Peña de Francia:
La Virgen Morena (the dark skinned Virgin),
La Morenita, Queen of Castile
During the summer she is in her sanctuary 75 km SW of Salamanca, 15km W of La Alberca, on Mt. Peña de Francia (1723 m high),during the winter in the convent of the Poor Clares in Zarzoso, the remnants of the ancient original (possibly 8th century) are enclosed in this rendition of 1890; one can see them through a window in the chest of the new statue.
This is a story about pilgrimage - the journey of uncovering the divine. It's about the perseverance it takes to stay awake to the calling of our hearts. Staying awake is a central theme not only in this story but also in the gospels and in Eastern religious teachings. What staying awake might mean and how we might accomplish it, is for each of us to find out in meditation and prayer.
According to Ean Begg this Black Madonna was already around during the reign of Charlemagne (742-814). In those days French knights came to Spain to fight the Muslim invaders in a region that had been settled by French refugees fleeing their own Muslim occupiers. (Hence the name of the mountain, which means 'rocky hill of France) The knights found the statue on Mt. Peña de Francia, attacked and won the day. A French bishop consecrated the mountain as Monte Sacro.(1) Some time later the Christians ran out of luck and blessings, they lost that territory to the Muslims after all and buried the Madonna in order to save her from being destroyed at the hands of the "infidels".
All the Spanish, American, and Philippine websites I searched begin their
stories in the 15th century. Some of them disagree on details, but here
is a combined account of what may have happened.
Meanwhile, in Paris there lived "a man of good life" called Simon Rolan.
He was a Franciscan lay brother, not real bright, but richly endowed with
a good heart and great devotion to the Mother of God. He had come from
a wealthy family and had accumulated much merit when he sold his entire
estate and gave all proceeds to the Church and the needy.
Simon believed that Peña de Francia was in France, West of Paris. For
five long years he searched every cave, hill and mountain, between Paris
and the sea, not imagining that "Western regions" could mean South-West,
in Spain. (Interesting how often the masters give us approximate hints
rather than easy answers. Maybe the answers don't stick, we won't stay
awake to them, unless we have struggled to find them.)
Giving up on the West of France, Simon decided to take the "French Road" to the most important pilgrimage site in Europe, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He thought it might lead him to the "French Mountain", Peña de Francia. He spoke to countless pilgrims on the way, always asking if anybody had heard of his mountain, but nobody could help him. And so his pilgrimage continued long after everyone else had reached their goal.
Having found no clue whatsoever between Paris and Santiago de Compostela, Simon decided to visit the famous university of Salamanca. But instead of receiving help from pilgrims or professors, a simple vendor in the market place gave him his first clue. It was a coal vendor yelling out the superior quality of his coal from Mt. Peña de Francia. When Simón Vela heard the name of the mountain of his dreams spoken in plain day light, he cried of joy. Giving thanks to the Holy Mother of God, he approached the vendor as if he was a long lost friend and asked him to guide him to the mountain. But the man did not trust this eccentric stranger and refused any information. So Simon waited until the vendor headed back towards his home in the mountains and followed him from afar.
When night drew near he found a cave. Full of hope that this might be
the place the Virgin had told him about, he fell asleep. Early the next
morning, Simon began searching for the holy treasure in every corner of
the cave, but could not find anything. Distressed and discouraged he prayed
for strength and courage. Soon he heard the same voice he had heard before
sounding clearly through the cave: "Simon, stay awake: do not sleep!"
At a distance further up the mountain, he saw a dazzling light filling
the place with its brilliance. Trembling with joy, he approached it and
there he found an apparition of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in
her arms sittings on a golden throne. He knelt before her and prayed with
all the fervor of his soul. Overflowing with ineffable joy he said: "Oh,
Lady, the dream of my soul, the inspiration of men and women! My labors
are now ended. Many years have I traveled far and wide to seek you and
to drink in the beauty of your eyes! Do not forsake me, be my protection."
The next morning Simon began the work of digging and excavating. However, he heard the same voice again saying: "Simon, vela y no duermas! Do not attempt to undertake this big task alone. Undertake it in the presence and with the help of two, three, or more people." Evidently this was to avert any doubt or suspicion from people as to the veracity of the miracle and the credibility of Simon. So Simon went back to San Martin de Castañar to look for help. He found a group of four men who remembered hearing the prophesy of La Moza Santa, the holy youngster. Elated to be asked to enter the story of the holy treasure hidden in their mountains, they agreed to help. For three days they dug until finally, on May 19,1434, after removing a huge stone, they found imbedded among the rocks the most holy image of the Black Madonna.
Right then and there, all five men received special graces from the Lady. Simon Vela, who suffered a head wound during the excavations was instantly cured; Pascual Sanchez' defect in the eye disappeared; Juan Fernandez was relieved of a stomach trouble that had been nagging him for ten years; Antonio Fernandez, who had been deaf could hear; and Benito Sanchez' crippled finger was healed. The official document of these miracles and this discovery, duly signed by those present and a Notary Public, is preserved in the archives of San Martin de Castañar.
Three years after the discovery the Dominican order opened a hermitage and guest house for pilgrims on this holy mountain of the Black Madonna. It stands to this day though only one single monk remains, who runs it. The present church dates from the 16th century.
During the first half of the 19th century various villages of the region
fought over the possession of the holy image. As a result the Virgin moved
around quite a bit. For a while she resided in Sequeros, Mogarraz, and
La Alberca. In 1859 she was brought back to her sanctuary on the summit
of Mt. Peña de Francia, but in 1872 someone stole her. For 17 years she
was abused and neglected. When she finally reappeared she was in such
a sorry state that it was beyond repair. That's why it was decided to
encase her remains in a new statue.
You can still visit the 'gruta de la Virgen' the grotto where the statue was found. It is inside a chapel called La Blanca. Some think of it as the crypt of the sanctuary. In the hermitage 'del Robledal', near Sequeros one can visit the graves of Simon Vela and La Moza Santa.
*1: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, 1985, p.258.
*2: Cited in the article "Virgen de la Peña de Francia" on www.galeon.com/sierradefrancia/2_pena_fran.htm.