|Black Madonna of Poland|
|Luke as imagined by a Renaissance Painter|
St. Luke, the author of the beloved Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts, was the traveling physician, missionary, and companion of the Apostle Paul and was eyewitness to many of the events that resulted in the “birthing” of the church among the gentile nations of the Mediterranean world. In addition to this resume, there is a strong tradition that Luke was one of the first persons in the church to paint pictures of Jesus and His mother Mary. These stylized depictions were used (and continue to be used in Orthodox and Catholic churches) as a visual form of teaching especially among those who were not learned enough to read (a far more common occurrence until the age of the Renaissance and Reformation). Some hold this tradition suspect because its principle proponent was John of Damascus who vigorously defended the position that the use of icons was not a violation of God’s prohibition on graven images in worship during a great controversy over this in the 7th century. Of course John’s view is the one that has prevailed in history (and while a very nuanced position is not an unreasonable one) but the fact remains that when a person has ‘a dog in the fight’ they tend to see evidence in only one light. But there is additional evidence beyond just this one source.
In Rome today, the St. Maria Via Lata Church stands over the remains of a small apartment that is believed to be where Paul lodged during his imprisonment (see Acts chapter 28 and 2 Timothy 4:11). It is believed that in this modest home, later used as a grain storage center in Rome, Luke wrote his Gospel/Acts to Theophilus and painted pictures for the church to illustrate for them the people who appear in his book. One researcher writing at the turn of the 20th century reports that in the Catacombs there is an inscription under some faded paintings which reads one of seven painted by Luke. While Luke probably didn’t paint in the catacombs, the inscription might at least be attesting that the original by Luke was known and this is what it (more or less) looks like.
We also know from passing mentions in some of the epistles that Luke knew St. Mark and also there is a connection to the Apostle Peter as well. With these personal connections the general belief is that Luke traveled to Jerusalem many times and personally knew Mary and other living members of the “holy family” and what he writes in his gospel regarding the nativity (which is quite detailed with inside information) is based on his personal conversations with her. At the very least, if Luke didn’t paint her picture, he did know what she looked like.
One of the most famous works attributed to Luke is the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (pronounced “Chest-eh-hoe-vah”) in Poland. It’s story falls along these lines: it was painted by Luke on boards taken from the table of Mary’s home (and presumably this table was used for family meals in which Jesus, Joseph, James of Jerusalem all would have been present at one time or another) and was housed in Jerusalem. In the early part of the 6th century it was brought to Constantinople by the Empress Eudoxia. Mary was considered the protector of their great city despite the fact that they built fortress walls unparalleled in the ancient world. It was later moved to Belz Ukraine for a short period before finally coming to reside in Poland at a monastery built on Bright Mountain (“Czestochowa”) where it is visited by millions of pilgrims from around the world every year. Just as Mary had protected Constantinople for many centuries, she is believed to have protected Poland when they were invaded by the Swedes in the 17th century. In fact Mary is officially considered the queen of Poland today and this seems to suit most Poles just fine.
The style of this icon is called “hodegetria” or one who shows the way. Notice Mary’s hand points away from herself and to her son Jesus and Jesus gives the sign of benediction to the viewer. The statement expressed is “yes, I am the mother of Jesus, the son of God, but avert your attention to Him, for He is the real source of blessing”. While my wife shares my enthusiasm for the traditions of the church, she says whatever the black Madonna is painted on, it’s not Mary’s dining room table. No woman, no matter how holy and revered, is going to let a man cut a piece of her dining room table to make a painting of her.
In Europe through the Medieval and Renaissance, Luke was popularly considered the patron saint of artistic painters. If you were painter in this time, a good deal of your commissions would likely come from churches and pious individuals wanting pictures depicting Biblical themes. It was quite natural for them to think of themselves as continuing a tradition that began with St. Luke.
Whether or not Luke was an actual artist, many have rightly noted that his well-written stories of Christ are so vivid as to be pictures in their own right. And as such have inspired many a canvas throughout the centuries.