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Tradition says that the portrait on display in the church in Czestochowa, Poland, is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, painted from life by Saint Luke. Others argue that the portrait is of Mary Magdalene.
According to tradition, Saint Luke, the “beloved physician,” painted a portrait of Jesus’s mother on the cedar wood table at which she took her meals. More than two centuries later, during her visit to the Holy Land, Helena (c. 247–c. 330), the mother of Emperor Constantine (c. 288–337), is said to have discovered the portrait and brought it to Constantinople. In the eleventh century, Saint Ladislaus (1040–1095), determined to save the image of the Madonna from the repeated invasions of the Tartars, took the portrait to Opala, Poland, the city of his birth, for safekeeping. Regrettably, not long after this move, a disrespectful Tartar’s arrow managed to find its way to the Madonna’s throat, inflicting a scar that still remains visible. In 1430, Hussite thieves stole the portrait and broke it into three pieces.
Of the more than four hundred images of the Black Madonna or Black Virgin known worldwide, the image of Our Lady in Czestochowa, Poland, has received the most contemporary recognition because of the personal devotion displayed toward this religious icon by Pope John Paul II (1920–2005). Pope John Paul, a native of Poland, prayed before the Madonna of Czestochowa in 1979, several months after his election to the chair of Peter, and he made subsequent visits in 1983 and in 1991. The reports of miracles and healings attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa (also known as Our Lady of Jasna Gora) down through the centuries are numerous, and they include greatly enhancing the ability of a small group of Polish defenders to protect her sanctuary from an army of Swedish invaders in 1655 and her apparition’s appearance dispersing an invading army of Russians in 1920. Records of such spectacular acts of intervention and dramatic cures are kept in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora, the monastery site in which the portrait was housed for six centuries.
An aspect of the painting that has puzzled many individuals upon viewing Our Lady of Czestochowa, as well as all the other portraits of the Black Madonna, is why she has such dark skin tones. Some scholars suggest that it wasn’t until the onset of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century that artists began to portray Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as having pale skin, blue eyes, and blond or reddish-blond hair. Before then, the holy family and the apostles were most often depicted as Semitic people with the dark skin tones characteristic of the Middle East. If the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was truly a portrait of Mary painted from life by the apostle Luke, he would surely have captured a woman with olive or dark brown skin and black or brown hair.
Other researchers, commenting upon the mystique of the Black Madonna, state that the Roman Catholic Church has not warmly embraced such depictions of the Virgin Mary because it regards such representations as actually paying tribute to the ancient goddesses and earth mothers, and thus perpetuating strains of pagan worship. Church scholars point out that Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris (Par-Isis, the Grove of Isis), was built in 542 on the site of a former temple dedicated to Isis, the Creatress, the “Giver of Life” in the Egyptian and Roman mysteries. Isis had been the patron goddess of Paris until Christianity replaced her with Saint Genevieve. Within the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, however, parishioners worshipped a black statue of Isis until it was destroyed in 1514.
Diana/Artemis, together with the other two preeminent goddesses of the East, Isis and Cybele, were represented as black madonnas. And before the people of the East bent their knees to Diana, Isis, and Cybele, they had worshipped the Great Mother in Sumeria as Inanna, as Ishtar in Babylonia, and as Astarte among the Hebrews. Most scholars agree that among the first images of the Black Madonna and her divine son were Egyptian representations of Isis and Horus.
The Black Madonna may also refer to Mary Magdalene, who in the traditions of some early Christian sects, such as the Gnostics, was the wife of Jesus. In one version of the events after Jesus’s death on the cross at the hands of the Romans, Mary Magdalene brought the cup used at the Last Supper—the Holy Grail—from Palestine to southern France, where it would eventually be guarded by the Knights Templar.
There is also a belief that Mary arrived in France carrying within her womb a child fathered by Jesus of Nazareth, and that this child became the progenitor for the royal family of France. For those who hold such beliefs, the Holy Grail is a metaphor for Mary Magdalene’s womb, which carried the true blood of Jesus in the person of his unborn son. Therefore, many of the depictions of the Black Madonna and Child throughout the regions of southern France and Spain may be regarded as images of Mary Magdalene carrying the infant son of Jesus, rather than the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus.