Seeing as this is the Paschal week a Christian theme has been chosen, thus Perennial Pyrenees presents the legend of Our Lady of Meritxell!
Our Lady of Meritxell is the patron saint of Andorra, and in the parish of Canillo a sanctuary is built upon the spot of her miraculous appearance. The legend tells us that on a Sunday morning that was also Epiphany, the people of the village of Meritxell were walking to nearby Canillo to hear Mass. This being Winter, the last thing they expected to see peeking up through the snows was a Dog Rose in flower, and especially not one that held an image of Our Lady with the Infant Jesus nestling between its branches, but that is exactly what they found! Astonished, they took the image and, under the watchful eyes of the parish priest they placed it in the church at Canillo. Imagine their surprise when, the next morning, the image was back between the branches of the Dog Rose. In addition to this miracle, the snows had fallen all night and there were drifts everywhere but not touched the Rose itself. The villagers then realized that Our Lady wanted to remain in that prices spot, and so they built a chapel to house the image right there, which is where the current sanctuary stands today.
The symbolism of the Rose has long been linked with Marian cults, especially within the Medieval period, and Mary herself was known as the ‘rose without thorns’ as she was free from original sin. The flower is typically depicted with five petals, each of which are equated with the ‘five joys of Mary’ and the five letters that constitute the name ‘Maria’. The Christmas rose, a white flower that blooms when the rest of the garden is asleep, symbolises the Nativity and the coming of Jesus (Sill, 1996, 50 – 53). The Dog Rose was particularly prevalent in Britain, and still has an identification riddle associated with it called ‘The Five Brethren of the Rose’ (Locker, 2015, 170; Maby, 1996, 191). As can be seen, the use of a Dog Rose appearing when the rest of the land is still in the grips of Winter, cradling a statue of the Virgin and Child within its thorns, is laden with Marian symbolism.
The original sanctuary and chapel were both Romanesque constructions, placing their date in the early 12th century, and in 1658 a renovation took place which gave the buildings a more Baroque character and larger dimensions. Sadly, in the night of 8th September 1972 a fire tore through the sanctuary and church, destroying not only the buildings but the altarpieces, documents and, most sadly of all, the original Romanesque carving of Our Lady of Meritxell that the legend places within the thorny branches of the Dog Rose. A new sanctuary was built in 1976, which aimed to synthesis a more modern style with the original Romanesque aesthetics and proportions of the sanctuary. It was proclaimed a ‘Minor Basilica’ by Pope Francis. The chapel was rebuilt in the Romanesque style to mimic its predecessor. The copy of the now charred and ruined statue is housed in the sanctuary itself, the original of which was said to have been the oldest in the Pyrenees. The Virgin is seated, a crown of five flowers on her head, with a red tunic speckled with flowers and stars. Her right hand is disproportionately large to emphasise the gesture of blessing and welcome, whilst her (normally sized) left hand hold the Infant Jesus on her knee. Interestingly, the shoes on her feet are the flat wooden shoes that mountain farmers would wear!
The cult of Our Lady of Meritxell is still deeply engrained in Andorran culture, and every September 8th sees thousands undertake a pilgrimage to the site, with celebrations (both liturgical and also distinctly secular – like wine tasting!) marking the occasion at and around the sanctuary. It is perhaps appropriate to end this short article with the prayer often recited to the Virgin of Meritxell, written by rector of the sanctuary, Mosen Ramon:
Meritxell of silence, teach us to listen.
Meritxell of the mountains, teach us to appreciate.
Meritxell of the snow, teach us not to lie, to be true to ourselves.
Meritxell of the rose-bush, teach us the joy of giving and of being humble
Meritxell of the narcissi, teach us the sweetness of life.
Meritxell of the clear skies and resplendent sun, show us the Light.
Meritxell dweller of the meadows and the lowly crofts, teach us simplicity.
Meritxell of suffering, teach us to pray.
Meritxell of the children, teach us to smile.
Meritxell of peace, teach us solidarity.
Meritxell, Mother of Andorrans, teach us unity.
Meritxell, Mother of God, teach us to love.
Happy Easter to you all!
Locker, Martin. 2015. Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.
Mabey, R. 1996. Flora Britannica. London: Chatto and Windus Press
Sill, Gertrude Grace. 1996. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Touchstone Press.