I have to say it was well worth rising at the crack of dawn and driving in to the mountains above Barcelona in order to beat the heat and be among the first to see the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Montserrat that day.
At the heart of Catalonia, and amidst a landscape of mountains worn smooth and profiles, bold and imposing forms of the massif of Montserrat rise. The rocks of Montserrat are agglomerates boulders that appear other worldly.
The Benedictine monastery of Montserrat sits nestled in the mountains. Founded in 1027 by Abbot Olivia. Little remains of the original romanesque church. It was enlarged in 1537 and built in the Gothic style. The present church consists of a single nave with 12 side chapels. The monastery was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1811 while looking for the Holy Grail – and failing to find it.
The statue of Our Lady of Montserrat is inside the basilica and sits in a chapel built in 1878 and decorated with hundreds of thousands of tiny mosaic tiles. Climbing the stairs to see Our lady we were surrounded by so much sacred feminine iconography that it was hard to take it all in at one go!
At the very top of the stairs in a tiny chapel overlooking the altar of the basilica sits Our Lady behind a glass screen save for the orb in her hand which was left free for pilgrims to touch. Carved in white poplar, the statue of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Montserrat dates from the 9th century. She was spectacular!
Walking through the chapel and down the stairs on the other side you walk into a chapel behind her seat…looking up at the back of her. In the middle of the chapel stands the statue of St Micheal, protecting Our Lady. The chapel was full of stunningly colourful stained glass and with the morning sun shining through radiating the colours on to the white walls ahead of us, it felt as if we were inside a kaleidoscope. Colours dappled the walks and moved with the sun. Just stunning.
Back down in the main basilica nave, we were treated to a practically private organ concert while dipping in and out of the small side chapels – each with it’s own distinctive style.
Sharing similarities with Montsegur a little further north in France, Montserrat has also been a place of much mystery and visited by many treasure hunters. Some say that the Holy Grail is hidden here, others believe that the Cathar Treasure (whatever that may be) was squirrelled out of Montsegur during the siege and brought to Montserrat where it may be today. Who knows. But just as with many sacred sites, there seem to be layer upon layer of theories!
Surrounding the main monestary are many smaller refuges and chapels nestled in the mountains. In times gone by some were the homes of hermits while others offered sanctuary to those in need of a help. It’s possible to walk and climb to many of these still today.
We made our way back down to the main plaza which, by mid morning, was awash with coach parties. Literally thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to the sanctuary every day to visit, to pray and to buy, buy, buy one of the many sometimes garish trinkets as a reminder of their visit. I have to say that by that time of day, we were ready to make a swift retreat and leave the crowds behind. The energy of the place had shifted and it was no longer a place of quiet contemplation.