Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland at Montserrat in Spain

Recently I paid a visit to the medieval pilgrim shrine of the  holy statue of the Blessed Virgin of Monserrat in Spain.


View of the monastery of Montserrat

The shrine is located at a Benedictine abbey at Montserrat, around  40 miles from Barcelona in the province of Catalonia. The abbey is a working monastery and home to  80 monks. The monastery is overshadowed by majestic  mountains. The name Montserrat is derived from Catalan and means ” serrated mountain”.  When you stand back and look at this jagged and rocky mountain you can see why the name was chosen.

Religious activity in the area can be traced back to early medieval times. It is said that a hermitage dedicated to  the Blessed Virgin, was constructed here some time between the sixth-ninth centuries. According to legend  the statue which is the focus of the pilgrimage was carved by St Luke and brought to Spain and hidden in cave at Monserrat. In the year 880 some shepherds were grazing  sheep in the mountains when they saw a light and heard otherworldly singing. When the shepherds when to investigate  they found the statue in a cave.

Following the discovery of a statue of  the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child, the site gradually evolved and by the eleventh century abbot Oliba of the Monastery of Ripoll established a small monastery here beside the chapel of Santa María. A small Romanesque church was built beside the monastery and the image of the Virgin placed inside.


View of the  valley below the monastery at Monserrat

My pilgrimage to Monserrat began in Barcelona when I boarded a coach at 6.45am. I arrived at the monastery at 8am. Monserrat is a very important tourist destination and attracts vast numbers of tourist each year so  the site is always busy throughout the year. My early morning start meant that  I  and my fellow travelers were able to arrive  just as the shrine opened  and  experience the place without the  bustle of crowds, who arrived later in the morning.

The Vewpoint of the Apostles is the first  monument that tourists who arrive by car or coach see. It is named after the Chapel of the Apostles which was demolished in the  early twentieth century.  It offers spectacular views of the valley below.  It is located beside a piece of sculpture known as   The Stairway to Understanding . The Stairway  is a concrete monument 8.7m high created in 1976 by Josep Maria Subirachs. The sculpture consist of  nine blocks  placed one on top of the other that represent the different beings of creation from the more material to the most spiritual.

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From this point you walk  along an avenue known as Passeig de l’Escolania or the Choir Walk, passing the buildings where the  which houses the choristers.


As you approaching of basilica of Montserrat you are at all times aware of the mountains that tower of the monastery.

The monastery also houses the Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, a publishing house that is the oldest printing press in the world, still in operation. Its first book was printed in 1499 and you can buy many of its modern publications in the monastery gift shop.


Approaching Plaça de la Crue (Square of the Cross)

As you approach the basilica  and the Plaça de la Crue you pass by a wonderful sculpture of Saint George carved by Josep Maria Subirachs, an identical statue of the saint carved in a different darker type of stone is found in the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. St George along with Our Lady of Monserrat is a patron saint of Catalonia.


St George by Josep Subirach.

The monastery buildings are constructed from polished stones quarried from the mountain. When the sun shines on the stone it gives it a lovely warm golden colour which blends into the surrounding mountains. From the  Plaça de la Crue  you enter into the atrium in front of the basilica.


From the Plaça de la Crue you enter into the atrium

The atrium of the basilica is surrounded by buildings constructed in the eighteenth century. The mosaic floor is particularly impressive and was designed by Fr Benet Martinez (1918-1988).


Mosaic floor in the atrium at Monserrat

The floor is a reproduction of a design by  Michelangelo for the Campidoglio in Rome.



Facade of the bascilia  at Monserrat

The current facade of the basilica was created in 1901, above the door are  sculptures of Christ and the twelve apostles.

The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  is located in the basilica above the high altar.


High altar within the basilica church.



Stairs leading to the shrine of the statue of Our Lady of Monserrat.

The shrine is very elaborate and  its walls are covered in gold mosaic and marble. The ceiling depicts the four archangels.



View statue from top of stairs

The statue  of Our Lady of Monserrat is  Romanesque, polychrome statue  95cm (38inch) in height. The statue depicts Our Lady in Majesty. Mary is in a seated position with the Christ Child seated on her lap. In her hand she holds a sphere  which symbolized the universe. Her left hand is placed on the Christ Child’s shoulder and is symbolic of his omnipresence. The Christ Child holds a pineapple in his hand  the symbol of  eternal life, with his other hand he offers a blessing. The image is popularly known as La Moreneta (the Dark One), due to the dark colour of the Blessed Virgins skin, a result of age and  centuries of candle smoke. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Our Lady of Montserrat Patron Saint of Catalonia in 1881.


The statue in turn sits within a silver shrine. According to the Monserrat website

In 1947, the image was enthroned in a silver altarpiece, paid for by popular subscription and installed in the upper section of the basilica apse.


Our Lady of Monserat behing glass

Today the statue is  protected behind glass. There is an opening for the globe held in Mary’s hand.  This opening allows the globe to be accessible to devotees. Modern pilgrims will often touch, kiss, rub rosary beads and cloth against  he globe it as they pray before the statue.


The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  holds a globe symbolizing the cosmos in her hand.

The statue looks out  the basilica church.  It must be quiet a sight  to see the church full with pilgrims.


View of the basilica church from Shrine of the Lady of Monserrat from above the altar

Monserrat has been a pilgrim destination from at least the twelfth century when the current statue was created. Many miracles  were recorded in medieval times and Alfonso X el Sabio in the thirteenth century  recorded some in Cantiagas de Nuestra Señora (Talbot 2010, 454). Throughout the late medieval period the statues was visited by countless pilgrims including St Ignatius Loyola.

In recent centuries the shrine has had a more turbulent history. The monastery was sacked by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century destroying much of the medieval fabric luckily the statue survived after being hidden by the monks. In the twentieth century 23 custodian monks were shot during the Spanish Civil war. Today the site continues to attract pilgrims and it is also one of the most popular tourist destination in Catalonia.

The side chapels and the grounds of the monastery are filled with wonderful sculpture by Spanish artist. If you follow this link it will you can experience a virtual tour of Monserrat Cathedral and shrine.

Montserrat is also famous for the boy’s choir called  L’Escolania who trace their history back to 1223 .  The Boy’s Choir performs at least two times a day for most of the year at the Montserrat Basilica they also give concerts around the  world . They specialize in a type of singing known as Gregorian chanting.


Useful Links & Sources

Virtual tour of Monserrat Bascilica http://www.montserratvisita.com/en/virtual

Esteve Serra i Pérez, 2016, Monserrat. Geocolor.

Talbot, L. 2010. ‘Monserrat’ In Taylor, L. et al. Enclyopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill  p453-454.




Catalan Caminos


The Medieval Statue of Our Lady of Dublin

On Monday on my way back from the National Archives, I popped into the Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street Church, in Dublin city.


Whitefriar Street Church taken from http://www.whitefriarstreetchurch.ie

Within the church is the Shrine of Our Lady of Dublin.  The shrine contains a  very  fine medieval  statue of the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child. I had to use my phone to take the photos but below is they are a little blurry but I hope they give you a sense of the statue and inspire you to pay a visit.


Shrine of Our Lady of Dublin

The statue of 15th century date originally belonged to the Cistercian abbey of St. Mary’s located on the north bank of the Liffey in Dublin.

The statue is life-sized and carved of oak. It was originally brightly painted and traces of gold and bright blue polychrome were found in its crevices until the early part of the last century.  It was whitewashed over at a later date.

During the Reformation, St. Mary’s was dissolved in 1539 and stripped of all its valuables and treasure. The statue survived but it was said that it was used as a pig trough  in the  yard of an inn beside the monastery. The statue  was laid face down, and hollowed out back a common feature of medieval stature faced upward and formed the make shift trough.


Our Lady of Dublin

The statue was later mentioned 
in an account of the Catholic chapels of Dublin written  in 1749 suggesting it was rescued from the yard and its new domestic role in the years that followed.

 In Mary’s Lane is a parochial chapel whose jurisdiction extends from one side of Boot Lane to one side of Church Street. It is a large and irregular building. On the Epistle side of the altar stands a large image of the Blessed Virgin with Jesus in her arms, carved in wood; which statue at the dissolution belonged to St. Mary’s Abbey (MacLeod 1947,  56).

The Mary’s Lane chapel no longer survives  and was located at  St. Michan’s House. In 1816 a new church was built for St. Michan’s parish and the old chapel was converted for use as a school.

The statue seems to have made its way to a second-hand shop on Capel Street.  Father Spratt of Whitefriars saw  the statue in the shop in 1824 and purchased it. He had the statue placed on the Epistle side of the high altar in the new Whitefriars church. In 1915 the statue was sent for cleaning and all traced of white wash and medieval paint were removed. When the statue was returned it was placed in a new elaborate marble the shrine erected in the Carmelite church.


Prayer to Our Lady of Dublin

The statue is still visited today and the  feast day of Our Lady of Dublin is celebrated on September 8.


MacLeod, C. 1947.’Some Late Mediaeval Wood Sculptures in Ireland’. JRSAI, Vol. 77, No.1, 53-62.

Pochin Mould, D. 1964. Whitefriar St. Church: A Short Guide, by Daphne.
Carmelite Publications. Dublin.