Who is 'the Black Madonna' and why is she so important?

Our Lady of Czestochowa Credit Catholic Church of England and Wales via Flickr CC BY NC SA 20 filter added CNA Our Lady of Cze?stochowa. | Catholic Church of England and Wales via Flickr CC BY NC SA 2.0) filter added.

Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the "Black Madonna," will be one of Pope Francis' primary stops during his visit to Poland at the end of this month for the global World Youth Day gathering.

The image, which has been crowned the "Queen of Poland" and is highly venerated throughout Europe, is almost a given stop for any Pope who visits the country.

Located in southern Poland, Czestochowa was the location of the 1991 global WYD gathering – the first major world event after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and which also marked the first time youth from Eastern European countries were able to set foot in the Western half.

In comments made to CNA in March, Cardinal Stanisalw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, noted how the WYD celebration this year falls on the 25th anniversary of the 1991 WYD at the Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine, which was a key year for the end of Cold War tensions.

"For the first time in history, young people coming from the Eastern countries, from beyond the Iron Curtain, took part in World Youth Day. It was the first time World Youth Day was a really a worldwide event," Cardinal Dziwisz said.

Now, 25 years later, Pope Francis will follow in his predecessors' footsteps, and will go to venerate the image during his July 27-31 visit to Poland.

He is set to visit the monastery of Jasna Gora, which houses the image, July 28, where he will offer Mass for the 1,050 anniversary of the baptism of Poland.

But while the image holds significant meaning for Europe and for Poles in particular, what is the story behind the Black Madonna?

Legend has it the image dates back to the time of the Twelve Apostles, and was painted by the hand of St. Luke the Evangelist, who is believed to have used a tabletop from a table built by Jesus during his time as a carpenter.

According to the legend, it was while Luke was painting Mary that she recounted to him the events in the life of Jesus that would eventually be used in his Gospel.

The same legend states that when St. Helen came to Jerusalem in 326 AD to look for the true Cross, she also happened to find this image of Our Lady. She then gave it as a gift to her son Constantine, who built a shrine to venerate it.

In a major battle with the Saracens, the image was displayed from the walls of Constantinople and the Saracen army was subsequently defeated, leading many to credit the portrait with saving the city.

The image eventually fell to the care of Charlemagne, who presented it to Prince Leo of Ruthenia (northwest Hungary). It was placed in the Ruthenian palace where it remained until an invasion in the 11th century.

Fearful for the fate of his city, the king prayed to Our Lady to assist his small army. The result, according to legend, was that a darkness overshadowed enemy troops, leading them to attack one another.

In the 14th century the image was transferred to Jasna Gora in Poland as an answer to a request made in a dream of Prince Ladislaus of Opola. The history of the image is better documented while in his care.

In 1382 Tartars invaded the Prince's fortress at Belz, and during the attack one of the Tartar arrows struck the painting and lodged in the neck of the Madonna. The prince, fearful that the image would fall into the enemy's hands, fled during the night and stopped in the town of Czestochowa.

The painting was placed inside a small church, and the prince later had a Pauline monastery and church built at the location to ensure the painting's safety.

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However, in 1430 the Hussites overran the monastery, attempting to take the image. In the process one of the looters took the painting and put it into a wagon and tried to drive away. But when the horses refused to move, he struck the painting twice with his sword. As he raised his hand to strike it again, he suddenly fell over writhing in pain and died.

Despite previous attempts to repair the scars from the arrow and the blows from the sword, restorers had trouble in covering them up since the painting was done with tempera infused with diluted wax. The marks remain visible to this day.

Later, in 1655 when Poland was almost entirely overrun by King Charles X of Sweden, only the area surrounding the monastery remained unconquered. Miraculously, the monks who lived there were somehow able to defend the portrait throughout a 40 day siege, and Poland was eventually able to drive out the invaders.

After the miraculous event, King John II Casimir Vasa crowned the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen of Poland, placing the entire country under her care and protection.

More recent stories surrounding the image involve the Russian invasion of Poland in 1920, holding that when the Russian army was gathering on the banks of the Vistula River and threatening Warsaw, they saw an image of Our Lady in the clouds over the city, prompting them to withdraw.

The image of Our Lady of Czestochowa gets its nickname "Black Madonna" from the soot residue which discolors the painting as a result of centuries of votive lights and candles burned in front of it.

Since the fall of communism in Poland, pilgrimages to the image have significantly increased.

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As many as 2.5 million pilgrims expected to gather in Krakow for this year's WYD event. While not all of them will join Pope Francis in Czestochowa, his visit will surely attract more pilgrims to the spot.

In his comments to CNA, Cardinal Dziwisz said that given the history of WYD and the Czestochowa image, this year's gathering is particularly significant for European countries, such as Ukraine, who are facing dramatic conflicts.

"We mustn't forget that the World Youth Day which took place in Czestochowa 25 years ago was the first with youth who came from the countries of the east. There were around 200,000, coming from Ukraine, from Russia and Belarus," he noted.

"For the first time, that event was truly global. We must help youth from the Eastern countries to come…above all from Belarus and Ukraine," he said, adding that while the Ukraine conflict makes travel in the region difficult, "we don't exclude anyone."

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