The Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica not only has great religious significance, it is also the centre of Andorran Christianity. The faith and devotion of the Andorran people place Meritxell at the spiritual heart of the country.
This sanctuary is one of the most representative examples of late 20th-century Andorran architecture. Ricardo Bofill's stylistic eclecticism has enriched the material culture of the country with this emblematic building, setting a new precedent in contemporary architecture.
Meritxell is much more than just a sanctuary. It is a place of peace. Hence the importance of the open cloister from which to contemplate the mountains, fields and gardens and breathe in the much-needed religious peace in an ever more stressful and aggressive post-modern society. The Sanctuary of Meritxell is a setting for contemplation.
A HISTORIC SITE OF CULTURAL INTEREST
The Meritxell Historic Complex consists of two buildings: the old Sanctuary of Meritxell and the Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica (the new sanctuary), both declared assets of cultural interest. Thus, the presence of both buildings helps perpetuate the continuity and constant renewal of the Christian faith and the Church as an institution.
HISTORY AND LEGEND OF THE OLD CHURCH OF MERITXELL
One needs to go back several centuries to understand the cultural and religious importance of the modern Sanctuary de Meritxell Basilica today: the building not only hides a thrilling legend, but it has also been rebuilt several times during its centuries-old history!
THE LEGEND OF THE SANCTUARY
Passed down over the centuries from generation to generation, the legend of the Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica is a beautiful story that everyone should know!
It was on the day of Epiphany when, at the spot that is now the sanctuary, a shepherd on his way to Canillo to celebrate mass on this important day saw the beautiful image of the Virgin Mary in a wild rose bush in full bloom in the heart of winter. After making this astonishing discovery, the shepherd decided to take the Virgin to the church of Canillo, where she was placed on the high altar, with the promise to build a church to shelter her.
The next day, on opening the church door, the verger found the image of the Virgin was missing, only for it to appear again in the blooming rose bush near Meritxell. The Encamp villagers decided that maybe the Virgin would prefer to be kept in Encamp, as she seemed not to want to stay in Canillo, so they decided to lock her in the village church, again promising to build a beautiful new church in her honour.
However, the next day, the same thing happened: the Virgin disappeared and once again appeared at the foot of the wild rose bush, which was completely untouched by the heavy overnight snow.
On seeing this, the villagers of both Canillo and Encamp understood that this was the site where the Virgin wanted to stay and they decided to build a chapel in her honour right there: the current Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica.
THE OLD MERITXELL CHURCH
Built at some time in the first half of the 12th century, this was a Romanesque chapel dedicated to Saint Mary. Although only a few visible structures of this early building remain, they are enough to enable us to imagine a small church, built with a simple structure and style.
Details preserved from the old church include the west wall, now part of the western side wall of the Baroque building and the foundations of the apse, discovered in archaeological excavations carried out in 1991.
These revealed not just the floor of the building, consisting of a single nave, and the portico on the south side, but also the existence of at least two layers of pictorial remains on the walls of the chevet. These are thought to have depicted popular religious themes of the period.
The church dedicated to Saint Mary also had a 12th-century Romanesque figure of the enthroned Virgin Mary with babe in arms. It was this Virgin who would become the patron saint of all the inhabitants of the Andorran valleys. Four centuries later, in the Gothic period, an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Mary was installed, with a new central image more closely aligned with the Gothic style.
In around 1658, the new Baroque church was built, most of which remains today. Thus, although these reforms involved constructing practically the whole building with a new floor plan, it also preserved the original medieval construction. It was a larger building, built with a crosswise north-to-south orientation, a tower with a twin-arch bell gable and a portico on the south side, while the interior was decorated with artistically richer altarpieces, matching the Baroque style of the period.
Finally, in the 19th century, the temple underwent further reforms to the chevet, where a camarín shrine was incorporated to make the image of the Virgin more accessible to the congregation, and in 1866, the painter Josep Oromí, from La Seu d'Urgell, decorated the interior walls of the building in the Horror Vacui style with Trompe l’Oeil adornaments, involving architectural figures and drapery.
A DISASTROUS FIRE DESTROYS THE SANCTUARY
On the night of 8 September 1972, a fire destroyed a large part of the church, along with several original documents and all the images and altarpieces, including the Romanesque figure of the Virgin.
Eventually, the ruins that remained standing were restored and in 1994, the chapel of Saint Mary of Meritxell was converted into the site of the permanent 'Meritxell Memorial" exhibition.
The building you can visit today is rectangular in shape, with a square apse, a gabled roof, the bell gable and the portico on the south wall.
THE VIRGIN OF OUR LADY OF MERITXELL
It is no exaggeration to say that the history of Andorra has always gone hand in hand with the Virgin of Meritxell. The Principality cannot be explained without its Virgin and vice versa. Thus, the renewal of faith and loyalty to its patron saint is demonstrated by the two sanctuaries, the old one and the new one, in the Meritxell religious complex, building a bridge between the past and the present, ensuring the continuity and strength of the spirit.
THE FIGURE (IMAGE) OF THE VIRGIN BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
Prior to the statue that today presides over the church of the new sanctuary, there was another (original) figure of the Virgin of Meritxell, which was kept in the old sanctuary of Saint Mary of Meritxell until its disappearance in the fire of 1972.
The image now worshipped is a faithful reproduction of the Romanesque figure, which dated back to the 11th or 12th century and was thought to be one of the oldest pieces from the period: 83 cm high and carved in polychromed wood, its expression was rustic and unmoving.
The Virgin, who wore a crown of five flowers on her head and a white veil with decorated hems, under which it also had a cavity in the small of her back, most likely intended to hold relics or other remains, in line with the canons of Romanesque sculpture of the period. The Virgin was dressed in a red tunic, decorated with flowers and stars, and a blue mantle that left her hands uncovered.
The reproduction that today fills the space in the church is the work of the Andorran artist Jaume Rossa. The carved figure, based on surviving photos, maintains the unmoving appearance and geometry of the original Virgin and takes on a far bigger role than just mother of the baby Jesus. The figure displays the main features of the images of Mary from the period: the posture of her figure, symbolising the safety and protection a mothers provides for her child; the eyes, exaggeratedly protruding, imperfect and watchful to express eternity and spirituality; the deliberate, unnatural proportions representing the veritable, transcendent truth of the divine; and finally, the Virgin's footwear, the traditional clogs that used to be worn by mountain farmers.
The artist's message is clear: the Queen of Heaven and Earth is unpretentious and humble, and she loves everyone equally.
OTHER SCULPTURES IN THE CHURCH
There are also a number of other sculptures in the church, works by the Barcelona sculptor Sergi Mas, depicting the patron saints of the seven Andorran parishes and confirming Meritxell as the Andorran National Sanctuary: Church of Sant Serni de Canillo, Church of Santa Eulàlia d’Encamp, Church of Sant Corneli i Sant Cebrià, Church of Sant Iscle i Santa Victòria, Church of Sant Esteve, Church of Sant Julià i Sant Germà and Church of Sant Pere Màrtir.
The Virgin of Meritxell is the patron saint of the Principality, whose saint's day is on 8 September.
EXHIBITIONS AND OPENING TIMES
The sanctuary currently houses two permanent exhibitions: 'Meritxell Memorial', an account that includes several objects and images from the church before it was completely destroyed by fire; and 'Bibles of the World', a second exhibition that has been in the church since September 2016, displaying en ever growing collection of over 1,200 Bibles and New Testaments in different languages, dialects and media.
PRAYERS TO THE VIRGIN OF MERITXELL
Below are the prayers offered to the Virgin of Meritxell:
Meritxell of silence, teach us to listen.
Meritxell of the mountains, teach us to appreciate.
Meritxell of the snow, teach us not to lie, to be true to ourselves.
Meritxell of the rose bush, teach us the beauty of giving and serving
Meritxell of the narcissi, teach us the sweetness of life.
Meritxell of the clear skies and resplendent sun, show us the Light.
Meritxell dweller of the meadows and the lowly crofts, teach us simplicity.
Meritxell of suffering, teach us to pray.
Meritxell of the children, teach us to smile.
Meritxell of peace, teach us solidarity.
Meritxell, Mother of Andorrans, teach us unity.
Meritxell, Virgin Mary, teach us to love.
THE FEAST OF OUR LADY OF MERITXELL
The steady growth of devotion and admiration regarding the Virgin during the 19th and 20th centuries, along with the establishment of a sense of maturity and national sentiment among the inhabitants of Andorra, led the General Council of the Valleys of Andorra, on 24 October 1873, to officially and unanimously declare the Virgin of Meritxell as the Patron Saint of the Valleys of Andorra: "the fact that Our Lady of Meritxell has been considered by the Valleys of Andorra as its patron saint and special protector since time immemorial is hereby recorded."
Nevertheless, due to complications between the people of Urgell and Andorra at that time, it was another 40 years before the Patronage of the Virgin of Meritxell over the people of Andorra was recognised by the Church. Continual support from a number of bishops, co-princes to Meritxell, together with grassroots fervour and tradition, enabled bishop Joan Benlloch Vivóla to demand the Patronage of the Virgin of Meritxell on 23 August 1913, which was granted a year later by the Supreme Pontiff of the Holy See, Pope Pius X.
Delighted at the news and wishing to celebrate the moment, the Council declared 8 September as the National Holiday of the Valleys or, in other words, the Festival of Our Lady of Meritxell.
Today, every 8 September, the Andorran people celebrate a festival of unity and harmony, with the Virgin at its centre. Everything revolves around Meritxell, the Andorran people's Virgin. On this day, very early in the morning, thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the sanctuary, to kneel before the Virgin, giving thanks and expressing their feelings of joy and enthusiasm.
Indeed, the attraction of Meritxell is so great that the day is marked by numerous events and celebrations (such as pilgrimages, concerts, traditional 'sardana' dances, Eucharists, tasting sessions of traditional produce and more), in which traditions and festivities fill the Meritxell site.
TIMES OF MASS (ORDINARY):
Every Sunday at 12.30 pm.
Saturdays and the eve of Easter Sunday and All Saint's Day, at 6 pm.
SPECIAL AND SPECIFIC MASSES:
(to be organised by the sanctuary rector)
Masses on request: masses may also be held when requested by a family or pilgrimage.
Confession: at all reception times in the sanctuary and in AINA.
For young people, the Youngster's Christmas (third Sunday of Advent) and Youngster's Easter.
For everyone 'Dialogues with Meritxell' on the third Thursday in September.
When requested by a group or pilgrimage. One of the rooms in the sanctuary or the AINA space may be used.
Discover all this and more by downloading the PDF of the Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica.
SANCTUARY OF THE MARIAN ROUTE
The Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica is part of the Marian Route that links the 5 sanctuaries of Saint Mary: Pilar (Zaragoza), Torreciudad (Huesca), Lourdes (France), Montserrat (Barcelona) and Meritxell (Principality of Andorra). This is a route guided by spirituality and devotion to Saint Mary, with a wealth of tourist sites, heritage, countryside, cuisine and nature, thanks to the characteristics and surroundings at each sanctuary.
ROUTES THAT WELCOMES PILGRIMS
The Marian Route is one of the most widely visited and recognised pilgrim routes today. Every year, its five sanctuaries welcome 12 million pilgrims, reflecting its attraction and importance to both pilgrims and tourists. The essence of this route lies in the spiritual value of its sanctuaries and a legacy of history, heritage and nature of exceptional significance. Tourists are attracted by the artistic, architectural and natural beauty of the five sanctuaries and their locations, while pilgrims and believers come for religious reasons, to find God and themselves.
Indeed, many people who arrive as tourists leave as pilgrims.
Advances in communications and transport, new and varied activities on offer at the sanctuaries, nearby tourist attractions and the development of mass tourism have all contributed to the current diversity of religious routes.
Today, around 180 million pilgrims travel around the world to visit holy places, sanctuaries and centres of pilgrimage and follow religious routes. Individually, with the family, in groups, as pilgrims, everyone is welcome to one of these Marian destinations, to honour and adore the sacred image.
AINA represents the charity work that all sanctuaries have a duty to provide. Founded in the International Year of the Child of Andorra in 1979, the organisation offers leisure and educational activities for children and young people.
With a clearly defined mission and objectives, the main function of this organisation is to look after the children of working parents during holidays and at weekends. Children get to know and love Andorra; they learn to get along with other children, the Christian and human values of respect, effort and solidarity, and to develop awareness of beauty and happiness. Finally, they also learn to become part of the community of Andorran children, whilst also helping other immigrant children to integrate. However, AINA does not just work with children, as the organisation has a number of buildings that house families in need.
In addition, thanks to the congregations' donations to the Virgin of Meritxell, AINA can offer reduced-price summer camps and provide grants for the children of families in need. It also provides training in voluntary work for young people who choose to spend their holidays helping the education of children in leisure activities while the training provided during the course allows them to gain qualifications in this service.
Over the year, AINA takes in over 10,000 people, whose stay in the hostel includes a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Meritxell Basilica along the Camí Ral path and several joint events with the sanctuary throughout the year, such as the autumn and summer festivals, Easter for Youngsters, the youth pilgrimage to Meritxell and the summer thanksgiving at the Borda de Meritxell shelter.
GREETINGS FROM THE RECTOR
God bless you, friends of Meritxell. Welcome to the new Sanctuary of Meritxell website.
With this new portal for our sanctuary, we seek to open up a modern window from which to spread the message of the Patron Saint of Andorra to all the faithful and devotees, pilgrims and visitors, while also bringing people closer to the Virgin of Meritxell.
Meritxell, faithful to her name, will guide you on your path with the brilliant Light of Midday. And when you reach the door of the sanctuary, you will find your 'manor house', as in the Ave prayer to Mary 'Beautiful shining Aurora / make this place / the villages of Andorra / the Manor House'. By Manor House we mean a welcoming place whose doors are always open; as written on the old Andorran houses “sou a casa vostra” (make yourselves at home). Tourists who visit us are also fraternally welcomed so they return home as pilgrims.
Andorra has always been a hospitable country, and particularly so when offering peace at times of war in Europe.
Meritxell, an icon of Andorra, delights in welcoming people: where welcome means 'service' to all citizens in the seven Andorran parishes. The pilgrimage of the Andorran parishes on the first Sunday of May is a pledge to all immigrants who find the spirit of their integration in the country in Meritxell, without abandoning their roots. The pilgrimage of the Portuguese people on the eve of 13 May, the Rociera Mass in the Feast of Pentecost and the Baturra Mass on the last Sunday before 12 October is also a pledge as are the 'sardanes' danced on 8 September in the Great Cloister that forms our main square.
A pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Meritxell is a commitment to peace. The pilgrims pray: 'Meritxell of peace, teach us solidarity'. The rose bush of Meritxell houses the charity, leisure and educational work of the AINA hostel. Donations to the Patron Saint and Mother of Andorra are used solely to help children weakened by emotional, work or health problems in their families. We know that the future depends on the young people of today. Thus, Meritxell adopts the motto of AINA: 'investing in young people's education to teach human and Christian values.
It is with much gratitude and affection that I take this opportunity, on behalf of the Sanctuary of Meritxell, to thank our fellow sanctuaries of Pilar, Torreciudad, Lourdes and Montserrat for opening their fraternal arms and welcoming us into the Marian Route. This has always been our dream; we warmly invite the pilgrims of Meritxell from our country in the heart of the Pyrenees to take the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Lourdes in the Atlantic Pyrenees, to the Pilar in Zaragoza, the oldest Marian church in the world, to Montserrat which, along with Meritxell, form the route of the "Sweet Ms", and to Torreciudad, in the land where Saint Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer was born.
Today, the route from Pallerols del Cantó to Sant Julià de Lòria has become a route of pilgrimage. Thank you, fellow sanctuaries!
Sanctuary, a synonym of path. Meritxell will take that path alongside Pilar, Lourdes, Montserrat and Torreciudad, in the full knowledge that our path is already paved with the joy of singing as one 'My soul glorifies the Lord!'.
(Rector of Canillo and the Sanctuary of Meritxell)
THE CROSS OF MERITXELL
The Cross of Meritxell is an ancient wayside cross on the old route from Canillo to Meritxell, passing through the town centre of Prats.