of Montserrat, Spain: 718
Blackened by candles that burned before the statue day and night
this particular image dates back to at least the twelfth century. St.
Ignatius of Loyola made an annual pilgrimage to Montserrat as have a
million or more pilgrims every year in modern times.
The mountain named Montserrat rises 20 miles northwest of Barcelona, in
the region of Catalonia, which takes it names from the Spanish,
Catalan, for "sawn mountain" probably because its rock outgrowths seem
to be the teeth of a saw from a distance.
These most unusual lofty cone-shaped jags are almost perpendicular. The
highest cone rises to a height of nearly 4,000 feet, while the
circumference around the entire base of the mountain is measured at
about 12 miles. The church which contains the miracle-working statue of
the Madonna and Child sits about halfway up the mountain.
According to tradition, the miraculous image was first known as La
Jerosolimitana (the native of Jerusalem), since it is thought to have
been carved there in the early days of the Church. The statue was
eventually given to St. Etereo, Bishop of Barcelona, who brought it to
In the seventh century, when Saracen infidels invaded Spain, the
Christians of Barcelona heroically defended it for three years until
defeat appeared imminent. Knowing that they could hold out no longer,
they decided to take their treasured image of Our Lady to a secret,
safe place. Quietly, with the knowledge of the Bishop and the Governor
of the city, a group brought the statue to Montserrat, placing it in a
small cave, April 22, 718. A complete account of the origin of
the miraculous image, the cause of its removal and the place of its
hidden security were recorded and in the archives of Barcelona.
Even though the location of the statue was eventually forgotten, the
people of Barcelona never forgot the holy image for almost 200 years.
Then, in 890, shepherd boys from Monistrol, a village at the foot of
Montserrat, were sent unbeknown to them to be the source of the
discovery of the treasure:
While tending their flocks that night the shepherds were surprised by
lights and the sound of singing coming from the mountain. When this
happened once again, they reported the situation to their priest, who
looked into the matter. He, too, heard the singing and saw the
mysterious lights, so he reported
this to the Bishop, who also witnessed the same occurrences. At last
the statue of Our Lady was discovered in the cave and brought out and
placed in a small church that was soon built; this little church
developed into the present church that was completed in 1592.
In 888 there had already been a chapel dedicated to Our Lady and it was
at that spot that the present shrine is located. Eventually a monastery
was added, which grew rapidly, because of the miracles wrought there by
the Blessed Virgin. According to the caretakers of the shrine, the
statue that still presides over the monastery was introduced in the
twelfth or thirteenth century. This statue might have replaced an
earlier one, which could have been destroyed during one of the many
Carved in wood, the statue is in a sitting position and measures
slightly over three feet in height. In Romanesque style, the figure is
slender, with an elongated face and a delicate expression. The dress of
the Virgin consists of a tunic and cloak both gilded and plain in
design which is draped. Beneath the crown is a veil adorned with stars,
squares, and stripes in subtle shades of color. The right hand of the
Virgin holds a sphere, while the other is extended in a graceful
gesture. The Child Jesus sits on His Mother's lap and also wears a
crown and lovely garments. His right hand is raised in blessing; His
left hand holds an object that resembles a large pine cone. A cushion
serves as the Madonna's footrest; she is seated upon a chair that has
large legs and whose back is topped by cone-shaped finials. The statue
is highly revered not only as a religious treasure, but also because of
its artistic value. It is almost completely gilded, save the face and
hands of both Our Lady and the Child Jesus [and His feet also].
Unlike many old statues which are black because of the kind of wood or
the effects of the original paint, the dark color of Our Lady of
Montserrat is attributed to the innumerable candles and lamps used in
its veneration. Because of this dark color it is affectionately called
La Moreneta, The Dark Little
One. Thus, the Virgin of
Montserrat is classified among the Black Madonnas.
The image is in an alcove
behind the main altar. It can be reached by
climbing decorated stairs to the side of the church. The stairs lead to
a large room which is directly behind the alcove where the statue is
enthroned. This large room is called the Camarin de La Virgen, the Chamber of
A large number of people can fit in the space to pray beside the throne
of the Blessed Mother. The pilgrim cannot touch the image, however,
since it is protected by a glass.
Although not located on the
peak of the mountain as are the sanctuaries
of Monte Cassino and Le Puy, the monastery is situated high enough from
the surrounding area to make one think it safe from attack. Yet the
monastery sustained considerable damage during the Napoleonic invasion.
Additional harm was inflicted during civil wars and revolutionary
disturbances. The treasured image of the Madonna and Child was hidden
during these times, but was soon restored to its place of honor when
the church and buildings were quickly repaired. These buildings were
spared during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 by the Autonomous
Government of Catalonia.
Benedictines settled in the
monastery hundreds of years ago and still
maintain the sanctuary and provide hospitality to the steady stream of
pilgrims who go there. The number of historical figures connected to
the sanctuary or who have visited it, including one of its hermits,
Bernat Boil, who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the New World,
thus becoming the first missionary to America. One of Montserrat's
first abbots became Julius II, the Renaissance Pope for whom
Michelangelo worked. Emperor Charles V and Philip II of Spain both died
with blessed candles from the sanctuary in their hands. King Louis XIV
of France had intercessory prayers said at Montserrat for the Queen
Mother, and Emperor Ferdinand III of Austria made generous financial
gifts to the monastery. All the kings of Spain prayed at the shrine, as
did Cardinal Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII.
Some of the Saints who visited
there were St. Peter Nolasco, St.
Raymond of Penafort, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Francis Borgia, St.
Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Joseph Calasanctius, St. Anthony Mary Claret and
St. Ignatius, who as a knight was confessed by one of the monks. After
spending a night praying before the image of Our Lady of Montserrat, he
began his new life and the founding of Jesuit order. A few miles away
is Manresa, a pilgrim shrine of the Society of Jesus. The shrine holds
the cave wherein St. Ignatius Loyola retired from the world and wrote
his Spiritual Exercises.
The Virgin of Montserrat was
declared the Patron Saint of the Diocese
of Catalonia by Leo XIII. The statue has always been one of the most
celebrated images in Spain.
A historian wrote: "In all
ages the sinful, the suffering, the sorrowful, have laid their woes at
the feet of Our Lady of Montserrat, and none have ever gone away
unheard or unaided."