Sunday, 20 April 2014

Masses on a mountain

Now that it is Easter I thought it appropriate to post a report on the visit we made to the Montserrat monastery in Catalonia, Spain, two years ago in late April. We were driving on the motorway inland from Barcelona and all of a sudden the majestic Montserrat mountain range, with the serrated tops as if made by sawing, were there. Had we known the buildings on the narrow mountain terrace are this clearly visible to the valley of the Llobregat river we would have taken a smaller road to be able to stop for some decent photos.

The village of Monistrol de Montserrat.
The Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat is the most visited pilgrimage site in Catalonia. It can be reached by cable car and rack railway but there is also quite a row of pay parking spaces up there for those arriving by car. As it wasn’t high season we ventured on the serpentine road. We certainly weren’t disappointed! The views along the way were magnificent.

So were those from the lookouts by the abbey. There has been a shrine on the spectacular Montserrat mountains from Roman times. The temple of Venus gave way to the first monastery in the 9th century AD. Some 300 years later, the abbey started to see a strong growth period thanks to the legend of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Montserrat or the Black Madonna, a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child also called ‘La Moreneta’, the little dark-skinned one. It is one of the few European black Madonnas, although recent research has revealed the statue wasn’t originally black but has been darkened over time and because of that also painted black when being restored over the centuries.

The monastery was largely destroyed by Napoleon’s troops and was rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even during our visit the square in front of the buildings was under construction, which served as an excuse to concentrate on shooting the interior of the basilica.

There was a continuous queue of pilgrims and other travellers not only to and from the parking lot but also to the Black Madonna up above the main altar area. The Virgin of Montserrat is one of the patron saints of Catalonia, the other one being Saint George (more about him in another post of mine here). Visitors are pouring increasingly also from outside the surrounding area to pay tribute to the Madonna and touch her hand for her blessing.

The decorative interior of the basilica boasts golden glaze and many beautiful 2oth century artworks. I liked especially the art nouveau paintings on the walls of the choir. To me, however, the most striking piece was the simple altar in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, showing the face of Christ and his hands and feet as if he were emerging out of a winding sheet or a rough wooden coffin. The powerful work of art is a single concrete piece made in 1977 by the Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, who died earlier this month at the age of 87. It is a refreshing exception to his angular style that is not much to my taste.

There is a nice art museum at Montserrat with works ranging from those of old masters such as Caravaggio and El Greco to those of many beloved artists from the 19th and 20th centuries such as Monet, Degas, Picasso, Miró and Dalí. Most of the artworks have been acquired as donations from private persons, some from the artists themselves. The museum also houses an archaeological and an ecclesiastical collection.

In addition to the Black Madonna, the world-famous Montserrat Boys Choir keeps attracting busses full of travellers to the mountain. The choir performs in the basilica every day at 1 pm. We were unfortunate enough to arrive too late to hear that. Today, the choir consists of some 50 boys between the ages of 9 and 14. Besides singing in the choir, the musical education given at the monastery to each boy includes lessons in playing the piano and an additional instrument of his choosing.

Montserrat humour? Probably accidental. That of the guys at the ad agency perhaps.
The site itself was not particularly to our liking. We prefer to promote our spirituality in less busy settings with less of the market place mentality so often built up around prominent Roman Catholic attractions. But the location of the monastery up on the mountain terrace overlooking the Catalonian countryside and the fabulous Montserrat peaks is simply fantastic.

The Santa Cova path.

The sanctuary of the Santa Cova or the Holy Grotto with the cave where the Black Madonna is believed to have been found.

There are several picturesque paths leading from the monastery to the hermitages in the mountains that constitute the Montserrat Natural Park. I feel walking those paths would be the best Montserrat could offer, a truly unique opportunity to admire the surrounding wonders, both natural and man-made. On a clear day, they say, you can see from the highest peak as far as to the island of Mallorca.

We were a bit unlucky as regards hiking. Because of a rather poor weather forecast, we decided at the last minute to drive to Montserrat a day earlier than originally planned and therefore were a bit short of time and hadn’t made any preparations for a walk. Should we ever return we would definitely devote a few hours to the hiking paths. A lengthy walk with a light picnic lunch and a camera would fulfill my vision of a perfect afternoon at Montserrat.


  1. Uskomattoman hienolla paikalla tuo luostari sijaitsee. Järjettömän upeat vuoret ja siellä sylissä tiiviisti luostari...kaunista.

    1. Ei ihme, että näitä vuoria on pidetty pyhinä kautta aikojen.