St. Mary Major in Rome may be the most important of all Marian shrines, and Lourdes may be the most famous; but it is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza that can boast being the oldest church in the world devoted to the Virgin Mary. Dating as far back as the 1st century AD, it commemorates Mary’s miraculous appearance to James the Greater during his missionary travels, the first known such appearance of a Marian vision. After the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, it is the second most important pilgrimage church in Spain, and both Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were known to have venerated this shrine. The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was recently designated one of the Twelve Treasures of Spain.
After the scattering of the Twelve Apostles from Judea, James the Greater travelled to distant Spain, the westernmost province of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, his labors were not going well. His early efforts bore little fruit, and he made very few converts. One day he prayed along the shore of the Ebro River, asking for help. While the exact details are unknown, legend has it that he invoked the name of Mary during his prayers, possibly making this the first time a Christian prayed in the name of the Virgin.
Whatever he prayed, it was Mary who answered. In a miraculous vision, she appeared before James and offered him words of comfort. She also instructed him to construct a church on the spot, possibly the very first church to be built in Spain. James was encouraged by the vision, and he continued with his mission with renewed efforts. Interestingly, Mary was still alive at the time, probably residing in either Judea or Ephesus, making this the only claimed such vision during her lifetime.
As the legend further goes, right around the time of James’ vision of Mary, an angel appeared and bestowed upon James a pillar made of jasper, as well as a small wooden statue of Mary. This statue was possibly the first icon of the Virgin. Sometime around the year 41 AD, a few years before his martyrdom in Judea, James completed construction of a small chapel in Zaragoza, and placed the pillar and icon inside where it could be venerated.
The chapel became a magnet for the early Church in Spain. However, at some point prior to the 4th century, the original chapel was destroyed, possibly during one of the many early persecutions of Christians. It was rebuilt as a basilica around the reign of Constantine. It has since been rebuilt and enlarged many times. On an interesting historical note, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was attacked during the Spanish Civil War. Three bombs were dropped on the shrine, but none of them detonated. This has been taken by devotees as a sign of miraculous intervention for the beloved basilica.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar is, simply put, spectacular. Overlooking the meandering Ebro River, it is architecturally unlike anything else in Christendom. The blend of mudejar and baroque styles is reminiscent of the great mosques of Istanbul, with a pyramid of domes crowning the main building and four soaring bell towers at the corners. The current edifice was largely completed in the 18th century, and is at least the fifth church to have stood on the spot.
The enormous interior is worthy of one of the world’s greatest Marian shrines. Among the works of art and frescoes which adorn the place are several pieces by Francisco Goya, notably The Queen of Martyrs which fills the great central dome. The famous wooden icon and the namesake jasper pillar are on display in the Holy Chapel. Although the faithful claim these are the two-thousand year-old originals, it is more likely that these were destroyed in a fire in 1434, and that those on display are replacements. Further investigation is pending.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar stands on the south bank of the Ebro River in the very center of Zaragoza, about 170 miles northeast of Madrid. As of this writing visitor information was not available. Web: www.spain.info (official tourism website of Spain)
Zaragoza boasts numerous beautiful churches and cathedrals, many of which were constructed in the wake of the Reconquista (and which incorporate elements of earlier mosques). Two of these, the Church of San Pablo and the Cathedral of San Salvador, are part of the Mudejar Architecture of Aragon UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other prominent edifices of this period are the Church of San Gil Abad and the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena.