Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Villalcázar de Sirga: The Miracle Worker

The south facade of Santa Maria la Blanca, Villalcázar de Sirga
Photos in this post 2019 Jessica Knauss 
The first weekend of 2019, I stayed with a friend in Burgos. We were looking for historical excursions (not hard to find!) in the north of the province of Palencia because I've read about the Romanesque wonders there and feel like I haven't seen much of what it has to offer. The pilgrims' Road to Santiago goes through the north of Palencia, and my friend wanted to show me Carrión de los Condes, a stop along the Road with famous Romanesque churches. The map doesn't lie, and right next to that wonderful location, the place name Villalcázar de Sirga set off a million (or maybe fourteen?) bells in my head.

"There's a miracle-working Virgin there," I said. "The Cantigas mention her a lot." As shown in the previous post, there are no fewer than fourteen cantigas (3 percent!) telling only some of the miracles the Virgin Mary performed in the thirteenth century in what was then known as Villasirga.

Fifteenth-century castle at Olmillos de Sasamón 
"We'll have to check it out after Carrión," my friend said. We planned to eat the big midday meal in Villalcázar de Sirga after a morning of other adventures. As it turned out, there was a castle in Olmillos de Sasamón we had to stop and look at, and then the churches in Carrión were so stunning that the only reason I stopped staring was that they closed for siesta. We then headed to where I knew a miraculous Virgin, a little piece of Alfonso X, el Sabio, was waiting for me.

The view from the pub, with Christmas decor 
The town felt deserted. The plaza with the monumental Church of Santa Maria la Blanca radiated silence under a bright winter sun. We went into the charmingly named pub, La Cantigas, to find only the barkeep and owner. They told us the church only opened once a week in the winter for mass on Sundays. We were there on a Saturday. "But the website says..." we started, and they answered that someone had written whatever they felt like about the opening hours, but that church is shut tight except for mass on Sundays. And that a surprising number of people come through asking the same question and blame them for the inconvenience, sometimes with verbal violence! Hardly pilgrim-like! Of course we didn't do that, but returned to Carrión for a nice meal and to reflect on the opportunity: Now we had a chance to return more prepared.

Before the redo trip two weeks later, I read all the Villasirga cantigas and got a sense of the awesome power concentrated here. We learned that the "sirga" in the town's name refers not just to any road, but to the type of road that follows along a canal. Given that it's named for a place of transit, Villasirga has always been a site of reference for travelers. Perhaps for that reason, it is the only town to the north of the Duero River that belonged to the Order of the Knights Templar. As was their custom, they set up a hospital and hostel for weary travelers here. In the early thirteenth century, after an artist created the image of the Blessed Virgin, the town was able to compete for the massive traffic along the pilgrims' Road to Santiago. It was at that time that the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca was built, to honor this Virgin Mary and give her a grand space in which to work her miracles.

The star attraction outside is this double set of porticoed doors in the south facade, uniquely set against each other at a 90-degree angle. Although the archways are very similar in style, the leftmost door was made first as the grand entrance near the foot of the church, following Romanesque convention. The doors greet us with angels, priests, saints, and musicians. The way the figures are positioned within the arch tends toward Gothic, as is the slight point at the top. In the fourteenth century, the Chapel of Santiago was added to the transept area, and the rightmost door is a direct entry into that chapel.

Over the leftmost archway, there's a lovely double late-Romanesque frieze. On top, we have a Christ in Majesty with the symbols of the Gospel writers ("tetramorphos," they're called) and then what were intended to be the twelve apostles spreading out on either side. On the left, two apostles extend into the next wall, while on the right, two apostles are missing. They likely existed for about a hundred years, and were removed when the new wall for the Santiago Chapel was built. Below, there's a lovely Epiphany scene, with the Virgin and Child in the center and the Magi to the left. To the right, Joseph stands in the first archway, and the final two contain the angel Gabriel making the Annunciation, and the Virgin Mary receiving the news with an appropriate degree of surprise mixed with surrender implied in her hand gesture.

Note the painted column capitals! 
As I've hinted above, the construction is Romanesque-Gothic transition, so although it's built like a fortified structure with few windows, it's also voluminous. When you walk in, the whole space is illuminated through the rose window in the Santiago Chapel, and you can't help but look up at the pointed arches undulating through the upper space. 


Coming back outside for a moment, the strangely plain western facade has a story that needs to be told. When it was first built, it had a magnificent Romanesque-Gothic transition doorway known as the Puerta del Ángel. It probably had hundreds of sculptures on it. We don't get to enjoy that door today because it fell as a result of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The current facade was built in 1888. The white statues on top were taken from the rubble of the Puerta del Ángel.

Figures and heads from the fallen door are indeed found within the church...


... and in other buildings. These thirteenth-century kingly faces are set into the facade of the nineteenth-century town hall.

Knowledge of these construction events and interventions is necessary to understand the unexpected question I had to deal with on this auspicious day:

Which Virgin? 


My objective in going to Villalcázar de Sirga was, of course, to see the image of the Virgin Mary that figures so prominently in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. But it wasn't as simple as walking into the church and meeting this artifact that was once in the presence of Alfonso X, el Sabio, earning his kingly admiration. This meeting required no little research and reasoning, because in this singular church, there is more than one thirteenth-century image of the Blessed Virgin.

Most tour guides take for granted that the above pictured is the Virgin of the Cantigas. She certainly has the look: early Gothic symmetry and a placid expression dominate the symbols of this lady's important role in Heaven and on Earth, and the colors that emphasize her beauty are nothing if not Alfonsine. It was so widely accepted in the nineteenth century that this is the Virgin who worked the medieval miracles that she was placed in the Santiago Chapel to watch over the magnificent thirteenth-century tombs of none other than Prince Felipe, the younger brother of King Alfonso X, and his second wife.

However, reputable art sites and references admit that this might not be that Virgin after all. This Virgin is stone, which isn't the customary material for a devotional image of the thirteenth century. I mentioned that she was moved to the Santiago Chapel--from where? From the Puerta del Ángel. During the time of Alfonso X, this Blessed Mother was outside the church, possibly hanging over people's heads as they came through the door. None of the cantigas in her honor talk about stopping to pay respects outside the church. On the contrary, they mention going inside the church to an altar to pray or hear mass or even sleep. None of these activities has the remotest chance of taking place in the doorway. To me, this means that this stone Virgin, even as Alfonsine as she appears, cannot possibly be the Virgin of the Cantigas.

As you can see, as we entered the church, we studied the beauty of the Santiago Chapel and I had my picture taken with the likely spurious Virgin. But I was only too pleased to settle into a pew and listen to mass because from there, I could unabashedly stare at the thirteenth-century Virgin Mary in the center of the main altarpiece. This, I believe, is the real deal, the beautifully sculpted Mother of God that moved a king so deeply, he had fourteen songs written about her.

She's similar in style and symbolism to the Santiago Chapel Virgin and just as symmetrical and placid, but she's made of wood. She was always an indoor Mary. For this reason, she still has her right hand and Baby Jesus still has his head. She's now surrounded by a magnificent fifteenth-century Hispano-Flemish series of panels depicting the life of Jesus.

We listened to the whole mass, and the sermon appropriately focused on the way Mary saved the day by noticing that they were running out of wine at the wedding at Cana. Mary had a talent for staying on top of the details when no one else would, said the priest. Every one of us has a special God-given talent, and we must do our duty and let it shine. I felt a tremendous sense of abundance and joy as I considered how to make my talents matter in the world.

During the part of the mass when the congregation gives each other "God's peace," the priest came into the aisle and shook everyone's hand and even chatted a little before returning to his post to finish. This is the first time I've seen such a warm and welcoming act. It felt like a sign of cosmic approval for the decisions I've made up to this point.

Romanesque fantastic creatures, but the execution is Gothic 
When the mass was over, I scurried into all four corners of the church, awed by the art and architecture and snapping photos. My friend stood with the priest at the door even after they'd turned off the lights, and explained that I've studied the Cantigas and was thrilled to be in Villalcázar de Sirga at long last. The priest was flattered by our interest and let me hang out a little longer than he would have if my friend hadn't mentioned my lifelong devotion.

Peter with the keys to the pearly gates 
When I joined them at the door, the priest explained to me that no one was really sure which Virgin is she of the Cantigas. Given my foreign looks--and probably my pesky accent doesn't help--I often get "Spainsplained." "I have my doubts about that, too," I said cheerily.

You can get a sense of the grand scale looking toward the foot. 
It was still early to think about having lunch after we gave our sincere thanks and bid the priest and the Virgin farewell, so we stopped in Las Cantigas, where the whole town had gathered. In among the townsfolk were people with the enormous backpacks and walking gear that are the giveaways of pilgrims, and we wondered why they had come all that way and not gone inside the church. Possibly they believed the website and thought the church was open after siesta for visits. Before we left, the priest came into the pub to continue his friendly duty.

The stone Virgin is dwarfed in the light from
the rose window.  
When I returned home, I told my roommate about the important things I'd accomplished that very day. I'd left home two days before, too ill to walk to the bus station. I returned aglow with inspiration and wellness. "Now that I've done this, I think I'm good for the rest of my life," I told my roommate.

"I can tell!" he said.

Just one more miracle from Villalcázar de Sirga.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Villalcázar de Sirga: The Miracles

Yours truly with the grand Gothic door and rose window
at Villalcázar de Sirga
Photos in this post 2019 Jessica Knauss 
As many readers of this blog know, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Cantigas de Santa Maria because they are so inexhaustibly wonderful. Sometimes I don't think about them for a while, but they're always available for another round of fascination.

One reason I keep going back is that the stories they tell are so uplifting. There isn't a single sad ending in the entire set of more than 400 songs. (There are a few questionable ones at first blush, but if a modern reader thinks about them a little, s/he can come away with a message about the power of belief at the very least.)

A monumental pilgrim contemplates the western facade of Villalcázar de Sirga. 
Imagine the happiness boost I got recently when I visited one of the sanctuaries most often mentioned in the Cantigas.

The town of Villalcázar de Sirga in Palencia is "two leagues" from Carrión de los Condes, an important stop on the pilgrims' Road to Santiago de Compostela. This route culminates at the end of the known world, Galicia, where the remains of St. James the Apostle were miraculously discovered in the ninth century. The pilgrimage enjoyed enormous popularity for centuries and established a bustling hospitality economy. Shrines close to but not directly on the Road had a vested interest in capturing the attention of so many travelers, and nothing pulled them in like a good miracle--or fourteen. That's right, the Virgin of Villalcázar de Sirga (known as Villasirga at the time of the Cantigas) was a great miracle worker, and the cantigas poets and musicians recorded fourteen of them for posterity, and to get word out about this church so close to the pilgrimage route and attract at least a few of the faithful.


The town pub is called "Las Cantigas"! 
Cantiga 31: A farmer loses his cow. He's already had others killed or maimed by wolves, so he prays to the Virgin Mary, promising her the calf the cow is carrying if only the cow comes home. Of course, it does, and promptly gives birth to a healthy calf. The calf is so wonderful, in fact, that the farmer decides not to donate him to the Church, taking him with many other animals to sell in Villasirga. When the farmer tries to sell him, the calf runs away, straight into Mary's church, where he stops in reverence before Mary's altar. The calf eats with the other oxen donated to the church and becomes the church's best working ox, without ever needing to be prodded or beaten. The farmer, accepting the miracle, tells everyone he knows.

Cantiga 217: A powerful count from France arrives in Villasirga while on pilgrimage to Santiago. He has ten knights with him, and wants to enter the church before them. No matter what he does, he can't move past the threshold and set foot inside the church. His men push him so hard that blood gushes from his mouth. There is no going inside this church! The French count finally realizes what's wrong, and confesses his sins right there in the doorway. After that, he walks in effortlessly.

Cantiga 218: A German man who is "paralyzed" (in this case, probably quadriplegic), goes along on the Santiago pilgrimage with a group of people who aren't thrilled to have to deal with his special needs. Even though they make it all the way to Santiago, the German man's afflictions aren't cured. In fact, on the journey back, when they reach Villasirga, he also goes blind! Afraid he'll die and they'll be blamed, the other pilgrims abandon him inside the church. The German man prays in desperation to Holy Mary, and although St. James couldn't cure him, the Virgin of Villasirga does, right there and then. He can see and move about freely. The man returns to his lands to tell everyone about the wonderful miracle and also goes back to Villasirga to make votive offerings.

Cantiga 227: A squire who makes yearly pilgrimages to Villasirga is obliged to go to war in Sevilla, where he's taken captive. He prays to Mary every day for his release. When her feast day, August 2, rolls around, he's especially sad, and his captors ask him what's wrong. When he tells them he wishes he could be in Villasirga for the feast day, they beat him all over and throw him into an even worse dungeon. Mary appears to the squire and breaks his chains. The captors don't hear any activity, and they don't see him walk out of the prison. When he arrives in Villasirga, he hangs his broken chains at the church as a testament to the miracle granted him.

Cantiga 229: Moorish soldiers sent by the King of León invade Villasirga, and the Christians of the area flee in terror. The Moors enter the unprotected church and try to tear it down and burn it, but there's no way. Holy Mary makes them lose the strength in their limbs and go blind. In the end, they have to be carried out of the church. The message is that the Virgin is more powerful than any of Castile's enemies and can take them on any day.

Soup tureens that have "Las Cantigas" painted on them!
They weren't for sale. Of course I asked! 
Cantiga 232: A knight from Treviño has the best goshawk in the kingdom, and one day while hunting, he loses it. He searches all day and never finds the prized raptor. He sends his men to look far and wide, but though they never stop searching, they don't find the goshawk for four months. The knight weeps so much he thinks he'll go mad, then has the brilliant idea to have a wax goshawk made. He takes the votive offering and places it on the altar in Villasirga, invoking the Virgin's great power in his prayers. He returns home, and when he opens the door, he sees the goshawk on the perch where it should always have been.

Cantiga 234: A deaf-mute boy is raised by Don Rodrigo, one of the king' noblemen. Rodrigo goes to Villasirga with the boy and has him sleep right in front of the altar. Rodrigo has a mass in honor of the Virgin sung in the morning. During the "secret," the boy's tongue loosens, and by the time mass is over, the boy speaks and hears perfectly.

Cantiga 243: Two of King Alfonso's falconers foolishly go hunting by themselves. Their falcons send the ducks they're hunting into a frozen stream. The falconers run to the ice to see where the ducks are and fall into the water. The ice covers them over! They call out to Mary for some time, and finally the ice dissolves and they get out of the stream, unharmed.

Cantiga 253: A Frenchman has committed such tremendous sins that his priest sets him a hefty penance: He must walk the pilgrims' Road to Santiago carrying a 24-pound iron staff big enough for all the other pilgrims to see. He makes it to Villasirga, and begs the Virgin's forgiveness, laying the heavy staff at the altar. When he finishes his prayer, the staff breaks in two, and the pieces cannot be moved from where they fall. (The Virgin is telling him he needn't continue with the penance because she forgives him already.)

Cantiga 268: Although she attempted to find a cure for her paralysis at many other shrines, a French woman doesn't get well until she comes to Villasirga. After offering candles and prayers, she can move about freely.

Cantiga 278: A blind French woman makes the pilgrimage to Santiago. Although she's not expecting it, in Villasirga she regains her sight. On the way home, she comes upon another blind pilgrim. She tells him not to bother going to Santiago. He'll be cured in Villasirga, without a doubt.

Cantiga 301: Although a man always fasts on Mary's high holidays in her honor, he has committed a serious crime, the sentence for which is death. In prison awaiting execution, he prays to Mary. In his dreams, she appears in his cell, breaks his chains and takes his hand. He wakes to find himself in front of the altar at Villasirga! People in the church witness his appearance as if out of thin air. Medieval teleportation, folks.

Cantiga 313: A ship sails into a terrible storm and everyone is in danger of losing their lives. They call out to all the saints, but the storm continues and gets fiercer. When a priest has everyone on board sing Salve Regina for the Virgin of Villasirga, a white dove appears, and the sea calms. The ship arrives safely in port in the morning.

A framed print of Cantiga 31's miniatures in the bar. 
Cantiga 355: A man is pursued relentlessly by a young woman he doesn't like at all. She follows him on his travels, asking constantly why they can't get married and why don't they make love just to try it out. When they stop at Villasirga, he donates the money for one of the stone blocks needed to build the church. This is an important investment, both financially and spiritually. A final rejection is the last straw for the young lady, and she accuses the man of rape in the spirit of bitter revenge. He's taken immediately to the gallows, but through a miracle of Mary's doing, the very stone block he's bought for the church appears under his feet, keeping him from strangling. He stands upon the block all night, and in the morning, everyone sees the miracle and lets him go.

(I don't love this last one with the false rape accusation, but I think it's the only one in the Cantigas, at least.)

As you can see, these happy miracles describe every level of society and include details the history books of the time would be hard pressed to include. The Virgin Mary, especially as expressed in her image at Villasirga, is the universal mother and thirteenth-century Spain's greatest hope for prosperity, happiness, health, and salvation.

In the next post: meet the lady herself!