolution. A natural target for the icon-hating Hussites, the town and monastery were overrun, and the icon severely damaged.
A few years later, an appeal was made to the King of Prussia while he was on a visit to the area. The icon was taken back to Prussia where it was restored and kept safe until things calmed down. It was returned in 1434 to great fanfare. However, this was not the end of trouble for the monastery. For the next two centuries it was intermittently caught up in the Wars of Religion that followed the Protestant Reformation. Massive fortifications were raised around the monastery to protect the icon. In 1655, a small band of monks and citizens defended the monastery against the vastly superior Protestant army of Sweden. Amazingly they beat back the invaders, who outnumbered them ten to one. The miraculous victory was attributed to the presence of the Icon of the Black Madonna.
As the legend of the icon grew, it was officially sanctioned as a Christian Shrine by the Papacy. In 1717 the Black Madonna was officially crowned as the Queen of Poland, and all subsequent monarchs of Poland were required to make a pilgrimage to Czestochowa to pay homage at Jasna Gora. During the communist years Jasna Gora became a spiritual center of resistance to Moscow, and was the sight of tremendous celebrations after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Today Czestochowa is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in Eastern Europe, and one of the world’s most visited Marian shrines.
The Jasna Gora Monastery is one of the most beautiful in Eastern Europe. Laid out on a hill in a densely built-out twelve acre square behind daunting 17th century fortifications, the complex includes the original Chapel of Our Lady, the main basilica which dates from the 1400s, a large monastic compound with cloisters, and numerous other outbuildings and gardens. The complex was built in stages over the better part of two hundred and fifty years. The main basilica is closely hedged in by the surrounding buildings, but the signature steeple tower is very visible, and as the tallest such structure in Poland dominates the monastery and the nearby town.
The spiritual focal point of the complex is the Chapel of Our Lady where the Icon of the Black Madonna is kept. The icon itself is a very old work that dates back at least a thousand years, if not far longer. It features the Virgin Mary in a black hooded robe holding the Infant Jesus clothed in red and clutching at a Bible. The term Black Madonna may refer to her clothes, or the dark reddish-brown complexion of the faces. Other decorations in the chapel include a tile mosaic copy of the Icon.
The Jasna Gora Monastery is located in the center of Czestochowa, approximately one hundred miles from Krakow. The city and region have a substantial tourism infrastructure geared towards the millions of pilgrims who come to the monastery each year, so visiting is relatively easy. The monastery is open daily from 5:00am-9:30pm. Admission is free but donations are highly encouraged. Web: www.jasnagora.pl (official website)
The Jasna Gora Monastery is \ Poland’s preeminent Christian shrine. However, just to the south is the town of Kalwaris Zebrzydowska, another popular Polish sacred site. Twice a year, during Holy Week and during the Festival of the Assumption, the city hosts the Passion Play of Kalwaris Zebrzydowska, a popular re-enactment of the Crucifixion.