La Moreneta and a Visit to Montserrat

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.

La Moreneta

During Mass at the basilica. Our Lady is in the window, center back, above the hanging white crucifix

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La Moreneta, Our Lady of Montserrat. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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.

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View of the massif of Montserrat, Gorra Frigia (Phrygian cap), Magdalena Sueperior, Magdalena Inferior and the Gorra Marinera (Sailor’s cap). behind the monastery

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:

“The Perseid meteor shower was at its best on the Feast of the Ascension. In the days when the shepherd children first found the cave where the Virgin appeared the Perseids were knowns as the ’tears of St. Lawrence.’ The Romans had roasted St. Lawrence on the gridiron. The children of the herders had most likely seen the Perseids falling over the mountain 1200 or so years ago and told their parents that the songs of angels had accompanied the falling spots of light.” – Jim O’Donnell, Around the World in Eighty Years

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.

“At a particular time when the local religious climate was amenable to combining paganism and Catholicism, some priests may have persuaded simple peasants they had discovered one of the Black Madonna figures in its hidden natural place and so this was a way of introducing the pre-Christian statue into the mainstream religion.” – Vierge Noir

Photo Credit: mysticrapture.weebly.com

Photo Credit: mysticrapture.weebly.com

“Modern-day feminists describe a link between the Black Madonna and the ancient Mother Goddess which represents the ageless Wisdom of Nature, the mystery of the Soul of the World, the archetype of the Eternal Feminine Principle in the universe, feminine consciousness, hermetic knowledge … all elements obliterated by centuries of patriarchal Christianity. Many scholars recognize in the Black Virgin elements of the worship of the beloved goddesses of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations: Ceres, Demeter, Diana, Cybele, Artemis-Venus and especially Isis. She has become the ‘dea abscondita’ the hidden goddess who is still worshiped regardless, but under a different guise. Isis was commonly represented seated on a throne holding her child Horus – she is the stone seat, the mother of the king from whom he derives his power. Isis is also the devoted mother and the sorrowing wife, images applied to Our Lady. Statues of Isis/Horus were carried throughout Europe by the conquering Roman armies. They were later Christianized and renamed Mary and Jesus and are the original source of the black Madonnas. Isis was also referred to as the Great Mother and was particularly venerated in spring (May the month of the Virgin Mothers).” – from the documents of The Church of St. John the Evangelist, The Red Roof Church, Montreal

Photo Credit: grailgate.com

Photo Credit: grailgate.com

“Whether the black Madonna grew from the story of Isis or is rather a holdover of the worship of a four-breasted Magog as she transformed into St. Margret is one of those fabulous mysteries we’ll probably never fully grasp.” – Jim O’Donnell

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.

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A geological anomaly shrouded in mystery

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.

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View of monastery and basilica from the St Joan funicular

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.

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Viewpoint in the Square outside monastery

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.

“Finally the Black Virgin is not unrelated to Mary Magdalene and the Black Sarah (Sara la Kali) venerated by gypsies. She is thus connected as is everything else in the world to the Knights Templar, the Cathars, and the August Priory of Sion, hence the Merovingian royal blood-line. It Is not fortuitous that Montserrat the shrine of the Black Virgin is also the setting of Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail. Ultimately, the Black Virgin may symbolize the other Church, that of Mary Magdalene, James, Zacchaeus, the Gnostics, the Cathars, the alchemists, and the troubadours. When the troubadour sings of his wife and mistress, he is also singing of the Church of Rome and the underground church of Catharism, the former nagging and stifling, the latter mysterious but enlightening and liberating.” – from the documents of the Red Roof Church

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.

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Atrium leading to basilica

 

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Jesus and the Apostles

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.

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Vessels for incense in both humble and priceless designs are hung throughout the sanctuary

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.

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Alabaster carvings

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.

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Another view of the mountain cluster behind the monastery

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.

la moreneta

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.

la moreneta

Photo Credit: vivaster.com

“For centuries countless Christians have had recourse to Our Lady of Montserrat for her intercession to keep them going when life was hard.” – John Paul II, “Address at Montserrat”, 17 November 1982

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.

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The sheltered post-visit Ave Maria Way, built in 1982, ceramic work in Baroque style by Joan Guivenau

“We must remember our goal is specific and very well defined: heaven. The destination determines to a great extent what transport to use, the baggage to bring and provisions along the way. The Blessed Virgin tells us not to carry too many things, nor wear cumbersome clothes, and to walk briskly towards our Father’s house. She reminds us that nothing on this earth is permanent; and that everything must be subordinated to the completion of the journey, of which perhaps we have already covered a considerable portion.” Cf F Fernandez, “In Conversation with God”, 6:195-6

Lighting a candle in the Ave Maria Way

Lighting a candle in the Ave Maria Way

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.

Pinnable Images:

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Tips, Practicalities and Information:

No és ben casat qui no dan la dona a Montserrat: He is not well wed who has not taken his wife to Montserrat.

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

Where else to stay in Barcelona.

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View from monastery square toward hotel Abat Cisneros (ca. 1563) and apartments

Comments

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Fiona – I’m not Catholic, but I found the service extremely moving. Pete was happy to receive Holy Communion.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Vicky (and Buddy!) – Yes, there is a serenity that is hard to describe. I hope you get to visit her, too.

  1. says

    Wow, this is a great post! We took our kids to Montserrat a couple of years ago on a day-trip from Barcelona, and you provided far more interesting information than our guide did! I’d love to get back – especially because I didn’t capture that great photo of the monastery/basilica from above.
    Eric Stoen has an awesome blog post here: Traveling Deeper in Montreal with AFARMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Eric – Thank you so much. You’re right, the view of the complex from the St Joan funicular is the shot you want to get. Not a clear day for us, but still very happy to have seen the view.

  2. Carol Colborn says

    Wow that is one great article! And the geological mystery provides brings up the spirituality of the place a big notch!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Carol – There’s a lot more about the geological energy that is supposedly concentrated at this location, but at the risk over going really woo-woo, I had to stop somewhere!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Carolann and Macrae – We’d say it’s definitely a don’t miss when you’re in Barcelona.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Sarah – It was all that indeed. And there has been a residual effect, too. Quite amazing.

  3. says

    I always learn a lot from your posts, Betsy. I spent a night in Montserrat and it was such a special place. We heard the choir, and there were no crowds and it was quite mystical. We didn’t see La Morenta, however, except from a distance, so I’m glad I could experience through your blog.
    Wandering Carol has an awesome blog post here: 6 reasons why travel and writing are loversMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Carol – Thank you so much. Now would be the time to admit we didn’t have the slightest clue about La Moreneta – even that she existed, with certainly no intentions of having the experience with her that we did. This kind of unexpectedness has been a hallmark of our travels and we’ve learned to roll with it.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Gemma – Right? My thoughts were preoccupied with what it must have taken to get all those building materials up there. The journey up the mountain by train is not for the faint-hearted.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Suze – Yes, part of the overall mystery. Maybe she was just reminding me I needed to write this post? 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Mags – I wasn’t prepared to relate to this visit from a spiritual perspective, but I’m glad the additional dimension was part of our experience.

  4. says

    This was such a special experience — and to hear the choir, too. Must have been wonderful. Would love to visit here so it was great to get all of the background and information you’ve posted. The view from the monastery and basilica from the funicular is stunning.
    Cathy Sweeney has an awesome blog post here: Authentic Tuscany at La NovellinaMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Cathy – Yes, we were very fortunate that our schedule was open on this Sunday. It would have been quite a different experience on another day.

  5. says

    It’s fascinating how many of the indigenous people combined their original religious rituals with Catholicism and how each country has their own legends and traditions. La Moreneta and Montserrat sound like a “don’t miss” visit (which we unfortunately did miss!) and the Basilica as well as the views are incredible! (P.S. Have you gotten enough of Wagoner’s music yet?)
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go has an awesome blog post here: Look Up, Look Down, Look All AroundMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Anita – Yes, I found the purported links between the pre-Christian deities and the entire Black Madonna phenomenon fascinating. Ha, yes, Wagner. He pops up everywhere! LOL

  6. says

    Great, comprehensive piece. I think it’s so important to visit spiritual sites and houses of worship when you travel. You get such a sense of history, of art, of a community and – in this case – there’s so much more to a carving than meets the eye.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Vanessa – All very true. I am always touched by how meaningful these visits can be, even though I’m not a regular churchgoer. You definitely feel the power of the deity.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Jenny – Yes, we feel the same way. Even if we may not understand it (and we didn’t for the most part, except for traditional Latin, which Pete knew), we can still feel connected. Yes, don’t miss the funicular. It’s an amazing vista.

  7. says

    Wow – you really did your homework on Montserrat in addition to visiting it! I have to admit that with the one of the theories that was confirmed “by their parents” I think they should have recused themselves! So many people using their own beliefs to explain the Madonna – I really enjoyed reading them all. I’ve been to that area of Spain about 5 times and have not yet made it to Montserrat so I will make a point of getting there next time because it really sounds interesting and worthwhile.
    Kay Dougherty has an awesome blog post here: Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, FijiMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Kay – Yes, I think they were a little more fast and loose with the definition of “miracle” back in the day. Who really knows? The statue could’ve been a “plant,” even. But the one thing I cannot explain away: there was some sort of a connection the experience made with me, because it has reappeared in my mind so frequently since our visit.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Jennifer – Yes, it’s like all the aspects weave together and create this big, mysterious attraction. Not surprising Montserrat is such a popular place to visit.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Nat – I’m usually not a fan of Wagner, but felt I had to listen to a little bit of the opera during the research. I’m a fan of this piece, definitely. Goes to show ya!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Shelley – I think our experience would have been vastly different without the Mass and choir, so I’m glad we went on a Sunday.

  8. says

    Your writing never ceases to make me happy. I love all the details you provide. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “slow travel.” I’m not sure how so many of us got on the path of seeing the most we could while visiting. Maybe it’s the fear of not being able to come back maybe it’s trying to get it all in while we can. Whatever the reason, reading your post and how much you enjoyed waiting in line and being able to fully absorb not only the sights but the atmosphere makes me long to do the same. You always make me stop and think. La Moreneta in Montserrat was just added to my list of places to spend time at. Thanks for that.
    Sue Reddel has an awesome blog post here: Fabulous Hotel Amenities Around The WorldMy Profile

  9. says

    Loved your pic of the monastery and loved the emotional and thoughtful impact of this post. I felt i was by your side.

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Karen – It’s a very meaningful visit. I’m sure we will remember it as long as you have remembered yours.

  10. says

    Your article on La Moreneta is fascinating and what a beautiful basilica! I am not Catholic but a sincerely appreciate the beauty, grace and architecture of these glorious cathedrals and basilicas. Excellent!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Marilyn – Same here. I don’t think you need to be of a certain denomination to appreciate the reverence associated with holy sites. Thanks.

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