MONTSERRAT, Spain — For the faithful of Catalonia, the annual visit to the sanctuary here is viewed as a righteous, holy obligation. To persons from afar it is considerably removed from the typical travel experience. It is an encounter never to be forgotten, irrespective of one's religious beliefs.
Framed by immense stone monoliths high in a jagged mountain range 30 miles northwest of Barcelona, Montserrat (sawtooth mountain) has long been a spiritual focal point, beckoning pilgrims down through the ages.
It has become a symbol of Catalonia; the large number of visitors who found their way here as early as the 12th Century is recorded in an illuminated manuscript.
First documentary evidence is traced to the year 888, the donation of the hermitage of Santa Maria, after the reconquest of the territory from the Moors.
Scholars speculate that hermits may have been present as early as the 8th Century. Proof exists of four hermitages. One, under the name of St. Mary, was the origin of the present sanctuary, the original hermitage having been replaced by a Romanesque chapel. The portal still stands.
Residents advise making the journey by aerial cable car to Montserrat on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
The panoramic vista is awesome beyond imagination. Consisting chiefly of limestone with fragments of quartz and slate, the mountain, soaring 3,725 feet over the Llobregat River, rises almost perpendicularly from the lowlands. Natural elements--snow and rain, sun and wind--have for millenia sculpted these towering crags into bizarre, incredible shapes.
Twisted, convoluted, a marvel of geological formation, for almost 1,000 years Catalonia's holy mountain, it serves a singular role in the life of inhabitants. Made of odd configurations and weird promontories, it is renowned as the sanctuary of the famous Black Madonna, patroness of Catalonia.
It is also the site of the celebrated Benedictine Monastery whose library and music school are acclaimed, as well as a boys' choir, the oldest in Europe, distinguished for centuries with an international reputation.
Schiller professed that "Montserrat sucks a man in from the outer to the inner world." As he approached the end of his life, Goethe acknowledged: "Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace." Some suggest that Wagner, while writing "Parsifal," received his inspiration from Montserrat.
Continues to Be Worshiped
Beyond dispute, the mystique of Montserrat is world-famous, largely due to miracles attributed to the Black Madonna, said to have been carved by St. Luke, taken to Barcelona by St. Peter and rediscovered in the 9th Century.
While those origins may be highly speculative, there is proof of the presence of the carving between the 12th and 13th Centuries. The Romanesque sculpture, showing delicate, skillfully chiseled features, is highly regarded for its artistic merits in addition to its religious significance.
Affectionately called La Moreneta, "the little dark one," by the devout of Catalonia because of the dark color of the face, it continues to be worshiped. Countless pilgrims visit the cave where, according to legend, the carving was discovered.
Her fame grew rapidly, extending far beyond nearby provinces, aided in early years by various conquests of the Catalan-Aragonese monarchs. In Italian territories more than 150 churches or chapels were dedicated to the Madonna of Montserrat.
Later the cult of La Moreneta flourished in Bohemia and Austria. Churches in Mexico and South America were dedicated to the Virgin of Montserrat. The name was bestowed upon villages and mountains, as well as on an island in the Antilles.
Unfortunately, during the peak of its 19th-Century prosperity, the Spanish Montserrat suffered almost complete destruction, following invasion by Napoleon's armies in 1811. Buildings were reduced to ruin, monks were forced to flee, La Moreneta was hidden.
Despite this devastation, reconstruction was surprisingly swift, thanks to the rebirth of Catalan consciousness called "Renaisenca," and diligent efforts by the influential in ecclesiastical circles.
In addition to numerous private groups who visit Montserrat, there are collective pilgrimages from villages or parishes. Weddings, anniversaries and feast days are celebrated here. According to folklore: "A man isn't properly married until he's taken his wife to Montserrat."
The scene on a typical Sunday, before cold weather sets in, is benevolent, warmhearted bedlam. Tour buses park bumper to bumper; people stroll shoulder to shoulder. A sprawling plaza near the entrance is crammed with vendors, selling, among choice produce, giant mushrooms. Amid the prevailing atmosphere of a country fair, sips of sherry and cookies are free to sample.