The Sanctuary of the Virgin Mary at Czestochowa Mount has played a special role in the life and religiosity of the Polish nation. Pope John Paul II summarized it well during his several visits to Poland and to the Czestochowa Monastery. He said: “The Bright Mount is the sanctuary of our nation. . . . It is habitual for Poles to refer all their affairs to that place”(1979).

In 1991, the Pope said that the Czestochowa Mount has been a place “to which people came to experience freedom at the time of foreign oppression. By Mary’s side, they felt free.” In the 1960s, the Polish Primate Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski availed himself of the special status of the Czestochowa Mount by declaring it the spiritual center of the Great Novena preceding the celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Poland. As Cardinal Wyszynski himself admitted, the results surpassed his expectations: “It turned out that the Czestochowa Mount contributes the glue that holds the nation together.”

The special role of the Czestochowa Sanctuary is related to the fact that for many centuries, it has been the home of a painting of Our Lady believed to be miraculous. Again, John Paul II: many generations of Poles “have lived with an awareness. . . that from the Bright Mount she watches over the nation including its least prominent citizens. She has been the source of consolation in difficult moments, when the nation underwent trials and dangers”(1991).

I believe that the status of the Czestochowa Mount is due to two aspects of Polish religiosity: its strong awareness of Mary’s role in the narrative of salvation; and a specific attitude toward holy pictures among Poles. Both are related to the history of Polish Christianity.

It is often remarked, usually in a critical fashion, that Polish religiosity has a strong Marian component. There are legitimate reasons for that. While Poland was formally Christianized in 966, a more complete Christianization occurred over the subsequent two or three centuries. This was the period when devotion to the Virgin Mary was particularly strong in European Christendom. It was the time when theological discussions about the role of Mary in the salvation of humanity were particularly vigorous. Polish Catholicism became strongly permeated by this atmosphere of openness toward, and interest in, the Mother of God’s place in the history of salvation. The Protestant Reformation did not succeed in weakening the link between Polish religiosity and Mary the Mother of God. It might even be said that the Protestant critiques of Mary played a role in the rejection of the Reformation by Poles.

Polish Marian piety is of course grounded in an awareness of Mary being the mother of Jesus. In that capacity she became a mother for us all. Therefore, Marian religiosity in Poland created an attitude of trustfulness and of the publicly manifested “dependence” on Mary which are so characteristic of Polish culture. Mary is someone whom an ordinary person can trust and from whom he/she can expect help. In addition, Polish Marian religiosity “socializes” Mary in a certain way, or even “politicizes” her protective role. In their treatment of Mary the Poles anticipated Vatican II and Pope Paul VI’s statement about Mary’s role as the community’s defender, the community being the entire Catholic Church. Poles have also developed a sense of a special bond between Mary and their nation, and this is why on so many occasions they proclaimed her the Queen of Poland. The first such proclamation took place in 1656 in Lviv/Lwów, when King Jan Casimir vouched fidelity to Mary and said, “I hereby proclaim you my own patroness and that of my Nation.” In 1764, toward the end of the First Republic, the Polish Parliament declared: “The Polish Res Publica vouches reverence to the Virgin Mary and her miraculous image at the Czestochowa Mount, and it expresses gratitude for the graces which it has received owing to her mediation.”

Why did the Parliament mention not only the person of Mary but also the image of her in the Czestochowa Sanctuary? Here we touch upon the second aspect of Polish religiosity mentioned earlier: the role in it of the visual arts, especially of holy images. This in turn is related to the historical and geographical dimensions of our country. For over a millennium Poland existed at the border of two cultures. In borderline cultures, the preservation of identity—also through pictures—is important. During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the boundaries of Poland were also the boundaries of Christianity. It should be remembered that medieval (and Christian) Poland bordered on pagan Prussia and pagan Lithuania. Later, Islamic Tatars and Turks moved into parts of Eastern Europe. This situation encoded in Polish culture the conviction that Poland is “a bulwark of Christianity.” More accurately, however, Poland was a bulwark of Western Christianity. While in 966, the Polish Prince Mieszko converted his country to Latin Christianity, two decades later Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv converted his country (now Ukraine) to Byzantine Christianity. While Rome and Byzantium were part of one Church at that time (the split occurred in the eleventh century), they represented different cultural tendencies. The Latin culture that shaped Western Europe and non-Germanic Central Europe, i.e., Poland, was markedly different from the Byzantine culture that shaped Rus, or today’s Ukraine and Russia. These two countries also adopted certain political features of Byzantium. The differences were significant enough to bring about a cultural separation of Western and Eastern Slavs. However, as is usually the case with cultures that border on each other, a certain amount of give-and-take did exist between the two branches of Christianity. I believe that the prominent role of religious images in Polish Roman Catholicism is an example of such influences. The veneration of the visual works of religious art can be observed not only in peasant piety but also in some actions of the Polish Church hierarchy. I have in mind the religious practices of some Polish faithful that usually surprise Western visitors. One such practice is the popularity of pilgrimages to the churches and sanctuaries in which a particularly revered icon or sculpture is located. The people spend a considerable amount of time to have such pictures “crowned” by a special papal decree. Such is the origin of Cardinal Wyszyƒski’s decision to make a copy of the Czestochowa Madonna “peregrinate” around Poland as part of the Millenial Great Novena.

Let us now consider the question of whether it is appropriate to use painting and sculpture as attributes of Christian worship. Disputes about this issue occurred in the early Church, and they eventually resulted in a consensus well expressed by St. Basil of Caesarea: “Whatever words convey through the sense of hearing, pictures convey through the sense of sight.” In the Middle Ages the visual arts were of great assistance in instructing illiterate people about the basic truths of Christianity. They facilitated access to the dogmas of the faith, taught Church history, and reminded people of the saints. The Latin Church has followed this tradition without rekindling major disputes among its members. The iconoclasm of the Reformation was the first attempt to destroy this consensus.

However, it should be noted that in the view of the Church, pictures and paintings, even those located in churches, are ancillary to the Faith, and are a matter of private piety rather than of Church doctrine. Therefore, the Church hierarchy consider it appropriate to allow laymen to decide about the styles and forms of these religious images.

The situation has been different in the Byzantine Church. In the eighth and ninth centuries Byzantine Christianity went through the period of violent iconoclasm. It was assumed that the religious visual arts were forbidden by the Revelation. Eventually, the Church Councils accepted the validity of the view that to paint and venerate the pictures of Jesus and of the saints was legitimate. In the Byzantine Church, however, only two-dimensional paintings were allowed (no sculptures), and the forms which the paintings could take became subject to supervision by the Church hierarchy. There developed an entire theology of the icon. This theology made icons into something more than props in the teaching of the Christian faith. The icons became the instruments by means of which the truths of the Faith were disseminated. They became “windows to eternity” and were assumed to show us the true visage of Christ, Mary, and the saints, as they exist in glory to be known fully only after the resurrection. To use the expression of Russian theologian E. V. Troubetzkoy, icons are “theology in color.” They are authentic expressions of Faith. Hence the emphasis in the Byzantine Church on the rules and regulations concerning the authorship of icons and their format. These rules and regulations became part of the Tradition, and sometimes part of the Byzantine Church law. No such rules have ever existed in the Western Church.

What more, the Byzantine tradition has it that the icons not only represent the saints, but somehow make these persons “present,” they make the saints “present among us.” Byzantine Christianity teaches that when the faithful pray before an icon, they stand in the presence of whomever the icon represents. Thus it is suggested that icons acquire a quasi-sacramental role: they make visible that part of the invisible which they represent. An icon of Christ can be compared to the Eucharistic Bread and Wine. Eastern Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky wrote that the consecrated bread is the body of Christ to be consumed, while the icon of Christ is his body to be looked at and adored.

All this is amply present in Russian Christianity and in Russian Orthodox theology which followed the Byzantine patterns. How much of this theology leaked through to the Roman Catholicism of the Poles? Obviously, theology per se was not an influence. It is possible, however, that some of its practical manifestations, such as the forms of piety, traveled further west. The Byzantine tradition of piety can be seen in the implicit ascription to the Czestochowa icon of the power to bring Mary closer to the people. In 1983, John Paul II said that Mary “is present in a special way in the Czestochowa icon.” It should be noted that he used the word icon even though in Polish this word refers exclusively to the Byzantine pictures of Jesus and the saints, and never to religious paintings of the Western tradition. Indeed, many Poles feel that prayer before the Czestochowa icon intensifies their encounter with the Mother, who is also the Queen of the Nation. Accordingly, the motif of presence appears in many of the statements the Pope made in Czestochowa. During his first pilgrimage to Poland, the Pope said that Mary “expressed herself through this Image, through which her motherly presence in the life of the Church and of our nation was conveyed.” In 1983 the Pope spoke of “six centuries of her motherly presence in the picture so beloved by Poles.” In 1991 he said that Mary guarded the people from her Bright Mount in Czestochowa.

What does the pilgrim see in the Chapel of the Czestochowa Monastery? Paradoxically, the image of Our Lady is almost fully covered by a bejeweled “robe,” and only the face and hands are visible. When the robe is removed, what does one see? The picture is painted in tempera on a wooden board whose dimensions are 122.2 by 82.2 by 3.5 centimeters. The style of the painting is called „hodigitria“ in the Byzantine Church. It presents the Mother of God in a standing position, holding Infant Jesus in her arms. Mary faces the faithful directly and supports Infant Jesus with her left hand. Jesus’s right had is raised in a gesture of blessing, while his left hand holds a book. The faces of Mary and Jesus express pensiveness, as if they were gazing into eternity. There is also a measure of sadness in Mary’s face in particular. Her face is marked by two parallel scars. It is believed that they are traces of a fifteenth century profanation.

Why does this picture convey so much meaning to Poles? History provides a good part of the answer. This painting was already known in Poland in the fourteenth century; it is likely that it was acquired for the Jasna Góra Monastery at the time of its founding in 1382. However, who painted it and when remains a mystery. Historians have proffered various hypotheses but have not come to an agreement. Already in 1428 the painting was believed to be the work of St. Luke the Evangelist. It was also said to have been painted on the surface of the table used by the Holy Family for their meals. It was already greatly venerated at that time, and in 1430 its keepers spared no effort or money to glue together the damaged wooden boards and renovate the surface of the painting. 

However, it appears to me that history alone cannot fully explain the influence of that picture on Polish spirituality. One should rather invoke here the category of mysticism. A pilgrim standing before that painting experiences a mystical presence of Our Lady. Her sad and thoughtful eyes seem to convey both love and concern about that particular individual. Thus the icon can help produce an intensely mystical experience in those who approach it within the proper context. Obviously, such context is part of the expectations which the pilgrim brings with him/herself. But there is something else as well. The aesthetic power of the icon is considerable. The anonymous artist who painted the picture was obviously talented. A believer sees in the picture the fruit of the artist’s spirituality: God used the artist’s talent and spirituality to bring closer to us the love of the Mother of God. It appears to me that Polish piety with regard to Our Lady of Czestochowa is an answer to these gifts of God.


Sources: John Paul II’s speeches at Jasna Góra in 1979 and 1991 (available in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1979, 1991)

Polska Parafia w Houston

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