The story begins in the 7th century with St. Gil (c.650 - c.710),
a hermit who came from Athens, Greece to the Pyrenees to live in
solitude. He is said to have carved this archaic statue when he
spent four years in those mountains living with the local shepherds
as their spiritual father and sharing with them the simple meals
he cooked. When he had to flee from undisclosed enemies he closed
off the entrance to his cave-hermitage to hide his 'treasure:' the
statue of Our Lady, a crucifix, the bell he had used to call the
shepherds to mass and to meals, and the cauldron he used to cook
in. Eventually these things were forgotten.
But some time in the 11th century, a lover of the Virgin came from
the Orient. He was a pilgrim from Damascus by the name of Amadeus.
An angel had appeared to him in a dream, telling him to go to the
Pyrenees and to build a temple to the Madonna in a place where a
white stone stood between two rivers. If he dug there he would find
a great treasure. When he arrived at the site, local shepherds watched
him and miraculously understood when he addressed them in Syrian.
He found the place he saw in his dream, built the chapel and a hermitage,
but couldn't find the treasure. Seven years passed until a bull
was seen beating his horns into a stone wall and roaring. (For more
on the relationship between bulls and Black Madonnas see Olot.)
The shepherds took this as a sign that something important was behind
that wall. Busting through it, they found a cave of white stone
that shone so brightly when it was lit up that it almost looked
like crystal. That day too it was filled with an otherworldly light
that revealed St. Gil's cherished objects.
One of three caves near the sanctuary that were
inhabited by Gil and Amadeus.
St. Gil and his only companion later in life: a deer
whom he saved from hunters by intersepting their arrow with his
body, which earned him the post of patron saint of cripples. A painting
in the chapel of the Black Madonna.
Soon the hermitage was restored and its reputation for being a powerful
holy place spread. Everything about it was considered sacred: The stone
had curative properties and people pulverized it and took it as medicine.
(It's all gone now.) The water from the spring next to the cave is also
said to heal. The cross is said to cure eye diseases. The bell and cauldron
are used in a unique fertility ritual performed by barren couples.(*1)
While the woman prays and sticks her head into the cauldron, her husband
carefully rings St. Gil's bell. He must be very attentive because each
ring will result in a birth! When a girl is born in answer to this ceremony
one is to name her Nuria, if it's a boy, Gil. There are lots of Nurias
In 1075 high ranking clergymen decided to move the Dear Dark One out
of the wild mountains and bring her down to the more civilized environs
of Caralps. But as so often, Our Lady refused. She gradually became more
and more heavy until no one could move her and the people realized that
she insisted on remaining in her sanctuary. On the return journey she
seemed to weigh nothing.(*2)
During the 13th century a hermit brother of the Knights Templar was guardian
of the sanctuary. Centuries later, during the Spanish Civil War, it was
destroyed, but Our Lady was kept safe in a Suisse Bank! After the war
this holy site with its guest houses for pilgrims was restored. A Knights
Templar cross still adorns the modern church.
La Morenita's feast day is September 8th. On that day a reunion of many
girls and women named Nuria is celebrated. The Virgin is carried in procession
from her 'temple' to the hermitage of St. Gil where her devotees sing
Tips for the pilgrim:
A cog train takes you the last bit of the way and drops you off right
next to the sanctuary at the 'Vall de Nuria' station. The line begins
in Ribes-Enllaç, but if you want you can drive as far up as Ribes
de Freser. Nuria is not only a sanctuary but also a small ski and hiking
resort. So there are hotel rooms and cafeterias available. The modern
architecture is not all beautiful, but it's a magical place anyway. The
Queen of Heaven rains supreme here and, as in Montserrat, you can sit
and meditate right behind her throne in a room up behind the main altar.
*1: Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet, p.201 and www.Mercaba.org
*2: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, London, New York: Routledge
& Kegan Paul Ltd, 1985, p.257.
*3: http://pirineos.com/article/articleview/1063/4/ 4. El Santuario de
Nuria, entre la Leyenda y los Milagros.