The Mystery of Montserrat: A Sacred Mountain of Christianity

Montserrat, the “serrated mountain”, near Barcelona in Spain symbolizes the vital power of the Church. Even after seemingly hopeless periods of decline, Our Lord leads her back again to her mission of salvation far beyond all known boundaries. What will the Marian shrine of La Moreneta on Catalonia’s Holy Mountain teach us today? Mysteriously, Our Lady of Montserrat brought the faith even to the New World. For it was the hermit Bernat Boïl (1440/45-1507/9) of Montserrat who accompanied Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) on his second voyage and planted devotion to La Moreneta in the soil of the newly discovered continent. On January 6, 1494, he said the First Holy Mass in the New World in La Isabela, the first Christian settlement of the Americas.

Dark-brown and Golden: A Throne of Wisdom

Visitors who travel to Catalonia and open their hearts widely to this Spanish province soaked in the Catholic faith, feel how much the struggle to recover lost Christianity characterizes its very soul. They are particularly touched by the mystery of Montserrat, Catalonia’s Holy Mountain, and its mistress, La Moreneta, the “little dark-brown woman” in Catalan language, whom Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) elevated to the patron of Catalonia and canonically crowned on September 11, 1881. Dark-brown, golden and smiling, mysteriously and delicately, this ancient image of grace on the Montserrat is a Throne of Wisdom.

Virgin of Montserrat by Enric, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It reminds one of the Golden Madonna in the Cathedral of Essen in Germany or the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, also venerated in the Black Madonna Shrine, Missouri: nigra sum sed formosa – dark I am, but beautiful. Christian exegesis relates this passage from the Song of Songs to the soul as the bride of God, consequently to Our Lady. In the hearts of the faithful of other countries, the Catalan Moreneta will turn thoughts to their own Marian shrines, since Black Madonnas, strange and fascinating, exist in many places. Created before 1200, if their date of origin is known at all, they show similar features: about 30 inches high, sitting upright, looking with large and widely open eyes into a visionary distance, they hold with overlong hands a forward-facing child on their knees. With an ageless face, the Madonna blesses us.

The eyes of La Moreneta, described by art history as Romanesque and dated to the late 12th century because of her formal features, look openly, calmly and in a motherly way at our Catalan travelers. With a finely drawn nose and full lips, her face also evokes thoughts of the “Beautiful Madonnas” of the much later Gothic period. When they look at her from the front and move to the right, she seems to give them a tender smile, as does La cieguecita – the little blind woman – of Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), the “Spanish Michelangelo”, who created La cieguecita for Seville Cathedral in 1631. 

La cieguecita, so called because of her downcast look, may also have looked into the heart of the truths in the myth of Don Juan– at least the Don Juans who let themselves be saved by her motherly care. Miguel Mañara Vicentelo de Leca (1627-1679) was such a fierce “Don Juan,” a seducer and duelist who was converted at last. Since 1985, the Church honors him as venerabilis servus dei.

Catalan hearts perhaps grasp the mystery of this image of grace more deeply than art historians, when they see in the La Moreneta a work of the Marian evangelist Luke, which he created in Jerusalem. Even if the statue is younger, it could be a copy of a much older image of the Virgin Mary, which may be in this tradition, explaining the similarity among Black Madonnas. La Moreneta’s right hand holds an orb, all the power of the whole world; her bust is flat, leaving room for the Child Jesus, whom she presents to the faithful with her left hand. Like his mother, his lovely head wears a crown; his right hand blesses. Under the four pillars of the throne of Mary, a drawing suggests the heavenly Jerusalem.

Mysterious also in its origins, La Moreneta has always been a symbol of resurgence after external destruction and internal decline that Catalonia’s sacred mountain so often experienced. Catalan memory knows of hermits around a Marian sanctuary in the first centuries, built by the miraculous intervention of the Archangel Michael on the site of a temple of Venus. The Moorish invaders destroyed this first sanctuary. La Moreneta, however, was beyond the reach of the Moors and seemingly hid herself.

As in the Marian apparitions of Fatima in 1917 or in the visions of Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) before the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption on All Saints’ Day in 1950, shepherd boys see a cloud of light floating down from heaven one Saturday in April 880 after the expulsion of the Moors. Accompanied by miraculous melodies, it designates a place halfway up the mountain. The apparition is repeated on the following four Saturdays of this year 880. Finally, the bishop of Manresa, a nearby town, made a pilgrimage up to Montserrat with a large retinue and found the image of grace in the Santa Cova – the Holy Cave. Miraculously, it did not let itself be carried away, but wanted to be venerated on Montserrat. 

Today, the path to the Santa Cova passes by 15 groups of figures. Built between 1896 and 1910, they illustrate the mysteries of the Rosary. Our travelers are particularly moved by the sculptural group “… who rose from the dead,” created by the young architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), the creator of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

Statue of Our Lady of Montserrat in Glasgow by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Sacred Mountain of Spiritual Reconquista

The medieval music of Montserrat becomes a symbol of this early Reconquista, an image of those heavenly melodies from the cloud of light when La Moreneta was found again. “April Rose, Swarthy One in the highlands,” the Virolai de Montserrat praises Our Lady La Moreneta. “You’re the star atop Montserrat: / Cast your light upon Cataluña, / Guide us to Heaven,” is the daily song at noon of the Escolania de Montserrat, the boys’ schola that has existed since at least the 12th century. Watch the impressions from the Montserrat and listen:

For the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the Escolania sang for the first time outside Montserrat. It was a Catholic priest and Catalan poet, Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902), who wrote the Virolai for the millennial celebration of the monastery in 1880 (translation:

A vivid idea of the musical tradition on this sacred mountain, which dates back more than 800 years and is still maintained today, is given by the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a collection of medieval songs and liturgical texts written around 1400. It is preserved in the Monastery of Montserrat today and still contains 137 of its original 172 leaves. Particularly moving is the antiphon O virgo splendens hic in monte celso miraculis serrato fulgentibus ubique quem fideles conscendunt universi. Eya pietatis oculo placato cerne ligatos fune peccatorum ne infernorum ictibus graventur sed cum beatis tua prece vocentur, composed as a canon – “O brightly shining Virgin here on the high Montserrat, shining with wonders as by lightnings, which the faithful climb from everywhere. Oh, look with the reconciled eye of Your motherly love upon those bound by the fetters of their sins, so that they may not collapse under the blows of hell, but be called to the blessed through Your intercession.” Listen:

Napoleon’s troops and the secularization of 1835 destroyed the Marian monastery of the Benedictines down to its foundation walls. In 1844 the first monks return, but it is not until 1858 that reconstruction work can begin. The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 again brings destruction to the monastery, expulsion and martyrdom for the monks and the faithful. 

In what was numerically the largest beatification of all time, 498 martyrs of the Civil War were raised to the altars on October 28, 2007. “The so-called Republicans had formed in Catholic Spain the desire to finish with the Church once and for all,” preached José Cardinal Saraiva Martins CMF (b.1932), Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “This is the reason why thousands and thousands of people were killed just because they were Catholics: priests, lay people, bishops. […] Better to give life than to deny their faith – this urges us to show as much courage.”

And again, spiritual renewal emanated from La Moreneta. A highlight was the feast of the enthronement of the Virgin of Montserrat on April 27, 1947, when her sacred image was solemnly raised to a new throne. Between 70,000 and 100,000 faithful participated in this celebration, the first act of civic reunion after the Spanish Civil War in Catalonia. The initiative was taken by Benedictine monk Aureli Maria Escarré i Jané (1908-1968), abbot of Montserrat from 1946-1966, who not only led the architectural reconstruction of Montserrat, but also made it a cultural center for Catalan Catholics.

Like the numerous pilgrims that day, our travelers visit La Moreneta through a gateway building whose modern facade appeals to them, created in the years 1942 to 1968 by Francesc Folguera (1891-1960), in his youth a student of Gaudí and his assistant in the construction of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. An inscription refers to the heavenly Jerusalem – Urbs Jerusalem Beata Dicta Pacis Visio, reliefs show the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption, to the right of it George as the patron saint of Catalonia with martyr monks of the Civil War, to the left Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of Europe. To the porch leads the wide Plaça de Santa Maria.

Between the statues of familiar saints on this grand plaza who have a spiritual relationship with Montserrat, such as St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Vincent de Paul or Don Bosco, the view widens to the grandiose cliffs of Montserrat. The magnificent architecture of Plaça de Santa Maria was created between 1949 and 1953 by the artists Claudi Rius (1892-1970), Francesc Juventeny (1906-1990), Enric Monjo (1896-1976), who also worked in the United States from the 1950s, creating sculptures in New York, Washington, Detroit and Miami, and Joaquim Ros i Bofarull (1906-1991). His hand created the “Magi” and “Adoration of the Shepherds” on the Christmas facade of the Sagrada Família (1981-1982).

Editor’s note: This article is the first part in a three-part series, “The Mystery of Montserrat.” You can read future parts of this series each Friday or subscribe to Catholic Exchange’s email list to receive future articles.

Dorothea and Wolfgang Koch have also contributed two previous in-depth series for Catholic Exchange, which we highly recommend:

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Dorothea and Wolfgang Koch write regularly for Catholic magazines in Germany. They are particularly interested in the idea of Christian democracy and the devotion to Our Lady that has shaped post-war Western Germany in the Adenauer Era. Their book Konrad Adenauer: The Catholic and His Europe is popular among German Catholics. Wolfgang Koch, a physicist, is Chief Scientist at one of the Fraunhofer Institutes and a professor of computer science at the University of Bonn. Their five children are now grown up, and Dorothea Koch, a chemist, works to spread knowledge about Konrad Adenauer from his home in Rhöndorf, a German National Historical Site.

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