Postcard from Zaragoza, Spain: Competing patron saints and cathedrals, plus some miracles

Above: La Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar is on the left while La Seo de Zaragoza anchors the far end of the plaza.

Although conquered by The Battler, Alfonso I (1073-1134), the Moorish rulers of Zaragoza left rich architectural contributions in their wake. The main mosque was an impressive one, so The Battler opted for adaptive reuse, making alterations for Christian purposes and consecrating the new church in the name of San Salvador in 1121.

The Battler’s predilection for war unfortunately extended to his life with his wife, with no heirs produced from the contentious marriage. Leapfrogging over the resulting confusion following Alfonso I’s death, Ramon Berenguer (1114-1162), the Count of Barcelona, was betrothed to one-year-old Petronilla of Aragon (1136-1173) in 1137. The toddler’s father, known as Ramiro II (1086-1157), transferred the rule of the kingdom of Aragon to his new son-in-law so he could retire to a normally peaceful monastic life. As this post is not really about Ramiro the Monk, we will not dwell on his priestly qualifications that include the legend of his beheading of a dozen nobles who opposed him and using the head of their leader as the clapper for the bell of Huesca.

Demonstrating his dedication to the marriage-acquired territory of Aragon, Ramon had much of Zaragoza’s mosque/Catholic church razed to begin construction of a Romanesque replacement in 1140. This church became the home for coronations of Aragonese kings, and, with the papal appointment of an archbishop of Zaragoza in 1318, a cathedral.

The elevation to a cathedral merited a series of extensive remodeling and additions in the then-fashionable Mudejar-Gothic style. The architectural jumble comprising the Catedral del Salvador, popularly known as La Seo de Zaragoza, continued accumulating through the centuries, including a new dome built during the Renaissance to replace a fallen one and a handsome Baroque bell tower awkwardly attached about 1700. Walking around the exterior, one feels as though viewing several entirely different churches instead of one cathedral.

The enormous interior with its series of ornate chapels is overwhelming. After raising our camera once or twice near the entrance, we realized photography inside is forbidden. Most of the images below are from official tourism sites that I hope I have credited in a manner acceptable to them.

Above: An impressive collection of 15th-century Flemish tapestries accumulated by archbishops for their homes is displayed in the Tapestry Museum of La Seo, photo from Cathedrals of Zaragoza.
San Pedro de Arbues
San Pedro de Arbues

With All Saints Day fresh in my mind, let’s pause here to fracture a few tales of regional saints deemed chapel-worthy within La Seo. The impatient can skip farther down within this post to images of the second cathedral, but, in Europe, it’s hard to understand a city without getting to know its native saints.

The Inquisition period of the Catholic Church was a dark one, and the enforcers appointed from afar to judge whether converts living in Aragon were indeed faithful enough or should be deemed heretics were greeted unenthusiastically. Although he was born near Zaragoza into a noble family, the return of the well-educated priest, Pedro de Arbues (1441-1485), to serve as a regional Inquisitor was unpopular with many.

Keenly aware of the smoldering resentment, Pedro wore a helmet and chain mail underneath his priestly robes even when praying in La Seo itself. His precautions proved not substantial enough, though, for him to survive a vicious knife attack as he knelt before the altar. Wealthy Jewish converts were blamed as the masterminds for the brazen assassination, and revenge was swift and vicious. Nine were executed, and four more were sentenced. Following public outcries and burnings in effigy, two more of the besmirched elected suicide as a less painful escape.

Almost four centuries later, the 1867 canonization of San Pedro de Arbues still was viewed as political promotion of antisemitism by the Catholic Church. That aside, this saint certainly has a valid excuse for haunting the deep recesses of La Seo.

Ah, and the death of a young choirboy, Dominguito (1243-1250), fanned antisemitic flames through centuries as well. The altar boy with an angelic voice was on his way home from singing at La Seo when he disappeared. According to legend, he was tricked into entering a house in the Jewish quarter of Zaragoza where, for some unknown reason, he was nailed to a cross and tortured to death.

The boy’s body was beheaded and befooted (Is that a word, or perhaps defooted?) before scattered for burial on the banks of the Ebro. His family finally located his remains, and most of his bones are housed in the chapel dedicated to Santo Dominguito de Val, the patron saint of altar boys, acolytes and choirboys, in the late 1700s. A reliquary found in La Seo’s Museum of Tapestries preserves the saint’s still-detached skull.

San Valero, rosconero y ventolero

Zaragoza saying referring to the Feast Day of San Valero on January 29 and its association with both a popular pastry and a blustery north wind
roscon of san valero
Roscon de San Valero

While cierzo, the punishing north wind that tends to whip into Zaragoza at the end of January, might not be a positive association with the feast day of the city’s patron saint, sweet roscones somewhat compensate for that arrival. Consuming this pastry – flavored with orange flower water, almonds and citrus zest and generously layered in the middle with freshly whipped cream – is a tradition dating from the Middle Ages.

The city’s pastelerias struggle to meet the demand, selling more than 150,000 of the large cakes around the holiday. A bean and a small plastic figurine, often an animal, are baked into each cake. Anyone encountering the hidden bean in a slice is expected to pay for the roscon, while finding the toy designates one king for a day. Lest you assume this dessert only appeals to children, you would be mistaken. Publications in Zaragoza are filled with competitive rankings and reviews about which pasteleria turns out the best roscon.

saint vincent of zaragoza
San Vicente of Zaragoza guarded by a raven

Bishop of Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) at the beginning of the fourth century, Valero stuttered, which made addressing his flock difficult. He enlisted a young deacon, Vincent, to serve as his spokesperson. Around the year of 304, the pair was arrested and brought to Valencia to face the typical Diocletian charges brought against Christians and resulting in the martyrdom of many.

Vincent informed the Roman governor judging them that both he and his bishop were willing to endure any suffering before they would denounce their Christianity. While Valero was exiled, Vincent’s strident resistence incurred the judge’s ire.

The faith of the young deacon was tested by numerous forms of torture: his limbs were stretched on the rack; pieces of his flesh were torn away as he was suspended by iron hooks; and salt was rubbed into his wounds. Still unwilling to bend in his beliefs, he was bound to a sizzling gridiron. Vincent then was left to die on the floor of his cell.

It is claimed that ravens guarded San Vicente’s remains from both vultures and later invading Moors. He became the patron of both Valencia in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal. His piecemeal relics were distributed and redistributed in the usual tug of war among rulers. Some ended up in an abbey in Castres where they became an attraction for pilgrims on route to Santiago de Compostela. I think only the bones of one arm remain displayed in his hometown in a reliquary in La Seo.

bust of San Valero
Testa containing the skull of San Valero

Valero died in exile in the Pyrenees about ten years later. Recognizing the saint’s importance for Zaragoza, Alfonso I began efforts to reassemble his scattered relics for the new cathedral. San Valero’s skull, secured by Alfonso II, is among the most prized. Pope Benedict XIII (1640-1730) later commissioned the city’s finest goldsmiths to craft a gilded silver testa, bejeweled and adorned with enamels, to serve as a reliquary for its display in the Seo.

One of the post-his-passing miracles credited to San Valero involves the Eucharist. At the instruction of a sorcerer enlisted to cast a spell to end her husband’s philandering ways, a woman stole a communion wafer. She placed the host in a small coffer, but upon opening it found a tiny little baby instead. The questionable advice prescribed by the wizard-for-hire was for her to set it afire. The coffer was reduced to ash, but the mini-infant was unharmed.

Even the sorcerer saw the light then, and the pair rushed the little baby to La Seo. The church priest placed the tiny baby on the altar dedicated to Saint Valerius. According to legend, the baby returned to the form of a communion host which the priest promptly consumed – a story the nuns of Star of the Sea certainly never shared with my First Communion class. Although I never would have dared to touch a consecrated host because I knew a lightning bolt immediately would slice through the roof of the church and strike me dead. That tale might not be included among San Valero’s verified miracles, but, more importantly for roscon aficionados, Zaragoza throws a major celebration in honor of the city’s patron saint every January.

La Seo would seem to possess more than enough saintly relics to quench the veneration desires of the faithful in Zaragoza, but then there’s Mary. And the Virgin Mary is held in higher esteem in Spain than any other European country. And the Virgin of the Pillar, also, is referred to as Zaragoza’s patron saint and has her own monumental cathedral.

All this is to be expected as the Virgin Mary visited Zaragoza before she died. The possibility of this might seem unlikely, but there are numerous explanations of her appearance around the year 40 to coincide with the travels of James the apostle, known as Santiago in Spain. By that time, Mary had “retired” to Ephesus in what is now Turkey, where she died in her forties – although the geographic location is of little concern because the church teaches she didn’t actually die; she ascended directly into heaven.

Some believe a band of angels carried the Virgin Mary aloft on a chariot of clouds to visit James in Zaragoza. Photo from Cathedrals of Zaragoza.

Among the theories regarding her visit to Zaragoza is that, aware that James might need support in his preaching in Spain, she traveled by boat to Muxia in Galicia, near the final destination of what became the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. A lot of long-distance traveling, but James himself journeyed all the way back to Jerusalem only to be beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa in the year 44.

Some claim Mary appeared as a vision to James instead of materializing there in person. The “vision” left a statue of herself and a column of jasper for James to place in a church he should build in her honor.

In Mystical City of God, Sister Maria of Agreda (1662-1665) described the Virgin Mary as arriving by cloud. The angels bearing the cloud aloft built the column while traveling. Perhaps the Virgin possessed the capabilities of bilocation, being in two places at once. Maria of Agreda herself is credited by many with this talent – appearing in what is now West Texas and New Mexico to Native Americans, who called her the Lady in Blue, while she simultaneously presided over her abbey in Spain.

Before leaving Zaragoza, James established a small chapel to enshrine the statue atop its column. Through the centuries, grand churches dedicated to the Virgin were erected on the site, but, aside from a few remnants, little of those earlier buildings remain. The jasper column, now encased in bronze and silver, is said to stand in the exact spot where the angels deposited it in front of Santiago. The original wooden statue of the Virgin disappeared long ago, possibly in a fire in 1434, and was replaced.

An intense rivalry developed between the faithful congregations of La Seo and Pilar. Those of Pilar attempted through the years to convince Rome that the seat of the bishop should be transferred from La Seo. Pope Clement X (1590-1676) finally pronounced a compromise in 1676: The calendar year would be divided, with the episcopal seat alternating between the two every six months. Zaragoza would have two cathedrals.

Today’s enormous Baroque-style church, La Basilica del Pilar, was begun under the reign of Charles II of Spain (1661-1700), shortly after the co-cathedral truce was reached. It encompasses the chapel, refashioned in 1754 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, la Santa Capilla de Nuestra Senora del Pilar.

Taking photographs is allowed inside, but not during Masses. A priest was preaching at the main altar every single time we tried to visit, and that entire half of the basilica was closed to non-participants. As the Holy Chapel is part of the Marianist pilgrimage route stretching from Lourdes in France to Fatima in Portugal, masses are said there hourly. As a result, some of the images below are from Cathedrals of Zaragoza.

Two major works by Francisco Goya (1746-1828) are found in the Holy Chapel. Executed in 1772, one fresco was regarded as traditional, in the manner of classical painting, perfectly acceptable to the City Council of Zaragoza who commissioned it. The second fresco, “Regina Martirum,” was painted by the artist almost a decade later on the interior of a dome more than 160 feet above the floor.

By then, Goya’s style had evolved. Painted with thick brushstrokes, the figures were somewhat blurred. The self-proclaimed art experts serving on the City Council were appalled by what they considered an unfinished product and refused to allow Goya to execute a second dome for which he had been commissioned. Goya never forgave the forefathers of his hometown.

But where do they find these lines in nature? I can only see luminous or obscure masses, planes that advance or planes that recede, reliefs or background. My eye never catches lines or details.

Francisco Goya

The residents of Zaragoza must be characterized by their persistence and determination. How else could a city end up with two patron saints and two cathedrals?

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