Robert E. ALVIS. White Eagle, Black Madonna: One Thousand Years of the Polish Catholic Tradition. New York:  Fordham University Press, 2016. pp. 349.  $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-8232-7171-9. Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618.


This book is a comprehensive description of the people living in what we today call Poland from the tenth to the twenty-first century. It is the first of its kind in English. It is well researched and the endnotes are a joy to read.

The premise of the book is that Poland begins with the baptism of Mieszko I, chief of the Western Slavic tribe called Polanians, on April 14, 966 C.E. Baptized into the Roman Catholic church he, his tribe, and its lands became part of Western Christianity and a bulwark against Eastern Christianity and ancient tribal religions. Throughout its centuries-long existence, Roman Catholicism became part of the infrastructure of Polish culture. While doing so, however, it did not, until the twentieth century, reject the other religions that were part of its citizenry. 

This millennial long journey through Poland’s history is presented in ten chapters of various lengths. His challenge is to describe not only political and religious history but also how they developed in a co-dependent fashion that are both equally Polish. But, as with any human communal identity, the depth of physical, social, mental, and psychological change easily leads to claims of multiple identities. Alvis is sensitive to this reality when he states that Catholicism in Poland cannot be reduced to a handful of simple, stable ideas. (p. 277).

We can see the nature of Polish Roman Catholicism slowly, very slowly, evolving from a top down religion imposed by the elite political forces upon their people, then imposed by the elite forces of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and then, under the pressure of centuries of internal wars, external aggression, suppression by other nations and cultures, being internalized as a necessary part of national pride and survival.

This internalization is symbolized in the White Eagle and the black Madonna, the title of the book. According to Alvis the “White Eagle” was adopted by Wladyslaw Lokietek (1260-1333) for his coat of arms. His role in unifying the Poles was so important that he, and his coat of arms, became part of every nationalistic narrative. The Black Madonna has a long history also. As with the White Eagle the early history is found in myth and miracles not necessarily covered by Alvis.  The religious order of Saint Paul the First Hermit (Paulines) was founded in Hungry in the thirteenth century.  In the process of founding a house in Poland it acquired a darkened icon of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The house they founded was located outside the town of Czestochowa. This house became the center of the Paulines in Poland. The image itself became the site of many miracles. Both politicians and bishops used the place and the image as a means to emotionally express Polish piety and patriotism. These are not the only symbols of Polish nationalism but they are the most evident to the vast majority of Poles.

The Law and Justice party, the current governing party in Poland, looks to the past with certainty as to its founding principles, culture, and religious nature. It looks to a certain brand of Roman Catholicism recognized, described, and explained in Alvis’s book. It is a Roman Catholicism of defense against all enemies, past or present; of deep felt piety centered on saints, episcopal authority, and symbols such as the White Eagle and the Black Madonna; of a traditionalism that seeks uniformity of mind, spirit, and bodily expression for all those who claim to be Polish. It is not the complex, ever adapting, Polish Catholic tradition as found in this book.