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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Three: Czestochowa

Michael Palin - New EuropeThere seems precious little that is hermitic about the Pauline order today. Their monastery, on a broad hill called Jasna Gora (Clear Mountain), is in a tall-spired complex of buildings, ringed in the seventeenth century by mighty red-brick walls. It is the centre of an enormous commercial and spiritual enterprise based on the growing reputation of her most priceless possession.

In 1655 Jasna Gora withstood a siege by greatly superior Swedish forces and this established the reputation of the Madonna, which came to be seen not just as a miracle-worker but as the symbol of national identity. A presence so potent, they called her Mary, Queen of Poland.

In the years when the name of Poland vanished from the map the reputation of Mary only grew. She was seen as the protector of the Catholic faith against the invasions of Russian Orthodoxy and German Protestantism.

The new Europe, with its secular values and increasing consumerism, has not dented her popularity and between three and four million pilgrims visit the shrine every year. Eighty-five priests and thirty lay brothers are on hand to deal with the tide of humanity that pours through the doors of this great Baroque church. Most are heading for the sacristy, in which the Black Madonna is housed. It's a dark, enclosed little chapel decorated with exquisitely carved wood, but whose few pews can take only the monks and their visitors. The icon is hidden behind a silver screen and there is growing excitement as the time approaches for it to be revealed, as it is with great ceremony twice a day. A stream of devotees make circuits of the chapel on their knees, chanting, singing and supplicating. Worshippers squeeze shoulder to shoulder, desperate for a clear view and those fortunate enough to be in the front have their faces pressed hard up against the ironwork screen that divides off the Chapel of the Miraculous Image from the rest of the church.

The pent-up emotion reaches a crescendo as one o'clock strikes and, to the sound of a stirring brass fanfare from a band of monks up in the gallery, the silver screen slowly rises to reveal the Black Madonna. It's a curiously unsatisfactory piece of work, not much more than a metre square, with the faces so indistinct and swarthy that they have been augmented by a rich robe of gold, silver and precious stones draped around the figures of the Mother and Child like clothes on a doll.

But its appearance produces near-hysteria. Everyone pushes forward. Breasts are crossed repeatedly, tears roll down faces contorted by agony and joy as the sounds of the fanfare echo and fade into silence. It's a hot day and a rank smell of sweat rises from the body of the church.

My guide, Father Tomon, with big square glasses dominating a round, regular face, shakes his head in wonder at the scene. He remembers the days twenty years ago when the police and the army were a constant threat to any religious display. Now they have special days set aside for them to worship.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Three: Czestochowa
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Częstochowa
  • Book page no: 241

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