La Moreneta is Catalunya’s patron saint, revered by believers worldwide. When we visited Montserrat, her mystical qualities cast a lingering spell.
We’d stumbled into the basilica at Montserrat just in time for Sunday Mass, and still the line to see her continued of its own accord. The famous boys choir sang, the Mass was spoken in dulcet Catalan, and the line never faltered. Pilgrim by pilgrim. Step by step. Each awaiting a turn with the Black Madonna, La Moreneta, Our Lady of Montserrat.
During the service, in the distant altar window through which the Little Dark One presides over the sanctuary, we saw the people filing past. Each stopped briefly before her.
As we emerged from the crush of congregants, the queue for La Moreneta had shortened. And so we took our places, too. Slowly and quietly we moved through several anterooms, up a set of marble stairs, past the carved effigies of saints. Whispers in many languages, a cough here, a shuffle there.
Perhaps it was the palpable energy – a mixture of mysticism and reverence – inhabiting the sanctuary and its natural surroundings that drew us into the spell of La Moreneta.
Wagner’s prelude to Parsifal beautifully conveys the building sense of mystery that many feel.
La Moreneta, Our Lady of Montserrat, along with Sant Jordi (Saint George), is the patron saint of Catalunya. Her mysterious appeal lies, in part, within a murky legend. Some believe she was carved by St. Luke in Jerusalem (a previous name for her was La Jerosolimitana), and brought to the region by St. Peter in the first century. Others have said that she came with Mary Magdalene, who escaped from the Holy Land (or Egypt, depending upon your belief). Some stories go on to say that Mary Magdalene had her child with her: the child of Jesus, conceived in the Garden of Gethsemane before the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Many legends agree the statue of Our Lady was then moved for safekeeping to Montserrat ahead of the Saracen invasion in the 8th century.
The most widely held legend has the statue being discovered during the Feast of the Ascension in a cave below the current site of the basilica by a group of children. Their story of singing and flashing lights during the discovery was later corroborated by their parents. Contemporary authorities have cited the timing of the discovery as coincidental with annual meteor showers:
La Moreneta is carved from wood in the traditional pose referred to as the “Throne of Wisdom” (in the Latin, sedes sapientiae) by the Catholic Church. In this pose, the Madonna is seated with the Christ child on her knee, holding a sphere (representing the world) in her outstretched right hand. Catholics and historians associate this pose with depictions of the Mother of God.
Later history (with carbon dating) has confirmed the age of the current statue (which some still refer to as a replacement) to about the year 1100. This would coincide with the Medieval tendency to merge pagan tradition with newer Christian beliefs in religious imagery. Sourcing these origins weaves a background from such diverse goddess traditions as Isis, Magog and Lilith, all of whom have been depicted with dark skin. Pagans often hid these religious effigies in hollow trees and caves.
Sources say Our Lady of Montserrat’s hands and face gradually darkened either from candle smoke or some sort of chemical reaction in the original varnish used to seal her paint. Regardless, she has been refurbished over the centuries. We see her now in 18th-century paint. There are replicas of Our Lady of Montserrat in many chapels, including Tossa del Mar in Catalunya, and the chapel at Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino many pilgrims walk.
Of the 500 or so Black Madonnas in Europe, La Moreneta is perhaps the most venerated with over 150 Italian churches and chapels dedicated to her. When Spanish Catholics evangelized Mexico, Chile and Peru, their first churches were often named for Our Lady of Montserrat. During the same time frame in 1522, St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, came to pay tribute after a serious wounding in the Battle of Pamplona. He famously left his sword with La Moreneta after experiencing a vision in the statue’s presence, staying on in the town of Manresa below Montserrat to write his Spiritual Exercises.
Montserrat (meaning “serrated mountain”) has long held significance with a variety of beliefs and religious practices. The mountain cluster soars over 4,000 feet from the valley floor below. From this vantage point on a clear day, the island of Mallorca is visible beyond Barcelona in the distant Mediterranean sea.
Prehistoric remains have been discovered here. In Roman times, this was the site of a pre-Christian Temple of Venus. There have been chapels of one sort or another on the mountains since the 9th century.
In the Middle Ages, referred to as “Montsalvat,” Montserrat was associated with the Holy Grail, both in the Tales of King Arthur and Germanic myth. Wagner set his opera, Parsifal, here using the Medieval German poem, Parzival, as a story source.
The basilica is a combination of Gothic and Renaissance style. Although it was originally built in the 16th century, much of it was destroyed during Napoleon’s retreat in 1811. The statue survived, safely hidden away again by the monks in a secret location.
We found ourselves unconcerned with the slowness of the line, grateful for the chance to absorb our surroundings with several senses.
We inhaled the fragrance of incense used during Mass.
We admired the combined grandeur and simplicity of the artwork and adornments. We were humbled by the depth of devotion in the story of St. Ignatius along with other saints and disciples.
And via all these sensory inputs, we began to understand how meaningful La Moreneta and Montserrat are to people of faith around the world and especially to the citizens of Catalunya. This is Catalunya’s most important religious retreat. It is a tradition with young people in particular to journey up here to watch the sunrise.
Deep symbolism of the kind interwoven with La Moreneta, Montserrat, and the Holy Grail can, of course, lead to reactions other than reverence. Hitler was influenced by a mixture of occult references and interpretations of Wagner’s legendary story. He was convinced that possession of the Holy Grail would guarantee Nazi victory and supernatural powers. In 1940, Heinrich Himmler, in Barcelona while Hitler was conferencing elsewhere with Franco, arrived at Montserrat only to be snubbed by the Abbot. More interested in the mountain as a purported location for the Grail, Himmler returned to Barcelona empty-handed the same day.
During the Spanish Civil War, 22 monks from Montserrat were killed by Republican forces, after which the Abbot declared it a sanctuary at which students, political activists, intellectuals and artists took refuge from Franco. Franco had suppressed use of the Catalan language in an attempt to solidify Spain under his power. In 1947, mass was publicly said in Catalan at Montserrat, defying the policy.
In the final years of Franco, the principles of renewal from the Second Vatican Council encouraged the Church in Catalunya to more visible opposition. In 1970, about 300 intellectuals locked themselves into the monastery during a three day protest in support of Basque ETA activists who had been sentenced to death. Franco commuted their sentences.
Approaching La Moreneta’s chamber, anticipation heightens. This is deliberate on the part of the many contributors to its design. The intention is that you, the pilgrim, make gradual contact.
As you pass through the solid silver doors, you will see Our Lady enthroned in the style of an Italian Renaissance triptych, with various scenes from the Visitation and Nativity at its sides. Silver angels hold her emblems: crown, scepter and iris. Saint George is at her feet. St. Michael is carved from a block of Montserrat stone symbolizing his protection of both mountain and sanctuary.
Our time with La Moreneta, out of necessity and deference to others awaiting their turn, was short. We made the ritual gesture, which is the brief touch or kiss to the globe in her hand. There was no bolt of lightning or shock of any sort in doing this, but a quiet confirmation of the serenity which had begun to build during our approach. We were solemn but happy, too. We felt a sense of renewal that is, even now, difficult to explain.
Since our day in the sanctuary, the image of La Moreneta has regularly appeared in my mind. At first, I wondered at this. But now I am always glad when she does. I like that she is with me in her own quiet way. And perhaps that is the intention of whatever the power we felt in our visit to Montserrat.
Tips, Practicalities and Information:
Hourly trains daily from Barcelona between 08 and 18 on the :36, Express at 8:55. last train from Montserrat back to Barcelona is at 20:15. Take the R5 route from Plaça Espanya to Monistrol, transfer to Montserrat. Trans Montserrat: 29.30€ adult includes Metro to Monistrol, Transfer Train to Montserrat and Rack Railway, 46.20€ includes above plus funiculars, audiovisual, museum entrance and lunch. For more information: www.cremallerademonstserrat.cat or tel. (+34) 902 31 20 20.
The Museum of Montserrat is often overlooked in favor of the Basilica and other areas with more overt religious importance. We enjoyed the intimacy with its impressive collection. You will see works by Catalunyan painters and sculptors, Dalí, Picasso, and Caravaggio. There is also a surprising number of Egyptian and Middle Eastern artifacts collected by Father Bonaventura Ubach. The Iconography of Our Lady of Montserrat looks at different ways in which La Moreneta has been depicted. Permanent exhibits of Byzantine and Slavic icons, as well as gold and silver liturgical objects from the 15th – 20th century, are on display.
There are several restaurant options at Montserrat, ranging from snack bar to fine dining with reservations recommended. Many visitors bring picnic lunches to hike the trails above and below the sanctuary and commercial areas. The 3-star Hotel Abat Cisneros is located at the Abadia de Montserrat, free wi-fi, 3 meeting rooms, restaurant, bar/lounge, ATM and gift shop. Tel. (+34) 938 77 77 01