The Black Madonna of Montserrat, Catalonia

Updated on July 21, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis lives in England. She enjoys travel in the UK and in Western Europe with occasional trips further afield.

When recently on an escorted coach holiday based at Calella on the Spanish Costa Brava, I took the day trip to the cathedral at Montserrat, perched on a spectacular, multi-peaked mountain that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal range.

Montserrat is within less than an hour's travelling distance of Barcelona and the Costa Brava Coast. Nestled near a mountain peak 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.

Source

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

National Day in Catalonia

The date of my visit to Montserrat fell on the 11th September, which is the National Day of Catalonia. Montserrat was awash with Catalans 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.


If you dislike 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.

The Black Madonna - Situated Above the Altar in the Cathedral of Montserrat

The Madonna of Montserrat, Patron Saint of Catalonia
The Madonna of Montserrat, Patron Saint of Catalonia | Source

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.

The Shrine of the Black Madonna is accessed via a steep narrow staircase which is not suitable for people with physical disabilities.

Visiting the Holy Cave of the Madonna of Montserrat

There are two means of reaching the cave where the original statue was discovered by two shepherd boys. Walk the mountainside path or take the funicular. There is a sharp ascent from the cave which may too difficult for very small children, the elderly and infirm.

The Mountainside Path to the Holy Cave of the Black Virgin of Montserrat

Source
Path to the Holy Cave at Montserrat
Path to the Holy Cave at Montserrat | Source
It's a steep walk back from the Holy Cave at Montserrat. I chose the funicular instead!
It's a steep walk back from the Holy Cave at Montserrat. I chose the funicular instead! | Source
Looking down on the basilica and visitor centre from the Holy Cave at Montserrat
Looking down on the basilica and visitor centre from the Holy Cave at Montserrat | Source

The Cloister at the Santa Cava Chapel

By Canaan (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Canaan (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

The World Famous 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 of Montserrat. 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

The National Language of Catalonia

Catalonia in an autonomous State within Spain. The official language throughout Spain is Spanish but the Catalan language has a special status in Catalonia and is a compulsory subject in all schools. It is estimated that 35% of the population speak Catalan exclusively and that 11% speak both Catalan and Spanish. Learn to say Bon Dia (Catalonian for good day) and it will help with the establishment good relationships with local people. However, I have not come across anyone in Catalonia who was unable or unwilling to converse with me in Spanish, which I learned from the excellent Michel Thomas series of cds whilst commuting to my workplace. His credentials as a language tutor speak for themselves - he has taught presidents and A list actors to speak various languages. I have tried various different methods of learning Spanish and have found this to be the best by far.


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 at Montserrat Museum

HOURS
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


Sculpture at Montserrat Museum by Josep Granyer. Lacquered bronze, 1930. One of a score of museum pieces that cover the period from Modernism to the present day.
Sculpture at Montserrat Museum by Josep Granyer. Lacquered bronze, 1930. One of a score of museum pieces that cover the period from Modernism to the present day. | Source

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.

A Video Tour of Montserrat, Catalonia

A
Calella:
Calella, Barcelona, Spain

get directions

Holiday Resort

B
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey Catalonia:
Catalonia, Spain

get directions

C
Barcelona:
Barcelona, Spain

get directions

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

The dining room in the Hotel Abat Cisneros. Non-residents may dine here too, but advance booking is advisable
The dining room in the Hotel Abat Cisneros. Non-residents may dine here too, but advance booking is advisable | Source

Have You Visited Montserrat?

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5 stars for Montserrat

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 GlenR

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      7 months ago from UK

      I imagine that it was very cold up in the mountains in February, Mary. It certainly is a lovely place and a spectacular setting.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      We were there in February and really liked the place. I wish I can go there for a retreat.

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      8 months ago from UK

      Claire-Louise. -I look at them with a great deal of scepticism ( a bit like Santa Claus)

      But I respect the views of the many who believe the stories to be true (see my Buddha Tooth Relic hub for a Buddhist monks response to scepticism)

    • Claire-louise profile image

      Claire Raymond 

      8 months ago from UK

      I am fascinated by where these kinds of tales come from all over the world and the black virgin is no exception!

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