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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Black Madonna of Czestochowa: One of the World’s Artistic Gems

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Citing this Work (MLA Formatting)
"Black Madonna of Czestochowa: One of the World’s Artistic Gems." GeoFact of the Day Blog. Wonderful World Blog Publishing, 2 July 2016. Web.

            Housed in the stately Jasna Gora (“Bright Mountain”) Monastery of Czestochowa (southern Poland), a bold gold frame above the altar borders a dark, dim, fifteenth-century painting: the Black Madonna (Our Lady) of Czestochowa (1434). It is an oil painting on wood and features a stunning accessory: an interchangeable “robe” frame covering encrusted with jewels. Attracting hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims annually for over six centuries (Karafilly 1998, H1), Poland’s famous Black Madonna has been replicated several times. One copy is found at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, another is found in Switzerland’s Hospice of the Great St. Bernard Pass (Duricy 2013), and others are found in various churches of England. Art historians and analysts have debated the significance and purpose of Black Madonna portraits. While Black Madonna portraits at Jasna Gora and other places worldwide might embody the resilient and generous spirit of Virgin Mary, these images have a wide variety of other meanings and symbolism as well.

Subject Matter and History
            The Black Madonna of Czestochowa features Virgin Mary (Madonna) and her miraculous son, Jesus Christ. Her right hand gestures towards Jesus, and Jesus’ left index finger points upward towards his mother. Like with many examples of Roman Catholic artwork, the subjects’ heads are surrounded by golden haloes – to presumably denote their important status within Christianity. Meanwhile, the bejeweled frame covering includes crowns atop the heads of Madonna and Jesus. Jesus is holding an ornately designed, thick book – this may or may not be the Bible. Just like the Bible, the history of this artwork is not exactly well-documented or properly dated in time. This artwork was legendarily created or inspired by St. Luke the Evangelist (DICI 2012; Duricy 2013; Karafilly H1), while it may really be painted in the fifteenth century. St. Helena – Constantine’s Queen Mother – allegedly found the portrait when she visited the Holy Land (fourth century), and then she brought it to the city of Constantinople. It could have eventually arrived in Poland, when St. Ladislaus obtained this masterpiece in the 1400s (Duricy 2013). Four famous examples of these bejeweled picture frame (“robe”) coverings existed over the years, being named after the dominant material adorning the surface: diamonds, rubies, pearls, and chain. The current robe overwhelmingly sparkles with diamonds (Rozanow 2010). There are at least seven total robes, and only two are on public display (Karafilly H2).

            After the 1400s, additional restorations took place. Art historian Ernst Scheyer conjectures that this painting was at least restored “in the nineteenth century and painted somewhat darker than previously.” The possible reasons why there is a “Black” Madonna – rather than white, as seen in many Western depictions of Madonna – are discussed in detail later below. Not everyone is pleased to venerate this Madonna image. In December 2012, she was vandalized with black paint (DICI 2012). This relatively recent case of vandalism is certainly not the first one; in 1430, Bohemian bandits stomped on and slashed the Madonna portrait; they also stole pilgrim’s votive gifts (Karafilly H1; Barham 2003, 330). A legend purports that these mischievous vandals ran away in horror when blood oozed out of the painting! Regardless of various cases of vandalism on her, the Black Madonna is said to have given miracles to the Polish people, who overcame invasive, dangerous groups such as the Swedes, Bolsheviks, and Nazis (Karafilly H1-2). Therefore, this gives hope to devout pilgrims that Madonna’s resiliency can help them overcome difficult times.

Style, Meanings, Symbolism, and Cultural Context
            Anyone including art connoisseurs and first-time Jasna Gora visitors may instantly notice Madonna and Jesus wearing solemn and/or stoic facial expressions. This could signify that Christian worshippers should humbly and seriously respect them – as Jesus’ salvation of humans from sin is an important and serious task. Madonna also has two noticeable long scars and one shorter scar on her face. These scars – left alone by restorers to reveal the Bohemian vandals’ inexcusable action (Karafilly H1) – can represent the painful sorrows of her son’s crucifixion, and/or the adversity she might have faced in raising a son who constantly challenged authorities in power. She seems to hold Jesus on her arm and on the left part of her chest. However, the not-quite-perfect shadowing of Jesus and the ripples in Madonna’s clothing results in him levitating against her body – rather than being visibly anchored to her.
Compared to some subdued Christian paintings, colors are relatively vibrant. Madonna’s and Jesus’ bright, light-gold haloes are interconnected to each other – essentially signifying the unconditional love and interconnectedness of their mother-son relationship. I and some other art analysts would argue that Madonna’s purple robe symbolizes royalty and dignity, while her hood could signify that she is protective, humble, and respectable. Jesus’ red robe could represent the blood he unfortunately shed when being crucified and dying for humans’ sins. The artwork’s lighting is peculiar in that Madonna has a bright spot on her nose while Jesus does not. Also, there may be two relatively dim light sources coming from opposite directions. From our view, the left side of Madonna’s face is lit, while the opposite is true in regards to Jesus.

            Visual-aid artwork in chapels, churches, synagogues, etc. helped illiterate worshippers understand main messages and tenets of the religion worshipped within these places. The diamond “robe” frame cover visually implies to Christians – even illiterate ones – that the subjects surrounded by jewels in this painting are meant to be revered for their immense importance in Christianity. A major component of Ancient to Medieval Art History is determining the styles and mannerisms of ancient societies’ artwork. According to Leonard Moss and other art historians and iconographers, the Madonna figure is “distinctly thirteenth-fourteenth century Byzantine in form” (Duricy 2013). Black Madonna of Czestochowa is a variety of Hodegetria iconography, in which Madonna is affirming – with her right hand – that her young boy is someone to respect and repent sins to. In an image caption contest, Madonna could be saying, “Look, everyone, my son right here is very important to Christianity.” Jesus might respond, “Yeah, but mom, you did the important task of giving birth to me and encouraging me to spread my message of salvation and love around the world!”

Theories of Why Madonna is Black
            The skin of Madonna and Jesus in this painting is darker in color than their skin in many Western Christian artworks. Plenty of art historians, scholars, and iconographers have contributed their theories in regards to this. Joan Carroll Cruz suggests a possible link to the Song of Songs: “I am black but beautiful” (Duricy 2013). However, she also notes that accumulated residue from candles may have darkened the figures’ skin color. Similarly, Charles Broschart suggests that flames and smoke from a shrine fire darkened this image. If the Black Madonna was indeed Byzantine in style, maybe their skin color is similar to that of Byzantine people’s skin color (ibid.). Barham, Stephen Benko, and Gustafson all propose that black Madonnas resemble Earth and fertility goddesses, such as Artemis, Ceres (Demeter), Hecate, Kali, Isis, Medusa, and Rhea (Barham 326, 328; Duricy 2013; Gustafson 2009, 15). She might also represent the darkness of rich, fertile soil or serve to be “an icon of the mystery of life and death that defies definition and speaks to the deepest layers of the human soul” (Gustafson 18).

            Throughout Europe, there is hardly a more populated pilgrimage site boasting a “mass of avid, hopeful humanity” (Karafilly H2) than the Jasna Gora monastery, featuring an artistic gem at the altar. Everyone is pointing fingers at each other: Jesus points up to his mother, Madonna hand gestures toward her son, and pilgrims arriving at Jasna Gora are fingering towards Jesus and the Virgin Mary in starstruck awe. With a rather gloomy yet brave facial expression, the Black Madonna hints at and displays her generosity, resiliency, and humility. While these characteristics are some that Christians easily attach to Virgin Mary, she represents a variety of other meanings, too – many of which orbit outside the Christian and religious realm.

            Supplementing the debate of what Christian figures such as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary looked like as humans thousands of years ago, there is plenty of debate as to why the Virgin Mary featured in the Czestochowa image has a relatively dark skin tone. Some theories are grounded in practicality: Madonna may resemble the physical appearance of Byzantine people (who lived in what is now the Middle East, Turkey, etc.), or maybe candle soot somehow contributed to the painting’s overall darkness. Other theories address spirituality: the Black Madonna is an Earth goddess, and/or she embodies the vitality that fertile soil gives to plants and consequently other life forms on Earth. Her importance is exemplified by the scintillatingly glamorous robe covering that she and a young Jesus may occasionally wear at Josna Gory monastery. Regardless of what the Black Madonna truly represents, Christian pilgrims come far and wide to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary in southern Poland.

Works Cited
Barham, Penny. “Black Madonnas.” Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology 11.3 (2003): 325. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Duricy, Michael P. “Black Madonnas — Our Lady of Czestochowa.” Black Madonnas. International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton, 5 Feb. 2013.

Gustafson, Fred. The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln. Einsiedeln: Daimon Verlag, 2009. Print.

Karafilly, Irena F. “Poland's National Icon: In times of trouble, Poles have often turned for help to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa - and today their faith and fervor are undiminished.” The Montreal Gazette: pgs. H 1-4. 1998.

“Poland: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa Vandalized.” Documentation Information Catholiques Internationales, 21 Dec. 2012. Web.

Rozanow, Zofia. "New Robes of Our Lady of Czestochowa." Sunday Catholic Weekly. Niedziela, 2010. Web.

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