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The Road to Compostela: Marian Shrines in Northern Spain

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

In October 2018, Chris and Natalie Maunder did not take the time-honoured Camino, the walking pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, but instead they went by motorway from Bilbao. This caused embarrassment when booking into a hotel used by people who had walked hundreds of miles! We had to keep our shoes and socks on whilst others compared blisters, as we didn’t have any.

Fortunately, we were not the only ones: all the participators in the colloquium on pilgrimage organised by the Spanish National Research Council were at the same hotel. These were academics from Spain, Russia, Poland, Denmark, France, the U.S.A. and the U.K. The papers were all of good quality and will be published. Chris was asked to present on the general area of Marian apparition pilgrimage in the 20th century because of his book on the topic, Our Lady of the Nations.

We enjoyed Compostela’s cathedral, being lucky enough to be there at Mass when they swung the famous huge thurible. The cathedral claims to house in the crypt the body of Santiago, i.e. St James the son of Zebedee. The pilgrim has the opportunity to hug a large, bejewelled bronze statue of the saint. There are also many statues of Mary: Our Ladies of Monsterrat and the Pilar in Zaragoza, and the Immaculada, the three most prevalent Spanish images, and the Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude, her heart pierced by swords, an alternative to the Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows). There are also images depicting shrines outside Spain: Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. The chapel La Antigua de la Corticela (‘the old chapel of the wall’) once stood as a Marian shrine in a Benedictine monastery which moved away from the site in the 10th century (before the present cathedral was built), the monks only relinquishing it to the cathedral chapter in 1957.

The Soledad in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Galicia

The reason we flew into Bilbao and not Compostela was to visit Marian shrines en route. Bilbao is in the Basque country, and driving west one enters Cantabria first. Here we stayed in the beautiful medieval village of Santillana del Mar, a few kilometres from the coast. This was a base from which to visit the Virgen de la Bien Aparecida, an apparition shrine in the Cantabrian mountains nearby. The delicate statue was reputedly found by a hermit in the early 17th century; today devotion to her is as the patroness of the diocese. Pilgrims walk up the mountain on her feast day, the 15th September. We also visited a 20th century apparition shrine at San Sebastián de Garabandal. The visions occurred in the 1960s; three of the four seers are still living and many pilgrims still come, anticipating the divine ‘warning, miracle, and chastisement’ prophesied there. Through the sensationalism of the claims, Garabandal is international in a way that most of the other shrines on our itinerary are not.

La Virgen de la Bien Aparecida, Cantabria

Moving further west into Asturias, we came to the royal Marian shrine of Covadonga (from Cova Dominica, ‘Our Lady’s Cave’), a dramatic site in the Picos de Europa mountains with a 20th century basilica opposite an older cave shrine, made more dramatic by a waterfall descending from beneath it. The cathedral cloister includes photographs of royal visits and parades in Covadonga in 1918 when the statue was crowned; its importance is derived from the fact that it is associated with Spain as a Christian nation. This was because Covadonga was the site of a battle when the Spanish under a general named Pelayo finally won a decisive battle against the advancing Moors in the early 8th century. This kept Asturias as a Christian kingdom during a time when the Iberian Peninsula was otherwise Muslim. Pelayo credited the Virgin Mary for his victory, as he had found a statue hidden in the cave, again associated with a hermit. Therefore a monastery and chapel were built on the site. The place, high up in in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, is quite breath-taking, although understandably full of pilgrims and tourists.

The Crowned Statue in Covadonga Cave Chapel, Asturias

Our drive west was not far from the co-called Camino del Norte, the northern pilgrim route which follows the coast. Santiago de Composela is in Galicia, the most north-western region of Spain. When we met Galicians there, it was clear that they treasured their culture and language as separate from Castilian Spain in the same way as the Basques and Catalans. Our colloquium was at the Institute of Galician Studies, based in an interesting medieval building which used to be a hospital for syphilis sufferers. When we left Compostela, we drove close to the main Camino, and travelled back east through Castile-León, passing León and Burgos.

We were pressed for time and had to select only one stopping place on our way back to the Basque country; we chose Astorga. Here we found one of the oldest cathedrals in Spain, dedicated to Santa María, next to the episcopal palace, designed by none other than Antoni Gaudi. Astorga is on the Camino, and we saw walkers passing through. The interior of the cathedral is full of Marian statues; after a small museum displaying several of them, you enter the main cathedral. The highlights are a Virgin in Majesty; a wonderful example of the Immaculada, with a dragon rather than serpent at her feet, and a picture of Joachim meeting Anna above her depicting the Immaculate Conception; the ubiquitous Virgen del Pilar; a Mexican Guadalupe; and a Madonna with a bird holding the Christ Child, similar to those found elsewhere, for example, in France. Astorga originated as a Roman town named Asturica Augusta, then the main town of the region (it is eclipsed by León today); the bishopric is one of the earliest in Europe.

The Virgin in Majesty in Astorga Cathedral

Back in the Basque country, we stayed on a mountainside next to the main Basque shrine of Arantzazu, which is Franciscan. Arantzazu derives from the Basque for ‘You, among the thorns?’, uttered by a shepherd in the 15th century when he saw the Virgin above a hawthorn. The basilica is a dark, ugly 1950s construction that looks more like a warehouse than a church, in which the small statue, while lit up high above the altar, seems overwhelmed by the space around it. However, we kept this assessment to ourselves; the local people are very proud of it as a fine example of modern architecture! At the entrance, there are large modern sculptures of fourteen apostles (the somewhat avant garde sculptor wanted that many), and a standing Pieta with the dead Christ lying at her feet. The numbers of Basque pilgrims showed why such a large church is necessary, and the place is also full of tourists and hill walkers, as there are many mountain paths passing through Arantzazu.

Nuestra Señora de Arantzazu

This was a base for further discoveries in the surrounding region. There is only a memorial now of the apparition craze around Ezkioga in the 1930s, a small modern chapel with glass on three sides tucked away behind a bar on a main road. A new railway line is to be built above the structure, which will further marginalise it. William Christian’s book Visionaries shows how Ezkioga is no more than an embarrassing and receding memory for many residents of the area, although we saw a poster advertising a seminar on the topic. A more recent and less famous apparition site was at Umbe near Bilbao: the visionary, Felisa Sistiaga (1908-1990), reported her experiences over nearly a fifty-year period from 1941 until her death. Unknown outside the region, she is contemporaneous to more famous visionaries Lúcia dos Santos of Fatima and Ida Peerdeman of Amsterdam. Her supporters have created a shrine area on a hilltop, with a Casa de la Virgen housing chapels; nearby there is a healing well.

The Casa de la Virgen at Umbe

Bilbao itself has two important cathedrals; the one associated with Mary is in Begoña, a suburb. The Virgen de Begoña (known as Amatxu, ‘Mother’, in Basque) dates from an apparition in the 16th century, and the shrine attracts many pilgrims. She is particularly important to sailors, Bilbao being a port, and the major feasts are the Assumption on the 15th August and her own feast day, the 11th October (unfortunately, the day before we arrived!). Many pilgrims walk from various parts of the Basque country to celebrate these feasts. Copies of the Virgen de Begoña are placed in prominent places in the two main churches in the centre of Bilbao, the cathedral dedicated to Santiago, and the nearby San Antonio. The cathedral has a collection of Marian chapels which acted as a summary for all the other places we had visited in Spain: they were dedicated to Our Ladies of Montserrat, the Pilar, Remedies, Carmel, the Rosary, and the Pieta.

La Virgen de Begoña

As we left the very last church on our itinerary, the hilltop hermitage shrine of Santa María de Zumárraga (known as the Antigua, or old church), Natalie sprained her ankle on an uneven step, and we found out how good the Basque medical services are (very efficient, in our experience). It was good timing, as we had only the airport to negotiate the next day, and it all went well. We were impressed with the facilities for wheelchairs in both Bilbao and Manchester airports! Overall, we were left with the contrasting impressions of the consistency of Marian devotion in Spain, where similar images adorn the churches and cathedrals, and the diversity of its regions. Just travelling across the far north of Spain and back, we had encountered many riches of an Iberian Marian cult articulated in fine artwork and powerful imagery.

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