The depiction of Madonna with Jesus is painted with tempera on primed canvas board sized 137 x 97 cm (including the frame) made of three 3.5 cm wide glued limewood boards. The oval of the Madonna's face, depicted from a front-view, draws attention, distinguishing itself by a long and narrow nose, small but prominent lips, and penetrating, wide-set eyes under expressive eyebrows. The half-closed heavy eyelids make the face seem melancholic. The almost dramatic feeling is evoked by clearly visible, reddish 'cuts' - two longer slashes going almost parallel to each other through Mary’s right cheek towards her neck, cut by several smaller 'scars'. With her raised right hand, the Madonna seems to point to her young son, whom she holds with her left arm. The seated figure of Christ, depicted in three fourths, holds a closed book in his left hand, extending a blessing gesture with his right hand. Most intriguingly, the tone of her skin is dark, striking many critics and observers as a more realistic depiction than the icons typically presented by the Church.
Although there is no eye contact between the son and the mother, the union of these two figures is clearly emphasised by various painterly elements. The golden halos that surround their heads almost merge into one form, the subtly painted complexion of Mary and Christ are of the same dark shade of ochre and umber colours illuminated with reddish gleams of light. The deep dark blue of the mother’s coat corresponds with the colour of the cover of a book held by the son, the light carmine of his robe is reflected in the darker shade of the same colour of Mary’s coat lining, the robes of both figures are trimmed with a golden band and ornamented with golden pattern - the mother’s robe with a motif of heraldic lilies and a six-wing star, and the child's with three kinds of rosettes.
According to reliable sources, which reach back to the second half of the 15th century, including historical works by Jan Długosz, the painting of Madonna was brought to Poland by a founder of the Pauline Fathers Monastery at Jasna Góra - Władysław Opolczyk, Duke of Opole. Then owner of the Land of Wieluń where Częstochowa is located, Władysław Opolczyk is said to have donated the painting to the Pauline Fathers in 1382 - at the exact moment of founding the monastery, or soon after. Various legends about the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, recorded down since the first quarter of the 16th century, have it that the Duke obtained the painting in Bełz located in the Halicz Ruthenia territory. There, from 1372 to 1377, Władysław Opolczyk was a governor of Louis the Great, King of Poland and Hungary. When it arrived to Bełz castle, the painting had already been renowned for bringing about miracles. Once the paining had been in possession of Lev, Duke of Halicz Ruthenia, who, in turn, had brought it, directly or indirectly, from Constantinople itself. The painting had been brought there by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine or his mother – Saint Helen. It had reached the Bosphorus as a worshipped relic. The 'true' image of Mary was painted by Luke the Evangelist on a cypress table board, which came from her house in Nazareth. Other legends have it that Madonna’s face was created with the help of the heavens themselves.
According to the legends, the painting of Madonna miraculously chose the place of its location itself - a wooden church atop a limestone hill - which Duke Władysław saw in his dream. The majority of tales talk about a dramatic event that occurred during the painting’s first years in Częstochowa. In spring 1430 the Monastery at Jasna Góra, grown rich thanks to donations made by the pilgrims in tribute to the painting , was plundered by greedy robbers. They were said to have robbed not only the monastery, but the painting as well, which had been 'dressed' in valuables and then destroyed it – they broke the board into three parts and hacked Mary’s face with a sabre. Distressed over the painting’s destruction, the Pauline Fathers brought it to Kraków and asked King Jagiełło for help. The king had shown his respect for the monastery at Jasna Góra and its painted palladium before. There, another miracle occurred. First, the painting was unsuccessfully repaired by local painters as the paint kept flowing from the painting. Next, masters who arrived “with the Emperor’s letters” were employed, but their efforts also ended in failure. Only the third attempt was successful. They managed to put the painting together "but no skills allowed them to efface the scars on [Mary’s] face". The restored painting, decorated again with jewelry, was brought back to Jasna Góra.
For over 150 years scholars have been working to study these legends in order to answer the complex and mysterious question of the time and place of the Black Madonna’s creation. In spite of critical analysis of the existing written sources, the painting style, as well as results of technological tests carried out during several conservations performed in the 20th century, the scholars’ opinions are far from unanimous. In general, it is assumed that the Madonna of Częstochowa follows one of the Eastern, Byzantine traditions of Virgin Mary’s representation – so called Hodegetria, which depicts Mary from the front pointing to Jesus, who offers a bleessing. Many scholars have noticed a relationship between the motif of the hollowed board’s surface (its internal frame and the figures’ halos are raised a few millimetres over its other parts) and the iconographic type of Mary’s representation in iconic paintings. Prototypes for the painting were researched through Constantinople’s early medieval works to late Medieval Balkan art. However, the slight turn of Mary’s head towards the child, which is not common in the East, as well as the softly modelled and ornamented robes of the figures rather suggest the tradition of Latin Western art. Whereas the subtle moulding of dark complexion of both Mary and Jesus correspond with the Italian painting of the 14th century, in particular with works by Simone Martini who came from Siena ( he died in 1344).
Acknowledging the Italian features of the Jasna Góra painting, many scholars simultaneously highlight the fact that the painting needn’t have been created in Italy. It could have been painted by an artist who came from Italy, or who was educated there, or who followed the Italian traditions but worked in the territory of transalpine Europe. The painter was said to work in one of the Central European countries. Some scholars mentioned Czech, where during the reign of King Charles IV art was thriving, including the painting of 'icon-like' depictions representing the upper part of Mary with the Child. Others indicated Hungary under the reign of Louis the Great from the Angevin dynasty, who developed close relations, not only of a political nature, with Italy and who was known to have founded several paintings of an Italian artistic expression. In this context, it is worth remembering that Władysław Opolczyk remained in close relations with Louis the Great, e.g. as a palatine of the Kingdom of Hungary, and that the Pauline Fathers were mostly probably brought to Częstochowa from the surroundings of the Hungarian capital Buda.
Without a doubt, the painters from Kraków contributed to the final artistic expression of this complex, unique and well-balanced depiction of Madonna of Częstochowa, which can be defined as an alleged Eastern prototype interpreted in the spirit of Italian Trecento. However, it was in Kraków that the painting obtained additional artistic expression. As some scholars believe it was partly repainted and supplemented with a frame decorated with plant motif, or as others claim it was created anew and modelled after the destroyed original paining. Also, the local cult and Polish devotion influenced the final look of the painting. For contemporary viewers of the painting, the figures of Mother and Son have 'always' been framed with gilded plates of the background and haloes (in fact they come from the 15th century), dressed in 'robes' ornamented with precious jewels (15th – 20th century), with golden crowns (from 1910) on their heads.
Matka Boska Częstochowska / The Black Madonna of Częstochowa
12th – 15th century (?)
Tempera on board, size: 137 x 97 cm (including the frame)
Southern and Central Europe (?)
The Pauline Fathers at the Jasna Góra in Częstochowa
Author: Paweł Freus, October 2010. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, December 2010.