Monday Morning Brief | Poland crowns a painting with a stamp

Apr 28, 2021, 4 AM

Three hundred years ago, Poland actually crowned an iconic painting of the Black Madonna. Scott catalog senior editor Marty Frankevicz recounts the remarkable history of a work whose subject is widely considered a symbol of Poland itself.

Full Video Transcript:

Good morning and welcome to the Monday Morning Brief for September 18, 2017.

Whenever a country prints a stamp to mark the anniversary of a historical event, that event is obviously of some importance within that country. But when that country also marks that same event with a new piece of currency, then you know the event truly is a big deal.

Poland issued a 2.60-zloty stamp on August 26, along with a 20-zloty banknote five days earlier to remember a coronation that took place 300 years ago. But it was not some young Polish princess that became a royal highness upon receiving a crown. No, what was crowned was a painting — an old, broken, and damaged one, to boot — which was altered extensively during numerous restoration attempts.

In 1717, this painting, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, was crowned by a Polish bishop on behalf of Pope Clement IX. The painting’s crowns were stolen in 1909, and the very next year Pope Pius X restored her crowns. The crowns that were stolen in 1909 were never recovered, but they were recreated this year, and on September 8 the painting was to receive them anew.

Throughout his long papal reign, John Paul II, a son of Poland, venerated the painting because the Black Madonna was the main symbol of Polish Catholicism, and, essentially, a symbol of the country itself.

Nobody knows for sure how old the painting is. It is believed that it arrived in Poland in 1384 when the Duke of Opole, who was transporting it from a Ukrainian town, stopped in Czestochowa. His horses were said to have refused to leave, and in a dream he was told to leave the icon at the town’s Jasna Gora Monastery. Which he did.

In 1430, Central Europe was wracked with religious conflict. Followers of Jan Hus, the Bohemian religious reformer, raided Jasna Gora and badly damaged the painting in an attempt to take it. But legend says the icon must have been a horse whisperer, because the ponies of the raiders also refused to gallop away with the booty.

But what really made the painting the symbol of Catholic Poland happened later. In 1655, King John II Casimir, who ruled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a Catholic (and would also have been King of largely Lutheran Sweden had not Sigismund III, his father, been deposed in 1599), was having difficulties dealing with rebellions in the eastern part of the commonwealth.

And in July 1655, the Swedes and their German mercenaries invaded, easily taking control of most of the western part of Poland-Lithuania. By the end of September, King John Casimir had fled to neighboring Silesia, and the Lithuanians were looking to end their union with Poland and join Sweden.

In November 1655, the Swedish forces held siege against the Jasna Gora Monastery, home of the painting. But despite being badly outnumbered, monks and local Polish noblemen prevailed over the Swedish forces. Polish forces also began to fight back elsewhere and regain territory taken by the Swedes.

King John Casimir returned in January 1656, and on April 1, attributed the breaking of the siege and the various other victories to the Black Madonna icon and held a coronation ceremony for the painting, declaring it to be the Queen and Protector of Poland.

But as history records, Poland was partitioned between Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary on three occasions, so that by 1795 there was no Poland for the painting to protect.

For Linn’s Stamp News and the Scott catalogs, I’m Marty Frankevicz. Enjoy your week in stamps.