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Posts Tagged ‘Barcelona’

Our Lady of Montserrat

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Our Lady of Montserrat

Our Lady of Montserrat

On 25 March 1522 a young soldier hung up his sword in front of a small statue. He crossed himself and looked at the dark features of a crowned woman and the child seated upon her knee, hand raised in benediction. Then he turned and limped away, his leg still weak from the cannonball that had wrecked it. He would wage war no more. The man was Ignatius of Loyola and he would go on to found the Jesuits. The statue was the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and she would go on to greet pilgrims by the million.

Black Madonnas – that is pictures or statues of Mary that depict her with dark skin – are widespread through the Catholic world and often come with a reputation for working miracles. Theories as to why Mary should be represented thus vary from the spurious (they’re really depictions of Isis and Horus) to the practical (centuries of candle smoke have stained them) but whatever the reason they always seem to evoke popular devotion. La Moreneta, or ‘Little Dark One’ as the Virgin of Montserrat is usually called, is no exception. Pious enthusiasm dates the statue to St Luke in the first century, po-faced scepticism to the 12th. Whichever is true – and there is also evidence for the statue having been hidden from the Moors and then rediscovered in the ninth century – what is certain is how quickly the statue became a major centre of pilgrimage from the 12th century onwards. This was no doubt helped by the identification of the mountain as the site of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parsifal. But what really swung it was the miracles. And it certainly didn’t hurt that King Alfonse X ascribed miracles to Our Lady of Montserrat in his canticles, songs composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin that are still sung. For when all is said and done, one can gauge the popularity of shrines by their results: those that produce get the pilgrims, those that don’t fade into obscurity. By these standards the Little Dark One must still be doing the business: even today more than two million people visit each year.

(This article first appeared in the Time Out Barcelona guide.)

St George of Barcelona

Monday, September 1st, 2014

I first wrote this for the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

St George by Raphael

St George by Raphael

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped the enterprising Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions. La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Icon of St George

Icon of St George

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle, well, terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. Those knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing. George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron. The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.

Our Lady of Mercé

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé

Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?