Anne Maria Clarke
I first visited the church of the Holy Spirit in Warsaw’s historic, reconstructed old town at Christmas time. It was here that I saw my first ever Black Madonna. I had read about her of course and seen pictures but I was not expecting to just duck into a random church, escaping snow and sub-zero temperatures in Poland to be confronted by her iconoclastic presence. But this is how it started, the pilgrimage to Czetochowa that is – all rather haphazardly.
I was just going about the normal business of being a tourist, charting my sightseeing course around the city, when out of the blue I was caught and reeled in. But the capture of my imagination was subtle – I wasn’t held against my will and after a few brief moments of surprise and fleeting wonderment, I slipped back into the snow and on to a warm bar to drink hot honey wine with friends.
But the Black Madonna hadn’t finished with me – and when in the summer of the following year I returned to Warsaw with my husband, she was waiting – with an irresistible story to tell. Several days after our arrival we found ourselves back at the same church but whereas before we had been trying to escape the cold, this time we were trying to escape the heat. We didn’t know it then, but she was not the only Black Madonna in Poland and not the most famous.
Throughout much of the twentieth century Poland was a country swinging between widely opposing extremes. Between great dignity and subjugation, great poverty and abundance, autonomy and occupation, communism and capitalism and as I personally experienced, between freezing temperatures and maddeningly hot summers. On that particular day the temperature was nearly thirty-eight – just five degrees below that of Cairo.
There is a lingering pain in Poland’s collective soul. In 1943 and ’44, following the heroic, yet ultimately thwarted and failed Jewish and National Uprisings,
‘the Nazi’s systematically destroyed almost the entire city, killing and displacing 700,000 people – almost half the total of Warsaw’s inhabitants.’ And this after mercilessly dispatching 300.000 Jews in crude cattle trucks from the Umschlagplatz railway terminal in the then Warsaw Ghetto - to the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps.
There is controversy and deeply unresolved tensions between the Poles and the Jews – only a handful of whom currently reside in Warsaw – controversy even despite this immense shared suffering. Timothy Garton –Ash in his book History of the Present, says, there are two hotly disputed truths that characterise post war debate, ‘one that the Poles cannot accept – that the Jews suffered most – and one that the Jews cannot accept – that the suffering of the Poles was an incredibly close second’.
The shadow of this history is hard to shake. The Polish memory of forced complicity in the betrayal of their neighbours, the rumours that anti-Semitism was already a problem in Warsaw, even before the occupation - and the seemingly interminable ache from the past that haunts it’s people – like an unwelcome ghost, slinking through the night, crying into the darkness, agitating and stirring all these bad memories into a nightmarish swirl.
The predicament of the Poles in relation to the Jews was a tragic affair. To assist them in any way rendered not just individuals but their entire families vulnerable to immediate execution. To walk in these shoes even for a second, is to know the impossibility of the dilemma and to understand something of what it is to be trapped in such a way. Yet in spite of it all, all the risks, the torn obligations and primal instincts for survival – the Polish resistance army was the largest in Europe during those years. The Warsaw Uprising, celebrated on the 1st August honours this heroism.
When the war came to an end, the Nazi’s eventually retreated, leaving Warsaw ablaze behind them. The Russians, the so-called liberators watched them destroying what remained of the city and it’s rich cultural heritage from across the Vistula River. They did not intervene until long after the Nazi army had gone. Another pain, another ghost, another deeply un-forgiven agony.
When the long awaited liberation came, despite this feeling of betrayal, maybe there was a moment of hope, of preparedness to forgive. But if it existed at all, it was brief. The cage door opened but fleetingly, the light returned, bright and glorious – but it was soon dimmed, the shadow returned and for the next forty odd years a new regime took hold. Fascism and all its grim extremes gave way to another equally extreme political reality under which this people lived until 1989.
There were blessings and curses to be had during this period. Differentiating between the two remains a matter of perspective. It is true that the communists stabilised the economy. It is true that under their auspices a faithful reconstruction of Warsaw’s old town and surrounding areas was undertaken. It is true that the rebuilding of Warsaw’s churches was a part of the reconstruction. In the end this concession would contribute to the regime’s collapse. It became a chink in the armour of the state through which Polish nationals’ clambered toward freedom. It is true that certain liberal social policies were introduced, including the legalisation of abortion, free access to contraception and so on. But in a predominantly Catholic country this was highly controversial and the abortion legislation was swiftly over turned as soon as the communists lost power.
In the face of all this history, all this paradox and contradiction, it is no wonder that the Black Madonna resides in the heart of this country - this Queen of Poland, for this is how she is regarded by millions, in whose image these extremes are somehow held and mercifully reconciled.
Black Virgins, found mostly in France, Spain, Switzerland and Poland are widely believed to be ‘a survival and a continuation under a new name and a new religion, of the goddesses of the classical world.
‘Goddesses like the Shulamite whose poignant voice opens the Song of Songs in the Old Testament.
‘I am black and I am beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.’ .
A Shulamite is one ‘who has found peace’ one of great wisdom and great tolerance of human frailty.
After days of blistering heat and dramatic thunderstorms in Warsaw, we arrived in Czetochowa on a cool, overcast morning. Unlike the capital, a Mecca to the new capitalism with its well heeled, aspirational professionals slipping in and out of the old Communist Party Headquarters, now the Warsaw Stock Exchange – with its wide tree-lined avenues, café life, Chopin concerts in the park and exquisite architectural masterpieces, embassy and civic buildings, ornate palaces, lush parks and magnificent Russian fairytale-like churches with tall, elegant, gold embossed minarets - Czetochowa seemed shabby and provincial – a poor relation – but for its own unique gem. It is immediately apparent that the economy of this southern town owes much to the presence of the Byzantine icon, which in the twelfth century came into the possession of monks at the hilltop monastery of Jasna Gora, known colloquially as the Bright Mountain. The locals say that ‘after Varanasi, Mecca, Lourdes and Rome, the Black Madonna of Czetochowa attracts the largest number of pilgrims in the world.
But despite this vast fame, we had never heard of either Czetochowa or it’s renowned Queen. But as it turned out, the point of departure for the yearly pilgrimage from Warsaw were the steps of the church of the Holy Spirit, into which we had fled from the cold the previous winter. The annual pilgrimage is undertaken to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin, commemorated on the 15th August and that is how we came to be here, having followed – how could we resist – in the well-worn footsteps of countless pilgrims past. But I must confess that unlike those faithful souls,who actually walk the 250 kilometers from Warsaw, we had arrived by train.
As I said, the greatest Soviet concession to the Poles was a tolerance of the church, which maintained a degree of autonomy throughout the years of the regime. Not surprisingly it became a symbol of self- determination and freedom. What had been intended as a device designed to procure acquiescence eventually backfired. The church became a political oasis – a relatively safe haven midst an ideology of arid communist realism into whose promised embrace people flocked. Within its confines Mass was said as ‘usual’ and Priests were allowed a modicum of free speech. Toward the end of the regime the popularity of the church reached record proportions, even within a country where over eighty percent of the population were already practising Catholics and in spite of the fact that in many other era’s and numerous other places, the Catholic Church, has itself been a cruel instrument of oppression.
During the eighties, amidst the rumblings of dissent started in the famous Gdansk shipyards, pilgrimages to the Black Madonna reached an all time high. A Polish friend of mine remembers going on four such excursions. “There were literally millions of us.” The communist party was becoming increasingly agitated. A popular priest was murdered in Warsaw – he had overstepped the invisible mark – millions attended his funeral – and the number of pilgrims swelled yet again.
In a desperate bid to quell the mounting fervour, my friend told me that military planes had flown over the marchers dropping thousands of leaflets highlighting cases of child abuse and other atrocities within the church. But even though such things may have been and most probably were true, even though the contradictions, inversions, paradoxes, were as real as they had ever been, the pilgrims walked on amidst the growing tide of dissent throughout the eastern block. Several years later the complete regime collapsed.
In the Paradiso Café atop the Bright Mountain, the souvenir village adjoining the medieval monastery, ‘Everybody Hurts’ was playing on the jukebox. We ordered margherita pizza and mineral water. We were both a little fazed by all the commercial activity. Acres of ground was given over to this bazaar. The iconography on sale ranged from life sized, stone cast replicas of the Virgin to crude pocket sized renditions of her image. There were angels, prayer books and rosaries – all colours, fashioned from pure amber, the ‘gold’ of the region (these were under lock and key) through to glass and the lightest of garishly coloured plastic. And if the whole affair was not already underscored by mutually opposing themes, pretend caged birds in cheap wicker cages, squawked wolf whistles at us as we passed by. But perhaps most perplexing were the plastic handguns, bows and arrows and pretend AK47’s which if they were real could fire several rounds of deadly ammunition per second – all of which were on sale alongside the religious iconography.
Maybe I was over sensitive – maybe it wasn’t even a contradiction at all? The profane and the sacred – all mixed up – the sublime and the ridiculous – the good, the bad and the ugly – all together – light and shadow – white and black. Why should I have expected any different, for this very mix contains the component parts of all our realities?
On the 15th August every year, the image of the Virgin is carried aloft through the streets of numerous villages, towns and cities across the catholic heartland of Europe. Her path is strewn with flowers and many of those who love her, those who deeply revere the promise of what she represents – the possibility of forgiveness and triumph over human suffering – throw themselves down and prostrate themselves before her. There’s a kind of absurdity about such acts – but there is an exquisite beauty too. It is the beauty of faith amidst all the paradox within which we are required to live our lives.
After lunch we made our way to the sanctuary. The hustle faded away, the hawkers and the tricksters left us, their noise replaced by a hushed silence. The clouds broke overhead and the blue summer sky peeped through. At the entrance to the monastery enclosure stood a large sign on which the following was written in seven languages. Polish first then English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian.
‘Jestes w miejsou swietym zachowuj sie jak pielgrzym.’
‘This is a holy place. Come here as a pilgrim.’
Inside there was nothing to buy but much relief. The majority of pilgrims, save for a group of affluent Italians, were Polish and mostly ordinary folk. The outer aisles of the church interior were lined with dark wood confessionals housing tired looking priests hearing the sins of long queues of people. The famous chapel of the Black Madonna stood to the right of the altar. This it seemed, was where everyone was heading.
Now apart from shops on the first day of the January sales and city nightclubs after midnight at the weekend or sporting venues when important matches are being played – I’ve never seen anywhere so crowded in my entire life. The first thing that hit me as I entered was the smell! Not at all what I had imagined. Not incense, sweet and evocative – but human breath, stale breath and sweat. At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I didn’t want to breathe all this stale air into my lungs, all these germs – but I did – because alongside all this was the promise of something I wanted to experience – wanted to touch and be touched by.
The guidebooks had warned that the chapel was frequently packed out and that sometimes pilgrims left without ever setting eyes on the beloved icon – but we were lucky, edging our way through the throng, intent upon our goal. Eventually we found a place to sit down, although many were kneeling – old women on their knees, with nothing to cushion them against the hard marble floor, young mothers with babies in their arms, teenagers with heavy backpacks, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort of their humbling posture. All eyes were bent in the same direction – all fixed on the Mother of God, each soul seeking a special dispensation, a special communion. Who knows what secret agonies were spilling out into the ether? Who knows what they were praying for, who they were praying for?
A group of women were singing with the high vibrato peculiar to this region of the world –a vibrato that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end and if you are sensitive, brings tears to your eyes. It’s a kind of impassioned warbling that somehow catches both the joy and the pain of being human. Several times I had to hold back my own tears – but then the Black Madonna is more than able to hold us as we let such feelings flow.
As I stood there I remembered times as a child, times when I was hurting, when someone at school had maybe said something cruel that made me want to cry. Often I would hold on, hold on tightly until I got back home to my mum. Then and only then would I let go and dissolve into the honesty of just how hurt I really was. The Black Madonna, whatever else she might have been, seemed to be fulfilling a similar motherly role here.
Miracles occur at Czetochowa and the walls of the Black Madonna’s chapel are hung with discarded crutches, replicas of silver limbs, old wooden walking sticks and the like but I suspect that the majority of healings are of a much more subtle nature – healings that can’t be seen with the naked eye, but which are tangible never the less. Now if you are lucky enough to get close to the icon you will see two large scars across the Virgin’s left cheek. The legend tells that in 1430 thieves attempted to steal the icon but as they carried her from the grounds of Jasna Gora she grew heavier and heavier. In the end they had to abandon her and in their frustration and anger they slashed her face. Immediately blood seeped from her wounds. Later the painting was taken to Krakow to be repaired,
‘but the scars were left as a reminder of the sacrilege.’
But even though she is scarred, maybe even because she is scarred, she is destined from the start to assume her seat in heaven and it is this glorious Assumption that completes her story. This is the ‘Happy Ever After’ at the end of a dark fairy tale that Polish pilgrims come here to celebrate. It is a supreme symbol of the promise she embodies for us all. From her annunciation as the young Virgin, through the dark years of suffering, finally she ascends to heaven, carried aloft by a host of angels. At last she attains her role and place in the divinity. Finally the Mother of God is crowned Queen of Heaven.
She has always found a way into the hearts of ordinary people and has sometimes been more popular than her Son, but it was not until 1954 that this concluding chapter to her story was officially recognised and admitted to the creed of the Catholic Church. The symbolic significance of this act is immeasurably important and perhaps, as the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung has suggested,
‘the most important religious event since the reformation.’
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Anne Maria Clarke
Song of Solomon:1:5
Warsaw: Eyewitness: Kindersley
The History of the Present: Timothy Garton-Ash
Answer to Job: Carl Jung:
Myth of the Goddess: Ann Baring and Jules Cashford