Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tossa del Mar and La Virgen de Montserrat

Previously published on my old website.

La Virgen de Montserrat, La Moreneta, "The Little Black", is one of the most celebrated Black Virgins among the approximately 500 reported to exist worldwide. Patroness of Catalonia, she takes her place among those Black Virgins which in addition to generating fervent devotion, serve as national symbols, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa.

La Moreneta is not restricted to a purely nationalist role. Secondary images—copies—can be found outside Catalonia at Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, two of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Catholic world.[1] When I first entered Tossa del Mar’s (Catalonia) parish church and ran directly into a Black Virgin I was stunned. Her presence was much less surprising when I realized I was facing a reproduction of La Moreneta rather than a primary image proper to Tossa. Nevertheless she was unexpected, for I had never run across a mention of her presence there. Even the ubiquitous Begg Gazeteer[2] lists copies of La Moreneta and other famous Virgins, but nothing about Tossa.

The parish church at Tossa is dedicated to Saint Vincent, a Hispano-Roman Christian martyred during the reign of Diocletian in 304 CE. The church has chapels dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the Ascension of Mary and both the Virgen of Carmen and the Virgen of Lourdes. La Moreneta is found at the entrance, to the right. Opposite her and at the same height there is a statue of the Virgin of Fatima. That makes six separate shrines to the Virgin in this modestly-sized church, including some of the most revered apparitions in the Catholic world: Lourdes, Fatima and Montserrat.

A seventh image is found on an 18th century tapestry representing the legend of the invocation of the Mare de Déu del Socors (socors = aid, assistance, rescue). As the legend goes, a small boy called Xixanet was playing marbles one day and broke a jar of cooking oil his mother had given him to fill. “The Devil take you!” she cried in anger. And take him he did. A demon arrived to carry the clumsy lad away to the Pit. Horrified and repentant, the mother quickly called upon the Virgin, who arrived with her sceptre (known as “sa mitja cana”[3]) and drove the demon off and sent him back to whence he came. This act is remembered in a popular dance performed when this miracle is celebrated on July 2nd. July 2nd, in addition to being a feast day for several other saints, is also the original day of the Feast of the Visitation, the day the Virgin Mary went to visit Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. This Virgin is honoured in Tossa in a small chapel near the parish church. It was erected in the 16th century by mariner Antonio Caixa after a promise made for favors received. She remains the Patroness of Tossa’s sailors and fishermen.

Begg’s entry on La Moreneta is extensive and worth quoting in its’ entirety: 

The documentary evidence for the devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat dates from 932 when the count of Barcelona confirmed and renewed an endowment made to the shrine by his father in 888, soon after the BV was found among the rocks. The gift was confirmed again by in 982 by Lothair, King of France. According to the legend, the rocks of Montserrat, formerly smooth, became serrated at the Crucifixion, after which the statue, carved by St. Luke, was brought from Jerusalem to Barcelona by St. Peter. It was hidden on the Sierra de Montserrat to save it from the Moors, and was found by shepherds guided by a choir of angels, possible in the 8 C. (Moss and Cappannari state it is known to have been black since at least 718). When the Bishop of Manresa tried to move it to his cathedral it refused to budge.

The present statue is a 12 C.(?) majesty; 38 ins; seated with the child held centrally. Montserrat is the home of Catalan nationalism and scholarship, where the language has always been preserved thanks to the great monastery library of the Benedictines and the famous boys’ choir, the Escalona. The sardana is danced regularly in front of the Church. [As with the non-black Virgin of Tossa] The BV is concerned with fertility and marriage, “No es ben casat qui no dun la done a Montserrat” (He is not well wed who has not taken his wife to Montserrat). St. Ignatius of Loyola received his vocation there and hung up his sword. Wagner was inspired to write Parzival there (Montserrat as Grail Castle). Goethe and Schiller both attributed great importance to Montserrat, and the house where Beethoven died was an ancient fief of the abbey.

Former Temple of Venus

Right off the bat, one notices themes typical to other Black Virgins. Found by shepherds (or herdsmen), the statue was immovable thenceforth from the place where it was discovered. The special relationship with fertility and marriage is common (see Notre Dame de la Daurade). It’s also quite common to find important Marial shrines on the site of old pagan temples. The Grail connection is a bit more fanciful; it is surprisingly common folklore among les Noires, at least in Begg's work; but one must be careful to sift through the manure to make sure any Grail connections are not the more recent additions of goofballs. That said, the idea that the Grail is not a thing but an idea, some kind of secret knowledge, is intriguing when we consider that La Moreneta was supposedly hidden at this site to protect her from the Moors. There are a number of Black Virgins, such as those at Tarascon-sur-Ariege and at Thuir, associated with victories over the Moors. In the legend of St. Fris, who in many ways is a surrogate for the Virgin, a victory over the Moors results in the death of our hero, whose body was then hidden within a rock, only to spring forth with new life centuries later. In many details St. Fris’ legend there are echoes of Santiago de Compostela, patron saint of Spain known as Santiago Matamoros: “the Moor-Slayer.”

In another article Michael P. Duricy clarifies some details. At first the image was called La Jerosilimitana due to the belief that it had been carved in the early days of the church. In what Duricy calls a “well-attested” account the image came to Montserrat in 718 to save her from the Moors. She then disappeared until about 890, when shepherds reported to their priest that they had heard singing and seen lights in the mountains, a fact confirmed by both the priest and Bishop. La Moreneta was discovered in a cave and placed in a small church erected to house her.

Several sources consulted (Duricy, Morris) seem to favour the notion that La Moreneta is black due to prolonged exposure to candles and incense smoke. If Moss and Camppannari’s assertion that she was known to have been black since at least 718 is correct, a date which comes more than 150 years before her cult became well-established, this seems unlikely. The original statue, wherever it may be now, has long since disappeared. It would have easily predated the intense interest in Mary that developed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Perhaps, says, Duricy, what the shepherds found was a statue of Isis and Horus, often pictured as black and whose iconography was adopted by Christians for their representations of Virgin and Child.

The current effigy, however, dates from much later. Its blackness may result from the influence of the commentaries upon the Virgin by St. Bernard, or may come from some Grail-related esoteric symbolism. Perhaps it faithfully reproduces the color of the lost original. I reject the notion that it was the result of candles and smoke. My tentative proposal, a notion coming from recent encounters with other legends, is that there is some connection with the long struggle against the Moors; how exactly I’m not quite sure. I am reminded though, of the Al-Hajar-ul-Aswad, the “Black Stone” around which the Kaaba is built. This is the holiest shrine of Mecca, the focal point of Islam. The Black Stone is said to be black from having absorbed the sins of the faithful, who make the Hajj in hopes of kissing the stone and thus expiating their guilt. Its silver frame is a vaginal form, echoing the shape of the Moon around whose cycles the Muslim calendar is based.

But this speculation remains at this time something of a flight of fancy……what I would like to know is when she first became called “Moreneta” which as we stated at the beginning means “little dark one.” Perhaps we should amend that to mean the “little Moor.”

Works Consulted
Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin.

Capella de la Mare de Déu del Socors. (tourist pamphlet in Catalan and Spanish)


Duricy, Michael P. Our Lady of Montserrat.

Iglesia Parroquial San Vincente. (tourist pamphlet, Spanish)

See Also:

Morris, Paul N. Patronage and Piety: Montserrat and the royal House of Medieval Catalonia-Aragon.


[1] In the Middle Ages, Compostela ranked with Rome and Jerusalem as a way to earn a plenary indulgence for all ones’ sins.

[2] Found in the of the interesting if not-entirely-reliable Gazeteer of  The Cult of the Black Virgin.

[3] According to Catalan Wikipedia, a “cana” is an old unit of measurement found throughout the old Catalan and Occitan world measuring more or less 1.6 meters depending upon the region. A "mitja cana" or half-cana would thus measure 80cm or about a foot-and-a-half long.


  1. Spain is an old culture, full of raw passion, tragedy, love and a fascination with the macabre. It takes some time to get used to the intimate nature of the people. Other must-see places in Javea include the old churches from which the place is also known for. A tourist visit is not entirely complete without visiting the Sant Josep De Sa Talaia, an old church that was historically constructed during the twelfth century. After visiting the church, a tourist can proceed to another tourist attraction
    which is the Soler Blasco Museum.

  2. Yes, just got back with my collaborator, The Gid...we'll do another post soon!


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