Visiting the Black Madonna of Montserrat

by Chloe Ryan Winston, Redding, CA

Whether you believe or are just along for the ride, a Whether you believe or are just along for the ride, a visit to Montserrat, sheltering the Black Madonna of Spain, is worth the trip. Nearly three million people a year agree.

The details

But never on a Sunday, if you can avoid it; otherwise, your visit to the Black Madonna of Montserrat will be a bus/car/people convergence. The problem is Sunday is the best day to go.

About an hour from Barcelona, this small area in the mountains wasn’t designed to hold a massive monastery and a big parking lot. On Sundays, large tour buses jockey for position and hundreds, maybe thousands, of European-petite cars park bumper to bumper along the narrow twisting road leading to the monastery.

The monastery and basilica, kept in impeccable condition, are enclosed by the unusually shaped mountain around it, the color of the buildings blending well into the rocky embrace.

On the way up the hill, a small monastery dedicated to St. Cecilia perches on a plateau’s edge. Its Romanesque architecture is highlighted by rocks carefully spaced along the edges of the roof. But the real treat sits around a few more tight curves.

Melodic Mass

The basilica’s always-jam-packed Mass is famous for the glorious singing of the Escolanía, one of the oldest and most renowned boys’ choirs in Europe. Their singing is so outstanding that people come just to hear their heavenly voices.

Minutes before the end of Mass, heavy black doors open at the right side of the church, letting throngs of people push inside to begin the easy climb to pass in front of the Black Madonna.

Part of the enjoyment of my visit was the trip up the gentle, stepped incline, which passes intricate mosaics representing female saints and offers intriguing peeks into other sections of the monastery.

The legend

Montserrat is considered one of the special “power spots” of the world. Electromagnetic fields are said to be strong here, and healing powers are attributed to the small dark figure — if one touches her or the orb she holds in one hand.

So who is the Black Madonna and how did she come to be enshrined in this mountaintop retreat cut from reluctant rock so far from significant population centers?

Her Spanish name is La Moreneta, which means “the black little one.” (In Aramaic, “black” means “sorrowful.”) She is also known as St. Mary of Montserrat, and for nearly a thousand years Benedictine monks have lived atop the mountain to welcome pilgrims to her shrine.

Montserrat as a religious site traces back to the eighth century, when hermits lived there but not as a formal religious order. Shepherds herded sheep on the nearby hills, and, according to one legend, one day in the late ninth century a bright light shining from a cave convinced them it was a spiritual sign.

The shepherds were terrified, particularly after the phenomena, accompanied by singing, was repeated several times, until a figure said to be Mary appeared and told them to go into the grotto. They did. There the fully carved statue of the Black Madonna was discovered. It is believed that the statue had been hidden in the grotto in 718 to avoid its falling into the hands of Moorish invaders.

After being contacted, Church authorities ordered that the statue be taken to Barcelona. With each step the bearers took, the heavier the half-life-sized statue became. After putting it down several times for a rest, the men realized the image should remain where it was found, on the mountain.

Talk of mysterious happenings on the mountain went from town to town. Pilgrimages followed, as did prayers and requests for favors, and, it is said, miracles occurred. Word of reported healings spread across Spain. However, the statue which sits in today’s basilica is believed by many to have been carved in the 12th century.

The basilica

In 1592 the basilica itself was consecrated. During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Montserrat grew, but it was not the site visitors see today. Reconstruction was needed after several structures were damaged by the troops during the Napoleonic Wars in Spain. The monks continued work at the site, but in 1836 Spain’s government, following its anticlerical dictates, expelled them. The monastery fell into ruins.

Late in the 19th century (1881), the monks returned and rebuilt the shrine. The region of Catalonia and Montserrat became closely intertwined, and today’s Catalonians honor the site as a symbol of pride in their land. A huge collection of old Bibles as well as books on history, geography and natural history are also maintained here.

But why is La Moreneta black? She was made of honey oak and would have remained that color if not for the smoke from candles and fires over the centuries. Perhaps the varnish changed color as it aged.

She was consecrated in 1880 by the Bishop of Barcelona, who was so devoted to her that it is said he died with her name on his lips. A year later, Pope Leo XIII granted papal authorization. In 2006, celebrations recognized the 125th anniversary of the official consecration when she was named the “mother of consolation and hope.”

Planning your visit

A funicular, which runs along one side of the site, can take visitors about halfway to the grotto, but the rest of the way has to be done on foot. On special religious days, some pilgrims make the steep journey up the hill on their knees.

Admission to the grounds, churches and services is free. There are a few shops and places to eat, and all is religiously clean. For more information, e-mail or visit