Marian Devotion Among the Basque

When we travel the narrow and mountainous roads of the Basque country, squeezed between the Atlantic Ocean and spread on the both sides of the Pyrenees in Spanish and French territories, one cannot but admire the uncountable sanctuaries, churches, and sacred places built in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

There is no one single township which does not guard and protect a small chapel in honor of Andra Mari (Our Lady). Some of these sacred places have international irradiation, such as Our Lady of Lourdes who appeared to a Basque girl Bernadette Soubirous (French spelling of the Basque Province of Xuberoa, Zuberoa, just a couple of miles East of Saint-Pe-de-Bigorre). 

Other sacred places are more intertwined with local history of wars and divisions in which the devotion to the Blessed Mary served as a catalyst for creating peace among different factions and deepen spirituality, such us Our Lady of Arantzazu in the Province of Gipuzkoa, or Our Lady of Begona in the Province of Bizkaia, Our Lady of Estibaliz in the Province of Araba, Our Lady of Leyre in the Province of Navarra (also playing a foundational role on the creation of the kingdom of Navarra), and Our Lady of Lourdes (in the Basque territories of France, becoming soon, as already mentioned, a national and international pilgrimage sanctuary.

Nothing comes from nothing (Latin: nihil fit ex nihilo) is a philosophical expression of a thesis first argued by Parmenides. Thus, before I move further to offer a more detailed description of the different popular devotions to the Blessed Mary among the Basque people, I am convinced that there is a need of offering a short anthropological overview on the possible motives, other than faith and devition, for this widespread Marian devotion.

I wish to begin quoting from Andrés Ortiz-Osés (1947founder of the symbolic hermeneutics, and an important researcher of the Basque mythology) and his “Hypothesis of the Basque Matriarchate or Theory of the Basque Matriarchate.” Ortiz-Osés, when studying the Basque matriarchate, considers this phenomenon not so much as a political, structural, and military system, very much in the line of patriarchy, but rather as a psychosocial phenomenon centered or focused on the maternal-feminine architype based on the figure of the Great Basque Mari, the mother of earth and nature, “which impregnates, coagulates and con-joins the traditional Basque social group fabric in a differentiating way with respect to the Indo-European patriarchal peoples.” It is not, then, about power, but a relationship based on love, tenderness and interdependence.

As a consequence, there exists a psychological-mythical substructure of Mari, which plays a decisive role in the family life of a household with the title of “etxekoandre” or “the lady of the house.” This figure is a familial one, of course, because she is the mother; but she also plays a religious or semi-priestly role, because she is the mediator between the household into which she entered as a result of marriage, and the ancestors of that family. My mom, for instance, never prayed in the family for the departed souls of her family, but she was always totally identified with the ancestors of the family into which she entered as a result of marriage. 

This religious-priestly duty of women had a transcendental influence when the “serora” (consecrated virgins not under any ecclesiastical institution, much on the line and tradition of the beguines in the Law Lands) movement, during the middle ages, played a crucial role in helping people deepen their Christian faith, taught children catechism and how to pray, took care of the death and the burial services, as well as, were active in exorcism rituals. It is curious to point out that these seroras were the first group of ladies who took care of the first chapel which was built at a request of Our Lady of Arantzazu in 1468.  

This central role of women in the households also had juridical implications. When the Carolingian laws (9th century) were forced among the different ethnic peoples and cultures of the vast Carolingian empire, Basque particular laws, which allowed inheritance be passed on to first female child in a household, were accepted and kept.

Goddess Mari is the main goddess of the Basque mythology and one of the oldest figures among the goddess-mothers of European mythology still alive in our times.  Goddess Mari controls all telluric movements and the two great Basque divinities or geniuses such as Atabarri (moral good) and Mikelats (evil).  Goddess Mary represents the equilibrium and the harmony of two opposite forces. She is good and trustworthy. She is “Amalur” or Mother Earth.

Goddess Mari is the mythical experience of a primordial live: it refers to a life-experience lived under the constant mystery of a pregnant nature, mother, where food, often planted and harvested by the mother (in all baserri or caserio or ranch, the mother had her exclusive orchard, and no one else had the right to enter and toil the soil in it), and the culture of healing plants, where the sacred space around a fruit tree of life (often a cherry tree, sometimes a pear tree) united the three realms of human existence, namely, the underworld (ancestors), the present world (here and now) and future world (afterlife) were intertwined. The mother, “etxeko andre” or “the lady of the house, toils the land, and as she does so, builds up a harmonic relationship between the three tiers of human existence.

Goddess Mari does not only bring life, but also puts order in the world by carefully embroidering in her golden ring hoop the destiny of every children. The great goddess Mari is definitively the symbol of life, nature and her telluric forces, the mother and protector of all working at the sea, and she is above all little gods, numen, geniuses, and evil figures.

No wonder how Basque people made an easy transition, when Christianity first arrived in the Basque territories in the mid of third century of our era, from this figure of goddess Mari to the devotion of the Blessed Mary. To begin with, the Basque people adopted the name of their natural mother Mari and called with the same name, the figure the church brought to them to be the Mother of Jesus and Mother of God Mary. Mari became Mary.

The transition was a natural one, nothing was forced: mythology became theology. For Basque people, those making a living from the deep spaces of the dark seas, and those making their living from agriculture in the interior lands, Blessed Virgin Mary continued being Mother (“etxekoandre” or the lady of the house), Life, Tenderness, Love, a welcoming bosom, and a never ending feeding Brest.

Now, I am going to offer a brief description, historical context, and popular devotion about 7 denominations of Our Lady Mother Mary, spread over the 7 Basque Provinces or territories. 

1. Santa Maria La Real de Irache (Iratxe), Navarra

The Benedictine monastery of Irache, has been historically documented since the 10th century. Sancho Garcés I, king of Navarre, (who ruled between 905 and 925) gave the monks the castle of Monjardín once he had conquered the Islamic troops in 908. Again, in 1050 García Sánchez III of Najera, delivered a farm to the monastery, with a precise order to build on it a hospital to meet the needs of travelers on their way to Santiago de Compostela and this hospital was to be located next to the monastery.

Our Lady of Irache, also called Santa Maria la Real de Irache, is one of the best Romanesque Marian images of Europe. It is not exaggeration. The carving is placed today in the local church of Dicastillo. It was transferred from the monastery of Irache after the so called Confiscation period, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It is a twin image of the Virgin of Santa Maria la Real of Pamplona, also of excellent quality, but the Virgin of Dicastillo conserves the original Infant Jesus, something that does not happen with the image of Pamplona, where the Child is of a later restoration in time.

The Virgin of Irache is the best Romanesque image of Navarre. Its quality is exceptional. According to Martinez de Aguirre it was made around the year 1145 by an artist called Reinalt, of foreign origin (French or Italian). The goldsmith and sculptor had to be called to Navarre for the elaboration of the work in the times of greater height and economic capacity of the monastery of Irache. 

The statue of Our Lady is 1,25 cm high. Rarely, a Romanesque sedentary Marian images exceed one meter in highth. Our Lady, or Virgen de Irache is the pride of the inhabitants of Dicastillo. It is always in their hearts. When the church is closed, they do not want to stop seeing it. Thus, next to the church, in the adjoining square, there is a replica in stone of the statue of Our Lady. The statue of Our Lady is scorted by San Emeterio and San Celedonio, two Roman legionaries who were martyred for not renouncing their Christian faith attesting already to the fact of the early arrival of Christianity into the Basque territories. With the transfer of the statue of Our lady of Irache to the nearby town of Dicastillo, transferred her protagonism to her sister image of Our Lady of Pamplona, visited today by the thousands of people, tourists as well as pilgrims in the way to antiago de Compostela who come to the Cathedral of the capital city of Navarra. Many women in the Basque country are named after our Lady of Irache (Iratxe), as an expression of the devotion of the Basque-Navarran people to our Lady of Irache, the patron Virgin of Navarra.

2. Our Lady of Estibaliz

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Estíbaliz is located in Argandoña, a few miles away from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Álava the capital of the Basque Country. It is surrounded with green forests and it offers almost a full view of the entire capital city, as it is located on a small. She is the patron of the province and diocese of Alava. 

The site and the statue of Our Lady of Estibaliz are first attested in royal charter from the King of Navarre in the year 962. The present-day sanctuary was built in the 11th century, and it is a true jewel of Romanesque art. In 1138, it was donated to the Benedictine monks of Nájera, who preserved it until 1431 when they sold it to lord Fernán Pérez de Ayala, son of the famous King Enrique de Castilla’s chancellor, lord Pedro López de Ayala. Later, the sanctuary was donated to Santiago’s hospital in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 1542, the donator's inheritor ordered its restoration. The new parts of the sanctuary, most of them restored, were built between the 12th and 13th centuries. During 20th century, many young pupils received instruction here with a special focus on religious vocation. Bearing witness to its gone heyday, a Basque-Navarrese Railway line had its terminus in the sanctuary, nowadays dismantled.

The church is presided over by the famous and beloved statue of Our Lady of Estíbaliz. The most amazing fact is that the statu of Our Lady is a Romanesque carving in polychrome wood, which represents the Virgin Mary as Sedes Sapientiae (throne of wisdom) of Jesus.

3. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hondarribia, Gipuzkoa

The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a hermitage and catholic sanctuary located in the mount Jaizkibel, Hondarribia, province of Gipuzkoa.

It appears mentioned for the first time in a document of 1526, in fact, when the famous Basque sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first who navigated the world around, donated six golden ducats to this sanctuary. According to tradition, the hermitage stands in the place where two children found the image of the virgin. This is the original dedication of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Basque Country. Originally from the 16th century, it has been destroyed on numerous occasions throughout history. The temple has the shape of a ship with cruiser and flatbed walls, which are like the towers of a castle to protect the treasure inside. Hence the name “Guadalupe” or “under the castle” or “Gaztelupe.” The original temple of the XVI century was later reformed, mainly in the XVIII century. The current work dates mainly from the nineteenth century. The tower was built in 1868 and is at the angle between the southern and eastern facades. After the site of Fuenterrabía of 1638, the locality went in great procession until the hermitage to thank the protection of Our Lady during the attack and to celebrate the victory. After the site of 1638, the locality of Fuenterrabía organized a great procession until the hermitage to thank the protection given throughout the attack the action decided, to celebrate the victory. That procession is celebrated today every 8 September.

4. Our Lady or Arantzazu

50 kilometers from Vitoria by road, hidden in the foothills that separates the two sister provinces of Gipuzkoa and Alava, is located the famous Marian shrine of Our Lady of Aránzazu, patroness of Gipuzkoa. Garibay, a Basque writer in the court of Henry IV of Castile in the 15th century, reports the following: "In these times of so much calamity and misery, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Lady, had to visit the region of Cantabria (for Garibay this meant Gipuzkoa) with a holy and devout image of him, which by divine providence appeared in a deep and uninhabitable wasteland of the town of Oñate, on the slopes of the great mountain called Aloya (sic, today we say Aloña. In this year of 1469, a shpherd, who kept livestock, called Rodrigo de Balzategui, son of the house of Balzategui, of the neighborhood of Uribarri, jurisdiction of the said town of Oñate, keeping the goats of his house in the foothills of the Said Aloya Mountain, on a Saturday, which is a day dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while descending down its slopes, guided by the hand of God, to what is piously to be believed. Whose immense Majesty being served, from that day forward, was in that desert perpetually praised and praised her name and that of the Queen of Angels, her Mother and Protector of ours, being of the faithful Christians of various parts that place visited and revered, He allowed this young shepherd to appear in that depth on a green hawthorn, a devout image of the Virgin Mary, of small proportion, with the figure of his precious son in the arms, and a bell, like a great cowbell, next to. This would happen in summer time, for to such a place, alien from winter pastures, he carried his cattle. From this unthinking case, the pastor admired him and, judging him for God's sake, prayed the Hail Mary and other prayers he knew, and then with great reverence, covering the holy image with branches and other things, when night came, he returned with the cattle to his house. Where he referred to the case, and afterwards the town and regiment of Oñate was reported, with the justice gathered many people of the clergy and people, guiding them the shepherd, and with much labor, Arrived at the place, they found the holy image, placed in the green hawthorn. Then, with great fervor and devotion, they all fell on their knees, gave many praises and thanks to the omnipotent God, and to the Virgin and Mother of His, because with such a precious jewel, and in such a place, which was not without great mystery, Visit from heaven."

This is Garibay's account of the mysterious apparition or finding of an image of the Virgin by the shepherd Rodrigo de Balzátegui, on a hawthorn tree that in Basque is called arantza (gorosti), from which it seems that came to call this sanctuary with the Name of Aránzazu. This same story, more or less excerpted with legendary details and additions, has been widely sung and spread by popular Basque oral poetry. 

The manifestation of the statue of the Virgin of Aránzazu coincides, therefore, in fact, chronologically, with the end of the mournful time of the wars of bands and factions, and with the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity under the sign of a more authentic Christianity. And for this, undoubtedly, the Virgin of Aránzazu has been considered traditionally as the pacifier of hatreds and discords and the symbol of the new era. The advent of the Andra Mari of Aloña closes the Middle Ages with its remains of paganism and its aftermath of hatreds and fratricidal struggles, and opens the door to the Modern Age, an age of peace, prosperity, a robust and enlightened Christianity, Age, in short, of large companies in Europe and overseas. Our Lady of Aranzazu was the fourth crowned image of Spain and has been the patron saint of the province Gipuzkoa and diocese of San Sebastian since 1918. A religious symbol of the first order in the Basque Country, there are many women who took Arantzazu or Arantza as their names. 

The small image is only 36 cm. And weighs nine kilos. It is carved on a polychrome stone, which certainly helped to preserve it in the three fires that destroyed the previous temples. It is amazing to observe the absolute nakedness of the Child and its pendant painted to the neck with the form of Cross. Due to the smallness of the image, it is difficult to appreciate from the nave of the temple the details of the sculpture. In 1522 San Ignacio de Loyola was in this sanctuary of Aranzazu. After his conversion, when St. Ignatius was on his way to Montserrat, in this sanctuary he performed a vigil that he recognized as profitable. 

5. Our Lady of Arrate

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arrate is located on Mount Arrate, 556m above the city of Éibar (Gipuzkoa), in the Basque Country, Spain. Its current structure dates back to the 17th century and houses a Gothic image, dated in the 14th century and various canvases by the painter Ignacio Zuloaga. As in the case of other Marian invocations, Our Lady of Arrate has its own legend. According to this, Our Lady appeared to a young shepherd and the inhabitants of Eibar decided to erect a basilica in his honor. Due to the geographic situation of the mountain, away from the urban center, it was decided to build the church in Azitain, a more appropriate place, but when the work began, one night Our Lady appeared in the form of an angel and moved all building materials from Azitain to Arrate, assisted by oxen and making three stops along the way, known as the Steps of Our Lady of Arrate, which are currently marked with three small chapels. The same legend tells that a woman heard noises that night, and saw an angel and she tried to look through the lock of the door of her house what was happening: she saw Our Lady moving the construction materials, and her curiosity cost her the sight of that eye. 

The image of Our Lady dates back to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, so it is made during the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic, and is the only image prior to the sixteenth century that has the invocation of the Immaculate Conception. The statue is a carved on a polychrome wood which represents the Virgin Mary with a child sitting on her lap and carrying a book (the book of the life of the people) in his right hand, while with the left blesses. Our Lady holds in her right hand a fruit, and the carving has an empty space in the back. From the eighteenth century, with the fashion of dressing the images, the size was altered, changing the position of the child and the right hand of the image. The devotion to this image is widespread throughout the Basque Country, and more prominently in city of Eibar, where the feast is a social and massive act of popular piety. It is estimated that the veneration of the Virgin of Arrate, which evokes the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, is being celebrated from the second half of the thirteenth century. Originally the feast was celebrated on December 8, solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, but as early as 1563, Pope Pius IV granted the Brotherhood of the Conception of the Virgin of Arrate, the faculty to transfer the feast in honor of the virgin to September 8, most provably to avoid the cold weather and abundant snow in the month of December.

6. Our Lady of Begona, Bizkaia

The cult of Our Lady of Begoña (the Mother of God of Begoña) celebrates an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the site of the present Basilica of Begoña, in Bilbao, Spain. Affectionately she is also called "Amatxu" (our dear mom in Basque). She is to have appeared to local people in the early 16th century. The feast day of Our Lady of Begona is celebrated on October 11.

The title was established in Bilbao, at Biscay, Spain where, according to local legend, an 8th -century statue of Our Lady was found in the hollow of an oak tree on Mount Artagan. In 1672, the Lord of Vizcaya published and engraving of the Virgin along with his own coat of arms.

The Basque Country has a long tradition of fishing and seafaring. Basque ship captains travelled regularly to the ports of France, England, the Netherlands and Ireland and on to the Canadian coastal areas. Since the 15th century many boats out of Bilbao have carried the name, Our Lady of Begoña or simply Begoña. In 1779 Captain Jaun Bautista de Ajeo and two other Bilbao merchants owned a ship, with a capacity of fifty tons, known as Our Lady of Begoña. Votives left by sailors indicate that Our Lady of Begoña is believed to have helped seamen in distress, who then offered thanks for their safe deliverance. Many women today carry the name of Begoña. The work of the present basilica began in 1511. Behind the high altar is what is referred to as "the Virgin's chamber." She is credited with helping to cure the cholera epidemic of 1855. 

The image, made of linden wood, depicts the Blessed Mother seated in an armless chair wearing a crown, and holding the Child Jesus on her knees, with a red rose in her right hand. Christ is giving a blessing with his right hand and holds and open book in his left. The statue appears to be from the early 14th century, and may have been donated the church by Diego Lopez de Haro, Lord of Biscay, or one of his predecessors. In 1900, Our Lady of Begoña received a gold crown during a Pontifical Mass attended by the Apostolic Delegate. In 1903 Pius X declared her the patron of the province of Bizcaia, and when Bilbao was erected a diocese in 1949, She was declared patron of the diocese as well. In 1908 Pius X raised the shrine of Our Lady of Begoña to a minor Basilica.

7. Our Lady of Ainhoa

Our Lady of Arantzazu de Ainhoa is a center of ancient pilgrimages of the Basque Country. Tradition tells us that the Virgin appeared to a shepherd on the slopes of Axulai, near a fountain that has a reputation for possessing healing virtues. It is also said of this hermitage that when they began to build it in a lower place they found it unmade the next morning, until they had to build it in the place of the apparition. The feast is the day of Pentecost. In 1886, Stations of the Cross were placed by initiative of the abbot of Duronea. In 1895, popular pilgrimages are organized to the place. A grotto was built in the place where the miraculous water runs. New Stations of the Cross were placed. A curiosity tells that Juan Behereche, who died in 1825, was the guardian of the hermitage for seventy consecutive years. The picture representing the apparition of the Virgin of Ainhoa was hidden during the French Revolution. Later it was re-installed in the sanctuary. Ainhoa is also a very common name for women.

The popular devotion of our Lady of Ainhoa is closely related to the story of our Lady of Aranzazu. Due to the geographical difficulties for the Basque faithful on the French side of the Pyrenees to travel through the hills and mountains to go to Arantzazu to pay their homage to Our Lady, they decided to create a replica of Aranzazu in Ainhoa. This, the two religious sites, share the legend and the devotion.

 

Fr. Antonio's Blog

Reflections from Padre Antonio Egiguren, Vicar at the Cathedral of St. John's the Evangelist.


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