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Liturgical Artist Speaks at CCSU Recently

Mark Czarnecki, Polish-American iconographer (liturgical artist) recently presented a lecture on one of the most revered images in Poland – the Black Madonna, known also as “Our Lady of Czestochowa.” The lecture was sponsored by the Godlewski Evening of Polish Culture through CCSU’s Stanislaus A. Blejwas Endowed Chair of Polish and Polish American Studies. Czarnecki focused on the puzzling features of Our Lady of Czestochowa as well as attempting to replace legends surrounding the icon with historical facts uncovered in its 1924 restoration, contemporary conservators’ reports and the shrine’s own archives.

“This icon is of great significance to Poles, those that are Catholic and artists,” said Czarnecki. “It is so familiar to us that we think of it as an image, a reality of the Virgin Mary. It is the most famous of about 160 icons of the Virgin Mary in Poland. Every Polish person has that image burned into their minds and hearts.”

A yearly pilgrimage in Poland takes place to the icon. Some people walk hundreds of miles to get there. Czarnecki has been there many times and wondered why the Madonna’s face is so dark. There are many stories made up for varying reasons. Czarnecki attempted to separate myth and legend from fact.

“In Irish churches,” he said, “the Virgin Mary is blonde, blue-eyed, and European looking. Yet where Mary came, she probably would not have been blonde.

Czarnecki, a Bristol native living in Meriden, specializes in painting icons (actually called writing). They are two-dimensional religious images, using a traditional visual language, working from prototypes. He continues to study under the tutelage of Russian Orthodox iconographer, Ksenia Pokrovsky, within the Izograph School she founded in Moscow. In recognition for his liturgical restoration work and iconography for dozens of local churches, Czarnecki received the 1996 and 2004 Artists Fellowship from the CT Commission on the Arts, the American Council for Polish Culture’s Jan de Rosen Award, and an apprenticeship grant funded by the National Endowment for the Arts through the Southern N.E. Traditional Arts Program. His icons can be found in homes, chapels and churches around the country. Locally, his work is in St. Stanislaus Church in Bristol and St. Casimir’s in Terryville.

“Icons can only depict religious subjects,” he said. “An icon is a window, flat, two-dimensional, showing two conditions – spiritual and material; subject matter is totally Christian.”

The Black Madonna icon was made in ancient times, possibly dating to the time of Christ. It was badly desecrated, then repainted on the original lindenwood panels. It appeared in Czestochowa in the late 1300s. In 1430, the monastery was attacked. The icon was smashed, broken – not just desecrated but obliterated. It is believed the desecration was done out of greed – anger and offense at the church’s worldly ways and wealth.

“There were 30 deep stab marks to the icon that penetrated to the boards” he said. After some years, the restored icon began to darken.

“There was talk that fires destroyed the icon but there is no proof,” he said. Swedes invaded in the 1600s, and though the Poles were outnumbered, they survived. But the icon was damaged centuries before.

A major restoration was done in 1924. During WWII, the icon was hidden. Now, the icon is cleaned yearly for one week.

Czarnecki continues to teach and write icons out of his studio in Meriden.