First Week: Jasna Góra in Częstochowa
September 2, 2009
I have been to Częstochowa every time I’ve come to Poland because my mom is from this city and I have family that lives here. However, it is a popular destination for others, too–whether they have family here or not. Częstochowa happens to be the national shrine of Poland and its religious capital. It also happens to be the third-largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, drawing millions of pilgrims from all over the world every year. Its monastery, Jasna Góra, is the country’s biggest shrine devoted to the Virgin Mary.
The monastery, founded by the Pauline order and dating back to 1382, houses the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, known as the Czarna Madonna (Black Madonna of Częstochowa) or Matka Boska Częstochowska (Our Lady of Częstochowa).
Pilgrims from all over Poland come to Częstochowa and walk straight up this alley, Aleja Najświętszej Maryi Panny (Alley of The Most Holy Virgin Mary) to pray in front of the icon of the Black Madonna in Jasna Góra.
We arrived in Częstochowa on August 26th, which happened to be the biggest Marian holiday in Poland: Matka Bostka Częstochowska, Królowa Polski (Holy Mother of Częstochowa, Queen of Poland). We went to visit Jasna Góra the next day in an effort to avoid the massive crowds (at times, hundreds of thousands of people).
The miraculous icon itself is kept in its own chapel, next to the basilica — Bazylika św. Krzyża Świętego i Nawiedzenia Matki Boskiej (The Basilica of the Holy Cross and Nativity of Mary).
Luke the Apostle is considered to be the artist of the painting and it is said that the wooden board on which he painted it was taken from the household of Jesus himself. The icon has been credited with many miracles throughout the centuries and was venerated by every Polish monarch — a visit to the monastery’s treasury, which showcases all the gifts they lavished upon the miraculous icon is proof enough. The most iconic gifts were the “robes,” which were designed to be placed on top of the painting. They have cut-outs for the face of the Virgin Mary and Child, as well as for their hands. There is a diamond robe, a sapphire robe, a ruby robe, a coral robe,… and they are interchanged periodically.
Jasna Góra is very special to me, personally. It inspired an entire semester’s worth of work. My designs for a silkscreened collection of drapery fabrics drew from the monastery’s architecture, the saturated colors of the icon tradition and its visual layering of texture (the wearing away of pigment as a metaphor for the passage of time), and the overall spiritual atmosphere of the place itself which I attempted to capture through specific color relationships.
As an accompanying piece to my drapery collection, I created a large, two-panel wooden piece inspired by the architecture of Jasna Góra. In making this artwork, I employed a very special Eastern European traditional technique of flattening wheat. My grandmother used to use this technique to create replicas of the Black Madonna. She taught my mother, who in turn, taught me. The stalks of wheat have to be boiled, split down the middle, and flattened with an iron against a wooden board. The result: thin, flat strips of what looks like gold. I then inlaid these strips into the birch boards. Here’s a picture of it on display at the Woods Gerry Gallery in Providence, RI.