Back to Barcelona Harbor
Continue to Son of Montserrat
Montserrat is an island located in the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies. It was discovered and named Santa Maria de Montserrat
in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, while on his second voyage. It is now a British possession, and much of it has been rendered
uninhabitable by a volcanic eruption that began in 1995 which buried its capital city under 40 feet of mud (along with doing other
awful things). This page isn’t about this Montserrat. We were in Spain, which is nowhere near this island. There is, however,
another Montserrat (in Spain), the one Columbus had in mind when he came up with the island’s name.
Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain”, the meaning of which becomes obvious with a glance at the place. Montserrat is
a mountain, 30 minutes or so northwest of Barcelona, whose highest peak, at 4055 feet, is not extravagantly tall as mountain
peaks go. However, it rises sharply from its surroundings, and has been eroded into many sharp, rocky peaks, making for unusually
impressive scenery. And this being Spain, the unusual scenery makes for legends. One legend says the mountain was carved into
its present form by angels. Geologists have a different legend, one having to do with erosion and conglomerate rocks. Feel free
to pick whichever legend you prefer.
Another legend has to do with a carved wooden figure of the Virgin and Child, known as the Virgin of Montserrat. It is said this
figure was originally carved by St. Luke in the first Century A.D. It somehow found its way to Spain and was hidden in a cave to
protect it from the Moors. According to the legend, some shepherd children in the year 880 saw a "great light" in the area, and
investigation led to the discovery of the figure. An attempt was made to carry the figure to a nearby town, but the figure is
said to have become very heavy. This was taken as a sign that the figure didn’t want to leave, so they put it down and built a
Benedictine monastery around it, up on the mountain. This is where the figure remains.
The Virgin of Montserrat is made of very dark wood, and is sometimes called "the Black Madonna". The darkness of the wood is
apparently related to its great age. Scientists, intent on messing with perfectly good legends, have carbon-dated the figure to
the 12th Century. Nevertheless, the Madonna is the object of great veneration, and people come from great distances to see
it. If you were paying attention when you were looking at the pictures on the
Barcelona Cathedral page, you may have noticed a picture of a side chapel
devoted to the Virgin of Montserrat, featuring a copy of the original figure.
One historical item about Montserrat that is not disputed by anyone is the fact that the monastery was pretty much destroyed in
the early 19th Century, during a visit by the troops of Napoleon. Nearly all the construction now seen in the area was performed
in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
There are a few ways to get from Barcelona to Montserrat. We chose to take the train (one can also take a bus or drive). To
visit the monastery, it’s most cost-effective to buy a package ticket, available at the tourist information booth in Plaça de
Catalunya or in the train station at Plaça de Espanya (the Metro’s Espanya station). The tickets are also
online. The best package ticket includes the train trip to the vicinity of the mountain, transport up the mountain, a meal
and admission to a couple of handy funiculars near the monastery. For the "transport up the mountain" part, there are two
options: a cable car gondola ride (called the Aeri de Montserrat), or a ride on the Montserrat Rack Railway. We bought our
tickets in the morning in the Plaça de Catalunya. At the time we bought them, they were sold out of the cable car option tickets,
so we got tickets for the Rack Railway. We made our way to the train station and took our 40-minute train ride to the Montserrat
area. We got off at the Monistrol de Monserrat station (there is a separate station for the Aeri de Montserrat) and found the
Rack Railway to be waiting for us. We boarded the short, modern-looking train and were soon crawling up the
mountainside. Eventually we were dumped out at the station near the monastery.
It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular place to put a monastery. There’s a beautiful view of the valley below, and the
monastery itself is surrounded by gigantic pinnacles of rock.
One hopes that the story about the angels carving the mountain is true, as some of the rocks overhang the monastery area, and
some angelic intervention in holding them up could be a very valuable thing. But just in case, one also hopes there are some
staff geologists keeping an eye on things.
We made our way to a large plaza in front of the monastery, where we paused to enjoy the view.
Then we entered the main building and found ourselves in an area called the Sanctuary, which is sort of a cloister area
surrounding an atrium. There were some tombs in the walls, and there was a long line of people waiting for something which
we could not immediately determine.
We entered the atrium and found ourselves facing the monastery’s basilica, the façade of which was elaborately carved (apparently
by monks, way back in the 1950’s).
We entered the basilica and found it to be beautifully decorated, though some extensive scaffolding indicated that a fair amount of
work was ongoing.
Through a small window above and behind the main altar we could see the lady of the house, the Virgin of Montserrat
Herself, with people passing in front of her, paying their respects. We deduced that this was the destination of
all those people waiting in line in the Sanctuary, so we exited the church and joined the line.
The line wasn’t very fast-moving, but it eventually entered the church through a door to the right of the façade. The
leisurely progress of the line gave us time to enjoy the chapels the line was passing through. There were chapels
devoted to St. Peter, St. Martin and St. Ignatius of Loyola.
St. Ignatius spent time in Montserrat in 1522 after being badly wounded in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. He is said to have
had a vision of the Virgin Mary here which helped to inspire his future endeavors, which were to include the founding
of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). From the chapels, the line passed under an elaborate archway and up some stairs.
Bronze of St. Peter (Josep Viladomat, 1945)
Altarpiece of St. Joseph Calasantius (1891)
Altarpiece of St. Joseph Calasantius, detail
Chapel of St. Ignatius
Mosaics Along Stairway (Fr. Benet Martínez)
The passageway turned left and past some more decorations.
The line soon went up some more stairs, and we were in a room that was lavishly decorated with gold mosaics, and found
ourselves within arm’s reach of the Virgin of Montserrat. Except we couldn’t really reach her, as there was a glass
wall in the way. But there was a round hole cut into the glass, and the orb held in the Virgin’s right hand was exposed
to visitors. I’m not sure how it works, but people were rubbing the orb as they passed by. Maybe you’re supposed to
rub it and wish for stuff. I didn’t figure this out until later, so I missed my chance (though I think Nella took
advantage). It seemed sort of unsanitary.
We took our leave of the Virgin and followed the path back down some stairs and to the right and found ourselves
in a fairly large chapel located behind the Virgin’s perch. Again, there was a window behind the altar, through
which we could see the Virgin (or her back anyway). This chapel was also nicely decorated. Apparently one of
the assistants of the architect was a young Antoni Gaudí, who worked here in 1876.
Eventually we exited the chapel and the church, finding ourselves in an alleyway called the Cami de l’Ave Maria,
which featured large racks of lit candles. Additional candles are available for purchase if you want to add to the display.
The end of the Cami de l’Ave Maria brought us back to the atrium facing the front of the church. We continued
through the Sanctuary, back to the large plaza where we started. Then we started looking around to see what
else Montserrat had to offer.
Back to Barcelona Harbor
Continue to Son of Montserrat