Postcard from Zaragoza, Spain: Alma Mater and the Countless Martyrs

Above: Reliquaries in the Alma Mater Museum

After Aragon King Alfonso I (1073-1134), the Battler, conquered the Moors (prior post), construction began immediately on a cathedral atop a former Mosque. The king gifted the archbishop with adjacent land for his headquarters.

When Aragon King Alfonso II (1157-1196) ascended to the throne, he had other plans. The Aljaferia Palace was not grand or comfortable enough for him, so he began major remodeling and additions to this prominent location. Upper floors in the Mudejar and later Renaissance traditions reflect the styles favored by subsequent royals of Aragon and Spain.

At some later point, the palace was turned back over to the Catholic Church for the Archbishop’s luxurious home. About a decade ago the interior was transformed into a stunning space for a museum, Alma Mater, with beautiful woodwork and soft illumination creating atmospheric viewing of the priceless collection of religious art contained within.

The images above bring to light the prevalence of portrayals of Santa Engracia in churches throughout Zaragoza. A native of Portugal, Engracia was betrothed to a wealthy man in Gaul in the year 303, or thereabouts. Her servant Julia, her uncle and 16 other noblemen provided an escort on her long journey. Upon stopping at Zaragoza, the young virgin was shocked to learn of the persecution of Christians by the minions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Engracia decided to make a case against the continuation of the atrocities directly to the governor. Her appeal was not well received. She was arrested, beaten severely and thrown into jail to let her wounds (some portrayals depict a rather major peg driven into her head) fester until they killed her. As avowed Christians, her entire entourage was arrested and beheaded.

The governor determined the deaths of those 18 were not sufficient to fulfill his quest to quash the rise of Christianity. Many more were rounded up and martyred by sword. To prevent veneration of their remains, their bodies were burned, with their ashes combined with those of common criminals. But, legend holds, a miraculous rain fell, whitened the ashes of the Christians and separated them into tidy little piles.

The remains of all of these martyrs were assembled and entombed with those of Engracia and her entourage. A church was built on the site of her martyrdom, with her crypt down below. The original church was replaced, but the final resting place of Santa Engracia and the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza remain.

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