Jasna Gora – Poland’s Spiritual Capital

JasnaGora-16 Today was a profound experience.  We visited Jasna Gora (yaz-na-goor-ah), a monastery that is considered Poland’s spiritual capital.  The tour made such an impact that even though there were other great events today, I will save those for tomorrow.

This is it, the Black Madonna. it is a black mahogany alter with details such as the belt worn by Pope Jean Paul II when he was shot. But to focus on only this, is like thinking of the Louvre as holding only the Mona Lisa. There is so much more.

One thing became clear from the outset of this tour.  Pope Jean Paul II is the man in Poland.  This monastery has been around since the 1400’s and has many tales including that of the Black Madonna; but, Pope Jean Paul II made several visits here during his papacy and left many of the gifts given to him here at Jasna Gora.  At the very least, he renewed the spiritual energy of this sacred place.

This is the guy! This monastery has been around since the 15th century, but few individuals did more to elevate it than a pole named Karol Wojtyla, aka Pope Jean Paul II.

We entered the monastery with a connection of which we were completely unaware.  Our guide Radek who is traveling with us contacted the friend of the father-in-law of his brother!  That gentleman, Thomas arranged for us, a private tour in English with access to parts beyond that of the standard public tour.  We barely understood this when Friar Roman, our tour guide introduced himself and said, “You must know someone important because my Prior has given me permission to show you things we don’t normally show!”

The monastery is actually a tight campus of buildings, including this one with Swedish cannonballs still wedged into the building from a battle centuries ago! (below left clock)

The detail on every surface is ornate and nearly overwhelming.  Just about every aspect of this tour was overwhelming.  It begins with the 100 meter tower, but every statue, corner, tower, and ceiling is a significant work of art.JasnaGora-237The first room we were taken to that was supposed to be off limits to non-monks was the Old Library.  There is no way I could be prepared for this room.  This is such a ridiculous comparison that I am embarrassed of but if you’ve ever seen the Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast, that is approaching what this room looked like.  I am afraid my iPhone 5 will not do it justice.

The Old Library had four walls of in-laid wood shelves with custom-built wooden cases (2,405 of them) holding 13,000 books from the 15th – 18th centuries.

The Old Library is possibly the most beautiful room I have ever seen.  The shelves and door frames are all made of in-laid wood, and for six years a monk worked making 2,405 custom-built wooden cases for the books.  The books are written in Hebrew, Greek, Old Polish, and German and all come from the 15th -18th centuries.JasnaGora068Roman took one down for us, a volume printed in Krakow (many were printed on the premises) on Geometry.  He donned white gloves and instructed no flash pictures.  The book was printed in 1683!  SIXTEEN-EIGHTY-THREE!!!  BTW, I had to figure this out by Roman numerals!

“Polish Geometry”, or Geometra Polski. Note Roman numerals toward bottom. MDCLXXXIII = 1683

He just casually leafed through these ancient pages as I felt history go through me like a current.  Tables, drawings, formulas, suddenly Polish Geometry seemed like the most impressive thing ever.JasnaGora026Each section of shelves had a title on an ornate plaque above the section.  There was a section on mathematics, one on holy scripture, etc.  One section, however, had no title.  Roman said that was the section of writings by heretics.  Heretics?  Yes, he explained, like Calvin, and Martin Luther! We signed the guest book while there and were shown earlier volumes that included signatures of Senator John F. Kennedy, brother Robert, Eunice, Jacqueline, and Ethel.  Another volume included Himmler, Hitler, and other notables.  The Nazi’s occupied this fortress for a period, and during that period the Madonna was hidden on the under-side of a table in the library.  The Germans did not bomb the monastery, and in fact did not destroy anything.  This is considered to be a miracle by the faithful.

The ceiling frescoes alone could have taken a day!

I haven’t even mentioned the fresco paintings on the ceiling!  This alone made this an exquisite experience.  Each had a representation of a different value.  You could have spent a day in there just learning about the ceiling!

We were hustled into a choir loft where below hundreds of people were crammed in like sardines for one of the two masses said each day in the main chapel.

We could have spent the rest of the day in that room, and Roman seemed to enjoy being in there as much as we did.  At 1:15 however, he snapped to attention and said, “We have to go!”  He hurried us out of the library, locked the doors and hustled us to what was like a choir loft over the main chapel.  Below were hundreds of people packed into the chapel like sardines.

We would learn that this gentleman posing with Friar Roman was Thomas, our gracious host who we didn’t even know! This was a favor to our host, Radek.

We had no idea what was going on and Roman handled us on a need-to-know basis.  a few people gathered in the area where we were.  Roman instructed us to sit down and stand by.  He opened a cabinet and pulled out a trumpet!  The rest of them did too, except for the woman on the tympani drum!  They stood at the ready and at precisely 1:30 we heard church bells and the 6 of them began belting out the LOUDEST royal trumpet processional I have ever witnessed!  If you care to see it I have uploaded video on YouTube here

This world class work of art was practically one more arched ceiling in a secondary chapel. When I say Jasna Gora is overwhelming, this is what I mean!

We were sort of stunned!  They just sort of shook hands, put their instruments back and he resumed the tour!  We were like, “What the hell was that?!?!”  He explained that the Madonna is considered the Queen of Poland and as such must receive visitors as a queen.  From there a full Catholic mass began below. Roman explained that we would go down and navigate through the crowds into the chapels.  Since we would have to go single file and not be able to talk, he told us in advance what we would see.  “Take pictures if you want, he said, but no flash”  This was a solemn service with the truly faithful and there was incredible pressure but at the same time, this was my one shot to capture some of this amazing experience.  So there are some that would object, and I might even see their point, but I took some pictures.  Americans with iPhones.

…and suddenly there it was, the Madonna, the Queen of Poland, a mysterious painting that gets different “outfits” from time to time. It is a Byzantine work of art that has long been rumored to have been painted by St. Mark (although that is disputed).

I cannot possibly do the actual painting of the Madonna justice, so I encourage you to read a good link on the internet, or do some sort of research.  It is a truly mysterious painting and has weathered many attacks.  It is worth looking into a bit more deeply.  I just couldn’t focus on that one outsized legend along with everything else. The chapel has three main sections, one from the 18th century, one from the 17th century, and the main section from the 15th century.  FIFTEENTH CENTURY!!!  This means that while Columbus was out trying to raise venture capital for his trip to discover the new world, this chapel already existed!

As we exited we saw the immense platform where they say a public mass each week. This is a site of pilgrimages, and in the distance people can be seen walking miles and miles to approach this holy site.

Roman told us many stories during the nearly three hours he spent with us.  The order of the fathers there is Pauline, after St. Paul.  They have several monasteries in the US, including one in Manhattan and one in my wife’s hometown of Buffalo.  He was humorous and smart; and, even political on occasion!  At one point he told us to feel comfortable in the monastery, that God loves all people, no matter whether they are Protestants, or Jews, or Muslims, and then he paused, and said, “God even loves the Communists!”  That is a heavily loaded statement even now in 2014 in Poland.

Totus Tuus was Jean Paul II’s message to God, “I am all yours” (more of a paraphrasing actually).

I asked Roman if he had ever met Pope Jean Paul II?  “Sure!” he said, “I knew Pope Jean Paul!”  He entered the monastery at 18 and now, at 63 he had a peace with life that many will seek but never find.  My personal religion could be at best described as “questioning” but there was no questioning the pious and profound nature of this sacred place.  I left with a feeling deep in my soul that this was a special place and I today I got a taste of how this place has sustained a nation for hundreds of years.JasnaGora158π


  1. Tony, great travel blog! Thanks for sharing. I’m confident there will be some food reviews coming up, too 🙂 can you find a local recipe for golumpki? Enjoy!

  2. Tony, what a wonderful travel blog! It is so interesting to read. Such a once in a lifetime trip and to do it with your mom and sisters is so great. Continue to enjoy and safe travels!!!!

    1. Thanks Clare! My mom has underwritten this entire trip and I feel the least I can do is document how amazing it is! Stay tuned!

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