THE BASILICA OF LA MERCED

Its origins

It was under the pontificate of the Bishop of Barcelona, Berenguer de Palou (1212-1241), whose tomb can be admired in the Chapel of St. Michel in the aisle of the cathedral, when the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared on August 2, 1218 to Saint Pedro Nolasco according to tradition.

The Order of La Merced was founded on the 10th of the same month and year in the cathedral of Barcelona with the presence of King James I of Aragon, bishop Berenguer de Palou and Saint Raimundo de Peñafort.

The order was officially established between 1222 and 1228 with the objective of rescuing the captives under the mussulman power. The Order adopted the shield composed of a silver cross over gules from the cathedral of Barcelona and the pour bars of Aragon.

In the year 1045, the Guitart of Santa Eulalia Hospital had been founded in the house of Pia Almoina, near the cathedral in order to care for the poor and the pilgrims, where on July 19, 1131 the Count of Barcelona Ramon Berenguer III died. In 1218 King James I gave this hospital to the newly created Order of la Merced so that they could establish there their convent.

On August 5, 1232 Ramon de Plegamans donated some land in the Arenal de Roquetas or Codols to the Order. The construction of the building of the new Santa Eulalia Hospital was immediately started and was finished in 1234. The following year pope Gregory IX (Hugoline) approved the constitution of the Order and in 1245 Innocence IV (Sinibaldo Fieschi, 1243-1254) put the hospital under the protection of the Holy See by means of a papal bull. In 1249 the bishop of Barcelona Pedro de Centelles (1243-1251) granted a privilege so that the church of the convent-hospital could be used by the populants.
The first mercedarian convent

After the initial accommodation in the house of Pia Almoina, the convent of La Merced was transferred to Santa Eulalia on the beach of Roquetas and in 1252 the bridges over La Merced street were constructed which connected the convent with the church between the streets of La Merced and Ancha. The first gothic style temple was finished in 1267. Between 1336 and 1377 the architect Jaime Cerces directed the work of an important remodelling and in 1343 the entrance from Ancha street was opened. In 1361 Bernardo Roca made the altarpiece in tabernacle form.

The 4 feet high imagine placed in the altarpiece could still be the one through which the faithful actually venerate. In 1380 King Pedro IV, the Ceremonious, made a present of a urn to contain the body of Santa Maria de Cervello and in the 1389 the bell tower was finished. On January 27, 1401 King Martin I, the Human, granted the title of Royal Chapel to the church and the dignity of royal chaplains to the monks.

In 1419 the gothic façade of the temple was terminated. Its aspect is known by means of a document found in the Archives of Notarial Protocols. In 1492 the construction of a new altarpiece was begun under the design of Pedro Duran and the images of Saint John were sculpted by John Cassel. These images were finished by William Duystach. They were both german. In 1501 the stalls of the choir were built in poplar wood and oak from Flanders by Pedro Torrent.

The painter Antonio Marques was responsible of supervising the works of the altarpiece in 1503. In 1516 the Renaissance portal of san Miguel church was constructed by the architects Pedro Mateu and Gabriel Pellicer. The sculpture was made by the french Renato Ducloux. This doorway was placed in 1870 in the church of la Merced.

The renaissancist convent of La Merced

In 1650 the construction of the new convent in renaissance style took place. The cloister had black marble columns. It is now the headquarters of the Military Government. Construction began under the direction of the architect Jeronimo Santacana in 1605 and was continued by his son Jacinto Santacana (1613-1621). In 1651 construction of the entrance and the grand staircase were terminated.

It was then the famous ceramist Lorenzo Passolas made the polychrome wainscots of the cloister. In 1667 the gothic altarpiece of the church was dismantled and a new one was built in baroque style. It was 20 meters high by 8 meters wide with a central window over the Virgin’s chamber. Then the stalls of the choir were removed and on September 10, 1687 the sacristy of the choir were removed and on September 10, 1687 the sacristy which had been built from 1671 on, was burned.

A terrible locust plague devasted Barcelona in 1687 and the Consejo de Ciento (Council of the Hundred), requested protection to the Virgin of la Merced and proclaimed her patroness of the city on September 25th. The plagued ended the following year in September 1688. In 1689 a silver throne for the Virgin was constructed and the organ was installed. In 1693 the Consejo of Ciento offered a silver urn which would contains from then on, the wooden one with the body of Santa Maria de Cervelló. In the XVIII century during the war of Succession in 1705, an artillery missile fell onto the presbytery and killed a woman.

On July 23, 1714, when Barcelona was about to be taken by the troops of Phillip V, the image was taken to the cathedral until September. In 1755 José Buxá built the church’s new organ.
The new church

In 1765 the new church was started, the present one, exactly on April 25th, following the design of architect José Mas Dordal, designer of many important buildings in Barcelona, among them the Moja Palace in the Ramblas (1776-1786), the reconstruction of the parish church in Arenys de Mar (1774-1784) as well as the one in San Vicente de Sarriá; of the town and church of Almacelles (1774-1777); of bishop’s Gabino Valladares Messia place (1782-1786) and others. He was also the author of the enlargement project of the port of Palamós.

Many of his projects were made in collaboration with his brother Pablo. On April 25, 1765 the Captain General of Cataluña, Marqués de Mina, delegated expressly King Carlos II, laid the first stone of the new temple.

The gothic church was demolished and its baroque altarpiece was taken to the Parrish of San Esteban in Granollers and later to the art Museum of Cataluña. The construction of the new temple took 10 years. Sculptor Carlos Grau collaborated in the decoration of the façade according to the style he had already used in the Palace of the Duke of Sessa and in the church of Santa Marta. Statues of Salvador Gurri (1749-1819) and Pablo Serra (1749-1806) were placed in the altars.

On august 10, 1775 the image of the Virgin was taken in procession from the cathedral to the new temple with festivities that lasted until August 14th. The temple was blessed on September 9, 1775. The design of the principal altar was made by the valencian architect Vicente Marro and was inaugurated on August 2, 1794.

The new church is of a single aisle with lateral chapels between buttresses and four spans of continuous cannon vaults. It has intersecting ribs and a dome. A high choir loft over the entrance of the temple and on one of the laterals the domed chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The sacristy and the stairway to the Virgin’s chamber are placed on either sides of the presbytery.
The XIX century

The church of our lady de la Merced has suffered several remodelations along the centuries and it is actually a baroque style monument. In the beginning it was late Romanic or primitive gothic style; then it became complete gothic to disappear by demolition and be reconstructed in baroque style during the second half of the XVIII century. During the XIX century serious accidents damaged the building in its decoration.

In 1806 the burials were abolished inside the temple. Along the years the sepulchres were covered. They have been recently recovered during the restoration held in 1990. When the French troops left Barcelona in 1814, they took from the temple the virgin’s silver throne. In order to avoid profanation between March 31 and July 5, 1814 the image of the virgin and the urn of Santa María de Cervelló were taken to the cathedral by the monks.

Later, and the end of the liberal triennium, on January 18, 1823, the city Hall ordered the destruction of the bridges on la Merced street and the following month a royal order closed the convent of La Merced. With Mendizabl’s Free from Mortmain Law in 1835, the Order was secularized and the convent became the headquarters of the Mortgaging offices, National Guard headquarters and also a theatre.

The funds obtained were destined to the support of National Guard. When King Fernando VII visited Barcelona he stayed in the ancient Ala dels Draps which was then occupied by the Military Government. Since then the convent became the headquarters of the Captain General and in 1846 when the post was held by Manuel Bretón it officially became, up to present time, in Capitania General On August 2, 1868 Pope Pius IX (Juan Maria Mastaii-Ferretti, 1846-1878) proclaimed the Virgin of la Merced as patroness of the Barcelona diocese.

The following year the Provisional Revolutionary Government ordered the demolition of the convents of Junqueras and Jerusalen as well as the Parrish of San Miguel. The San Miguel renaiscentist door was reconstructed on the church of la Merced between 1870 and 1872. It was placed on the Ancha street side of the temple. The church has been named since then Parrish of the Virgin de la Merced and San Miguel.

In 1883, José Urquinaona Bidot, bishop of Barcelona died and his tomb was placed in the presbytery of la Merced on a marble sarcophagus over two columns near the door of the stairway that leads to the virgin’s chamber. In 1885 an engraved portrait of the bishop was placed on top of it. The sculpture was made by Agapito Vallmitjana. The ceremony of the canonical coronation of the Virgin de la Merced was celebrated in the main altar by bishop Català Albòs on August 21, 1888.

The new cupola designed by the architect Juan Martorell Montells was inaugurated the following month of October. It was exteriorly crowned by a bronze statue made by Máximo Sala Sanchez and the interior was painted with scenes of the Virgin’s Coronation in fresco by Victoriano Codina Sanglin (1844-1911). Juan Martorell also designed the metal throne of the Virgin which was carved by the bronzesmith N. Solá.

The stairs to the chamber were reformed. An enormous painting by Francisco Galofré Oller (1865-1942) which represented the act of the Virgin’s Coronationwas offered by the bishop to the Councillor of the cathedral on 1895 and was placed in the chapel of Santa Lucía. It was later taken to the hall by the Virgin of la Merced chamber. In 1983 the painting was taken back to the cathedral and placed definitely in the Merced hall near the cloister.
XX century

In 1914 the restoration of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was started and on both sides of the aisle of the church two marble and metal pulpits designed by the architect Ramón Maria Riudor Capella (1868¬-1938) were placed.

In 1916 the restoration of the Descendimiento or Escolania Hall was finished. The altar was designed by architect Enrique Sagnier Villavecchia (1858-1931). On this altar there had once been a marble engraving designed by the sculptor José Llimona Bruguera (1864-1934), and also a painting from 1688 given by the Consejo de Ciento on occasion of the termination of the locust plague.

In 1917 father Gazulla published a very interesting book on the church in which the drawings of the temple's pavement by Luis Doménech y Montaner are reproduced. On September 24, 1918 on occasion of the VII Centenary of the Virgin's apparition to Saint Pedro Nolasco, pope Benedict XV (Giacomo de la Chiesa, 1914-1922) granted the title of Basilica Menor to the church of La Merced. Julio Borrell Pla (1877-1957) decorated that same year the intrados of the vault. Sculptor José María Camps Arnau designed a basrelief representing the moment in which Dr. Reig Casanova, bishop of Barcelona receives the basilical emblems from the Pope. It was placed over the sacristy's door in front of bishop Urquinaona's monument.

An important remodelling of the convent building was made in 1928 on occasion of the 1929 International Exposition. A new façade was designed by architect Adolfo Florensa (1889-1968).
The civil war destruction in 1936

The cruel destruction of the temple took place in July 1936. What occurred in those terrible days was described by father José Sanabre, keeper of the records of the Barcelona diocese. On Sunday afternoon July 19, 1936 having succeeded the military uprising a mob invaded the building of the Military Headquarters and then proceeded to the church of La Merced demanding its destruction

The following day with the support of the militia they forced their way into the temple after firing many shots against the façade. Then they set fire inside the church burning the paintings on the vault by Julio Borrell and the frescoes by Codina Langlin on the dome were smoked. Everything in the interior of the temple was destroyed: the organ, the wooden stands, and all the images in the side altars. The firemen could only prevent that fire destroy the houses nearby. During the next days the fire was voluntarily revived on several occasions.

The carved wooden image of the Virgin de la Merced was pushed down from its pedestal in the chamber onto the main altar and was Iying on the floor. The priest in charge of the Basilica, Luis Pelegrí Nicolau, who was martyred on March 29, 1937, tried to recover the gothic image. He asked help of a family pertaining to the Parrish who were good friends of José María España Sirat, an officer of the Generalitat de Catalunya. On the following day of July 27, an official detachment of representatives of the Central Government and of la Generalitat went to the temple of La Merced. Miss Teresa Coll who had introduced him to the Government counsellor also went with them. Using as an excuse the recuperation of the Virgin's jewellery that had not been stolen by the mob and was in the safe, when passing the fallen image on their way to the sacristy Miss Coll suggested they pick up the image for its artistic value.

They hid the image on a closet underneath the staircase which was used to keep the cleaning implements and where the remains of Santa María de Cervelló had also been hidden. The gatekeeper of Capitanía cared for these sacred objects during the following two months. On September 28, 1936 the Head of the Museums Department of la Generalitat ordered the transfer of the image of the Virgin and the urn of Santa María de Cervelló to the National's Palace Museum in Montjuich. The body of Santa María de Cervelló was abandoned after the moving because only the urn was delivered to the Museum.

Architect José Francisco Rafols Fontanals (1889-1965) picked up the body and kept it hidden in his house until 1939. It even served as an altar to celebrate clandestine masses during the period between 1936-1939. Being in danger for giving protection to priests and nuns and far saving sacred objects and images, Counsellor España was forced to escape into exile on October 23, 1936.

The church of La Merced was left abandoned and its aspect was desolating. The Descendimiento Hall next to the Virgin's chamber was completely destroyed and with it the paintings of The Dream of Saint Joseph and The Locust Plague were burned. The archangels on the door of San Miguel were broken to pieces as well as the images of Saint Joaquin and Saint Anne by the sculptor Ramón Amadeu; Saint Hipólito and Saint Anthony from the altar of San José Oriol, the archangels from the chapel of the Holy Sacrament by Salvador Gurri and the altars of Santa Isabel by Enrique Clarasó and of Saint Pedro Nolasco by Ramón Amadeu, were all destroyed.

The reconstruction

The reconstruction process was started immediately at the end of the war on January 26, 1939. The Captains General Alvarez Arena, Orgaz and Kindelán offered help of their Engineering Corps for the reconstruction of the church.

The reconstruction of the Virgin’s chamber was started by the architect Juan Ventura Pólit and later by Francisco Folguera Grassi (1891-1960), Camilo Pallás Arisa (1918-1982), José María Sagnier and Luis Bonet Gari. The pavement of the aisle, the side altars, the sacristies and the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament were redone between 1939 and 1947. Between 1948 and 1955 work was carried out on the chamber and in the Descendimiento Hall. In 1956 a new image was placed on top of the dome since the one made in 1888 had been removed and melted down in 1936.

The new image is by the brothers Miguel (1879-1959) and Luciano (1880-1951) Oslé Saenz de Medrano. The doors of the sacristy and of the Virgin's chamber were designed by Francisco Folguer. José Obiols Palau (1894-1967) painted the frescoes in the dome and in the presbytery arches. Camilo Pallás directed the restoration of the door of San Miguel and Luis Bonet in 1972 designed the stairway to the Virgin's chamber. Oriol Sunyer Gaspar (1923-1990), silversmith, designed and constructed the Virgin's new silver throne. During the restoration in 1942 discovery was made a Terracotta image of the Virgin that was in the tympanum of the Gothic church was unearthed. It was taken to the Museum of the Diocese.

The restoration of the main altar was completed in 1960. The altar was placed forward in 1967 in accordance with the Concilliary liturgics regulations.
The final inaugural rites in the church

In 1963 the LXXV anniversary of the virgin's canonical coronation was celebrated and the new silver throne put in its place while the metal one made in 1888 was left on the hall next to the chamber. On July 26, 1964 the bishop of Barcelona Gregorio Modrego Casaus, founded the Fraternity of the Virgin de la Merced and during the same year the dresses of the image were removed permitting the original sculpture by Pedro Moragas made on the XIV century be admired.

On February 22, 1976 the Basilica was visited by the Spanish monarchs. On July 7, 1981 don Lorenzo Castells Pujol, Parrish priest, died. He died before viewing the new square in front of church which was one of his greatest desires. The Fountain of Neptune by Adrián Ferrán Vallés (1744-1840) was placed in this square on February 1983. The the sculptural part of the fountain is by Celedonio Guixá. The restoration of the ancient Girona Palace in front of the church was finished in 1992. The original building had been designed by the architect Oriol Mestres Esplugas.

The reconstruction of the pavement and the façade were made during 1990 and 1991 directed by the architect José Bonet ArmengoI. On January 21, 1992 decorations of the Sisterhood of La Merced were imposed on the Ladies of the Order.

The church of La Merced

The parrochial Basilica of Our Lady de la Merced and San Miguel is a noteworthy example of the Barcelonian architecture typical of the XVIII century, with notorious classic characteristics. Its architect, José Mas Dordal was inspired by the classical French style (of Louis) although, in its simple lines baroque elements are evident. The dome was designed by Juan Martorell in 1888 and has a rather eclectic look according to the style in use at the time.

The inside of the church maintains its general architectonical lines but not what respects to its decoration since all of the altars had to be redone from 1939 on. Over the main altar there is the opening of the chamber or angelical room and the walls of the presbytery are covered with different colours marble The doors of the chamber and the sacristy are on the left and right side of the presbytery and immediately the transept with the altars of Santa María de Cervelló and San Pedro Nolasco.

The side altars dedicated to San Miguel, Virgin de los Dolores -which leads to the Holy Sacrament Chapel- are located on the Gospel side, left side looking at the altar. On the Epistle side, the altars are devoted to San José, San Ramón de Peñafort and San Ivo, all of them with modern images.

Epilogue

Barcelona's devotion to the Virgin de la Merced has always been intense and continuous and an enormous number of people from Cataluña, the rest of Spain and from America come to pray before the image of the Virgin. On September 24 the day dedicated to La Merced the multitude of people attending the services overflow the temple's capacity. Authorities, members of the Fraternity and parishioners gather round the Archbishop who concelebrates with the Parrish priest and others.

The sport teams of the city usually offer the trophies they have won and place them at the foot of the image to express their love and esteem to the Sanctuary. Catalans who travel to the Americas are happy to see so many churches dedicated to La Merced Order established in so many Republics, with the shield of the Order containing the Catalan flag as well as the cross of the cathedral of Barcelona.

Barcelona has in the Basilica de la Merced one of its principal spiritual and artistic attractions as well as being an international center of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Barcelona, Wednesday April 8, 1992 Festivity of St. Maxima, martyr.
Juan Bassegoda NonelI.
Member of the Fraternity of the Virgin de la Merced.
President of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Jorge de Barcelona.  
 


HISTORICAL ARCHIVE

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Image Gallery. Photos Falcón

Collection of stamps

Collection of stamps

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Historical Documents

Pious Union of St. Michael the Archangel

25 years of the Coronation of the Virgin

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Drawings. Josep Obiols

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