The Black Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia
Montserrat is a spectacular, multi-peaked mountain that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal range. It's within less than an hour's travelling distance of Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Nestled halfway up the mountainside you will find a Benedictine monastery, Montserrat Abbey, the basilica of which holds a shrine to the Black Virgin of Montserrat. Visit for a day, or linger for a few days, enjoying the crisp mountain air, and a comfortable bed in a hotel that was formerly a medieval monastery building. Or perhaps stay longer and arrange to make a retreat within the monastery itself.
History of the Black Madonna of Montserrat
- Originally known as La Jerosolimitana, the statue was thought to have been fashioned in Jerusalem during the earliest times of the Christian Church
- The Black Virgin of Montserrat is nowadays also known as La Morenata or simply as The Madonna of Montserrat
- The statue was eventually given to the Bishop of Barcelona who brought it to Spain
- In the 7th century the Saracens invaded Spain. Eventually, when it became obvious that Barcelona could no longer hold out, a group of citizens removed the statue from the city and on the 22nd April 718 hid it in a cave at Montserrat
- For almost 200 years the statue remained hidden. It was not forgotten but details of its location were lost.
- In 890 shepherd boys from Monistrol at the foot of Montserrat were sent up the mountain with their flocks. At night time they saw lights and heard singing on the mountainside.
- The matter was reported to the village priest and the investigations led to the discovery of the statue
- The statue was brought down from the cave and a small church was built to house it.
- The ecclesiastical infrastructure that later developed - the monastery and the basilica - were entirely to facilitate the worship of the Black Virgin of Montserrat
- The monastery was completed in 1592
- The present statue probably replaces a much earlier model. Byzantine-style art is evident in the long facial features of the Madonna and the Child.
- Despite their protected position on the mountain the buildings have suffered many onslaughts caused by invaders, civil wars, and rebellions. But the statue has been protected by the custodians.
- The Virgin Mary of Montserrat was declared the Patron Saint of Catalonia by Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903)
- The shrine that houses the statue, situated behind and above the altar, was completed in 1954
- Every year millions of pilgrims make their way to Montserrat to pay homage to this statue of the Virgin
- According to superstition, the Virgin will intercede to encourage the fertility of a woman who is hoping to become pregnant if she kisses the hand of the statue
The Shrine of the Black Madonna is accessed via a steep narrow staircase which is not suitable for people with physical disabilities.
Why is the Madonna of Montserrat Black?
It is a misconception that the statue is an African representation of the Virgin Mary. It is thought that the dark colour on the face of the Virgin and the Christ Child is discolouration caused over hundreds of years by the tens of thousands of votive candles that were burned before the statue.
Visiting the Holy Cave of the Madonna
There are two means of reaching the cave where the original statue was discovered. On foot or on the Santa Maria funicular, completing the journey on foot. It's a strenuous walk - the sharp ascent from the cave may be too strenuous for very small children, the elderly and infirm.
The Cloister at the Santa Cava Chapel
National Day in Catalonia
I spent a few September days in Catalonia, based in Calella, a coastal holiday resort. From there I took a three-quarter day coach trip to Montserrat.
The date of my visit to Montserrat fell on the 11th September, which is the National Day of Catalonia. Montserrat was awash with Spaniards who had made a pilgrimage to the Abbey. Hundreds of people queued inside the Basilica to climb the stairs and kiss the hand on the Black Madonna. Legend has it that if a woman who is hoping for a child performs this ritual then the Virgin will exert a positive influence on her fertility.
The Prestigious Montserrat Boys' Choir
One of the oldest boys’ choirs in European history is located in the Escalonia (school) at Montserrat, which can be traced back to the 14th century. Nowadays the choir is internationally renowned and gives concert performances all over the world. But its primary role is still to take part in religious ceremonies at the basilica. Arrive at noon and, on most days throughout the year, you will hear the choir give a performance of the Virgin of Montserrat's hymn El Virolai.
Unfortunately the choir was not singing on the day that I visited. But the massed voices of the hundreds of members of the congregation was so incredibly moving that it is an experience that will stay with me for a long time.
Watch the Boys' Choir of the Escalonia Montserrat Sing el Virolai
Other Visitor Attractions in Montserrat
- The scenery at Montserrat is so fabulous that it's wonderful simply to relax on a bench or in the picnic area enjoying the mountain air but there are other things to do.
- It will be a lost opportunity if visitors to the Shrine don't also visit the fabulous and under-used museum and art gallery in Montserrat
- Take the opportunity for a walk on one of several mountain paths of varying length and levels of difficulty
- The visitor shop has lots of souvenirs, local goodies, and books for browsing
The Museum at Montserrat
The museum at Montserrat has a wonderful extensive collection of 1300 paintings, artefacts, and sculpture, both modern and ancient. Just a few examples of those that I loved are the ecclesiastical paintings by Tiepolo and Caravaggio, which mingle with more modern art by a long list of renowned painters which include Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. There is also a interesting collection of signed posters by Pablo Picasso. The museum truly is a treasure trove of art where art lovers might easily immerse themselves for hours.
Opening Hours and Prices at Montserrat Museum
The museum is open every day
10am - 5:45pm
Weekends and feast days (from April 2 to October 30): 10am - 6:45pm
Summer (from June 24 to September 11): 10am - 6:45pm
PRICES (September 2016)
Adults: 7 €
Students, retired and groups (at least 20 person): 6 €
Children (age 8 to 16): 4 €
Where to Eat in Montserrat
In Montserrat there are two large cafeterias, two formal restaurants, a bar, a supermarket, and market stalls selling locally produced food items.
- Restaurant Montserrat and Restaurant Abat Cisneros require advance bookings.
- It is not necessary to pre-book at either of the two cafeterias, La Cafeteria and the Self-Service Restaurant.
- The bar sells a limited range of food
- A small supermarket and market stall selling locally produced products serve the needs of visitors who prefer to picnic in the fresh mountain air. Designated picnic areas with tables and benches are provided.
If you prefer to avoid crowds then it is best to avoid visiting Montserrat on a Spanish Public Holiday, especially if you hope to park in the car park by the monastery. Everywhere was very busy on the day that I chose. It's a good idea to check the calendar of Public Holidays and visit on a different day.
Dates of National and Public Holidays in Catalonia
- National and Public Holidays in Catalonia, Spain in 2016 | Office Holidays
Comprehensive list of National and regional Public Holidays celebrated in Catalonia, Spain during 2016 with dates and information on the holidays.
What to Wear for a Trip to Montserrat
In the Catalonian mountains wear comfortable layers that can be added or discarded according to the dictates of the weather. Comfortable walking shoes are a must. If you intend to enter the basilica the clothing that you wear should indicate a respect for the local customs and values - not too much exposed flesh!
How to Reach Montserrat From Barcelona
- Public bus: - There is only one bus each day in each direction. If you miss the return journey you will probably need to hire a taxi to get to the foot of the mountain
- An organised coach trip: - This is what I chose. Saved the hassle of having to buy train tickets with my limited grasp of the Spanish language
- The train: -. You can buy a pick-and-mix package at the train station which may include:
tickets for the funicular or rack train - one of which you will have to join at the foot of the mountain
A voucher for lunch at the cafeteria
Entrance to the museum
- Car: - There are 400 parking spaces in the car park next to the monastery (you might have difficulty parking here on national and public holidays) and a free car park with 1000 spaces further down the mountain (you will need to get on the funicular or the rack train to get up to Montserrat)
Stay Overnight in Montserrat
Accommodation is available at
- The 3 star Hotel Abat Cisneros, which was formerly part of the 16th-century monastery
- The Abat Marcet budget- priced self-contained apartments, which were constructed in the 1960s