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The feast of Our Lady of Montserrat: A Catholic celebration with a Catalan nationalist twist

The 27th of April is the feast day of the Mare de Déu deMontserrat,Our Lady of Montserrat, or as she is more affectionately called in Catalonia, la Moreneta, "the little dark-skinned one". One of the only black images of the Virgin Mary in Europe, the Virgin of Montserrat is the patron saint of all dioceses in Catalonia and together with St. George (Sant Jordi) is considered the patron saint of the territory. In recent history, she has also become a symbol for Catalan national identity and Catholic Catalan nationalism. Up in the mountains of Montserrat, the Santa María abbey celebrated on Monday with a mass dedicated to the Virgin, and outside in the main square there were numerous traditional activities including people making human towers (castells), music bands and food stalls, as well as groups dancing the traditional Catalan dance, La Sardana.

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27 April 2015 11:05 PM

by

Shobha Prabhu-Naik Garaialde

Barcelona (ACN).- The 27th of April is the feast day of the Mare de Déu deMontserrat,Our Lady of Montserrat, or as she is more affectionately called in Catalonia, la Moreneta, "the little dark-skinned one". One of the only black images of the Virgin Mary in Europe, the Virgin of Montserrat is the patron saint of all dioceses in Catalonia and together with St. George (Sant Jordi) is considered the patron saint of the territory. In recent history, she has also become a symbol for Catalan national identity and Catholic Catalan nationalism. Up in the mountains of Montserrat, the Santa María abbey celebrated on Monday with a mass dedicated to the Virgin, and outside in the main square there were numerous traditional activities including people making human towers (castells), music bands and food stalls, as well as groups dancing the traditional Catalan dance, La Sardana.


Tucked into the corners of Catalonia's Montserrat mountains is the Benedictine abbey, Santa María de Montserrat, located about a 30 minute drive from the city of Barcelona. Together with the jagged mountains that surround it (Montserrat literally means “serrated mountains”), and the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, the abbey forms part of the rich history and culture of Catalonia. Since its existence, it has promoted the Catalan language and tradition and provided sanctuary to many Catalan academics, politicians and activists during Franco's dictatorship.  Thus, as well as a well known religious retreat, Montserrat became an inevitable space for the rise of Catalan nationalism and today is one of the strongest symbols of Catalan identity.

On the 27th April, hundreds of people take a trip to the mountains in order to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Montserrat. However, the celebrations already started on Sunday evening in the abbey with the Rosary, followed by Vespers sung by the monks, the Escolania boys' choir, one of the oldest and most prestigious boys' choirs in the world, and the congregation. There is also a vigil held in the abbey after members of the congregation present the Abbot with offerings of oil.

On Monday morning, after the early prayers (Lauds), a Mass was celebrated ending with the choir singing the Salve Regina and the Virolai (a hymn dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat and a symbol of Catalan spirituality and patriotism). Pilgrims from across the world filled the monastery to show their devotion by kissing the black virgin that sits in the crypt and offering her small gifts. Outside, there was music and dancing as well as the traditional human towers (castells) and the monks hoisted the Catalan flag (la Serenya) in front of the abbey.

The Black Virgin

One of the only black Madonnas in Europe, Our Lady of Montserrat is the patron saint of all dioceses in Catalonia and together with St. George (Sant Jordi) is celebrated as the patron saint of the territory. In the abbey, the "Virolai", the hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat is sung at noon each day by the Escolania  boys' choir, . The hymn begins with the words "Rosa d’abril, Morena de la serra..." (April rose, dark-skinned lady of the mountain...) and so the Virgin is also sometimes referred to as the April rose. Although the statue of Our lady of Montserrat has always been considered one of the most celebrated images in Spain for its unique colour as well as its religious significance, it is primarily popular among the Catalan people and is widely regarded as a symbol of Catalan nationalism.

Montserrat and Catalan Nationalism

Santa María de Montserrat and the pinnacle-shaped mountains that encircle it form part of a particular landscape which is emotionally charged and portrayed as embodying Catalan traditions, history and culture. Thus, although the area, located in the middle of Catalonia (close to several important cities and towns), is known for being a religious retreat amongst the mountains, it is also a celebrated national symbol for Catalan people.

The festivities for the exaltation of the Virgin of Montserrat in April 1947, constituted the first major public gathering with clear Catalan nationalist connotations since the end of the Spanish Civil War. It was organised by Catalan nationalist Catholics and almost a hundred thousand people assembled at the Monastery. For the first time since 1939, a few words were spoken publicly in Catalan. Although such a concession cost the civil governor of Barcelona, Bartolomé Barba, his position (he was removed from office because of his ‘excessive tolerance’ towards Catalan people) it established Montserrat as a place that encouraged and celebrated Catalan identity.

Santa María de Montserrat has always played a remarkable role in preserving the Catalan language, not just through its use in sermons and religious education, but also as an instrument of culture and communication. The abbey provided sanctuary to many Catalan academics, politicians and activists during Franco´s dictatorship. It also contributed to the cultivation of Catalan through publications such as l’Infantil, Serra d’Or and Qüestions de vida cristiana, and through its patronage of both religious and non-religious books throughout this period.

In 1970, the toughening of Franco's regime was illustrated by the court-martial of sixteen ETA members held in Burgos, six of whom were sentenced to death. In Catalonia, the opposition called for the mobilisation of the citizens and about 300 intellectuals locked themselves in the monastery of Montserrat for three days to protest against these sentences. In response, the police sealed off the monastery but the actions helped convince the Francoist government to reduce the number of death sentences and once again Montserrat was represented as a refuge for separatist nationalists and those against Franco's regime.

Montserrat has not only played an important part in the Catalan nationalist movement for its cultural and historical reasons, but also because it is a concrete location that forms part of the land. It is a place where land, religion and nationalism come together, a centre of meaning for religious Catalan nationalism and a symbol of a nationalist movement.  Indeed, it is the words of Bishop Josep Torras i Bages, one of the main figures of Catholic Catalan nationalism from the late 19th and early 20thcentury, that are boldly engraved into the gate of the abbey: “Catalunya serà cristiana o no serà”, “Catalonia will be Christian or will not exist”. As such, those who honour Montserrat as both a spiritual and nationalist stronghold are among the many people who gathered today to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Montserrat.

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  • The Montserrat Basilica, located next to the monastery (by M. Martí)

  • The Montserrat Basilica, located next to the monastery (by M. Martí)