The Basilica of la Merced

Although at the beginning the Order of la Merced occupied the space of the hospital of Saint Eulalia, located next to the cathedral of Barcelona itself, where both the poor and redeemed captives were treated and welcomed, the building soon became small. It was necessary to build a new bigger one to welcome the new religious community and assist the Christians rescued from the Muslims better.

It was in 1232 when Ramon de Plegamans bought a part of the beach beside the port, at the departure of the Codols and gave it to Pedro Nolasco. In 1235 a House of Charity was built for the released captives, placed under the invocation of Saint Eulalia. In that same year the new order is approved canonically by Pope Gregory IX.

In 1245 Pope innocent IV granted this building permission to celebrate divine offices and allowed them to have burials in the convent. In 1249 the bishop of Barcelona, Pere de Centelles, gives the Mercedarians permission to “erect a church dedicated to Holy Mary and have a cemetery where they can bury the religious people, servants and brothers of the order…” This is the oldest indication referring to the building of a church in the place where the Basilica now stands.

Raimundo de Plegamans’ donation got too small over the years and the friars bought pieces of the plot next to Oller street. On the other side of la Mercé street the property reached the sea, and this part was dedicated to an orchard (then the sea began in what is now called Paseo Colón). Nothing was built in this area until well into the 15th century, as the construction of the church progressed, the convent of the friars was being dismantled so it was necessary to build a new one next to the sea itself. The king granted permission to build some arches that communicated the convent and the orchard to the church.

The new church, Gothic in style, was simple. At first it only had two chapels: Saint Eloy and Saint Marina, located in the area of the church that now looks onto Ample street. Saint María de Cervelló was buried in the chapel of Saint Marina on 19th September,1290. Her body remains intact today and is worshiped by multitudes of the Faithful. Every 19th September it is exposed for this purpose. In 1380 king Pedro IV offered a silver sarcophagus and another of polychrome wood because her remains were transferred from her grave in the ground to the sarcophagus offered by the king. The image of this sarcophagus is the oldest we have of the saint and in it appears the king who, on his knees, venerates her incorrupt remains. At present it is kept in the Museu Diocesà de Barcelona (diocese museum).

Going back to the church, it has been dedicated to Holy Mary since the beginning. Little by little the people began to call her Mother of God of Mercy, for the work of “mercy” carried out by the Mercedarians. At that time the name of “mercy” was given for the redemption of the captives: “fer mercé”(“do mercy”) was equivalent to free from slavery; therefore the church of the hospital of the friars was known as the church of “mercy”, and from then on it was called the church of the “Mare de Déu de la Mercé”.(Mother of God of Mercy).

In 1335 two other chapels were built, similar to the existing ones and, at the end of the 14th century, the building of the tower was finished. Halfway through the 15th century the chapels of Saint Hippolytus and Saint Ursula were built, located on the sea side of the church. At that time the church measured 35 by 22 metres. The roof was of a pointed vault and the mysteries of Our Lady and the arms of the benefactors were carved on the keystones. On the façade there were “two great doors and its frontispiece is a beautifully carved mosaic work of art and on which said doors is placed a very beautiful, tall and proportionate image of the Holy Mary of Mercy”. The façade was sombre with an austere rose window and some ornamental mouldings. Halfway through the 15th century, the friars put their small cemetery in front of the façade, on the corner of Ample street, which subsisted until the beginning of the 19th century. The image of the Virgin Mary that presided over the tympanum until the 18th century was found in some excavations in 1942; today it is situated in the chapel of Descent.

It was in 1361 when the construction of the altarpiece of the first church began, by the architect Bernat Roca. The artist promised to put in the very centre an image of the Virgin with two torches. The image before the current one that some identify as the “mà a la cara”(“hand to face”) is kept in the Museu Diocesà in Barcelona. The present image measures 1.40 m (seven palms of that time) and its elaboration is attributed to Pere Moragues as he was the sculptor who usually cooperated with the architect Roca. The style of this image coincides with that of this sculptor.

The altarpiece of the main altar had images of Saint John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Ramon Nonato and St. Pedro Armengol. In 1503 the painter Antoni Marqués decorated the altarpiece.

In 1667, by the will of the bishop of Barcelona, the Mercedarian Friar Alonso Sotomayor, the alcove of the Virgin was built so the old Gothic altarpiece and the choir stalls had to be demolished. In its place a Baroque altarpiece was built in the centre of which a great window opened with the heavenly chamber, which could be reached by a staircase from the sacristy, in order to worship and admire the image of the Virgin close up. Some years later another staircase was built to facilitate hand kissing on crowded days. After demolishing other sections, an oratory was built next to the alcove of the Virgin, with a slender dome topped by a torch from where natural light was received in the room.

Leaving aside the church, in relation to the convent, it was in 1605 when P. Antonio Simoni decided to build a new one the works of which were completed in 1636, being Fr. Dalmau Serra the General Master of the Order. The bridge that communicated the sacristy with the church was decorated and the bridge that communicated the convent with the choir was constructed. The cloister of the convent was the work of Jaume Granyer and is 26.40m on a side, with dark marble columns.

Going back to the church again, in 18th century the friars realized that it had become too small for them. The construction of a new church was approved in the General Chapter in 1764. The first stone was laid on 25th April, 1765 the architect Josep Mas being the project manager. The refectory of the convent was used temporarily as a church while the work lasted which went on for the space of ten years, being completed on 9th September,1775.

The new temple was built in the same place as the previous one and with the same arrangement, although it was broadened on the side of Ample street and lengthened on the side of the presbytery. Currently its floor plan is 45.70m by 20.36 m.

Because of the demolition of the Gothic church in October, 1767 the foundations were removed in search of the tomb of St. Pedro Nolasco but it was not found. Afterwards, in 1782, other excavations were made in the Baixada de la Canonja, where they discovered some unidentified remains.

This new church is in the cyclopean Baroque style of Italian trend. Vinenç Marro designed the new altar which consists of two statues at both sides one of St. Pedro Nolasco and the other of St María de Cervelló; in the middle the Virgin is surrounded by angels and two captives at her feet; at the top there is a shield of the Merced held by two angels, the work of the sculptor Pere serra and below there is a beautiful statue of St. Eulalia. A marble canopy completes this altar. Everything was inaugurated on 2nd August, 1794.

With all this we come to the nineteenth century, a very busy century from its beginning with the French War (1808-1814), disastrous for the Order of la Merced in Spain. The convent remained occupied, aimed to be a prison, a barracks for French and Italian soldiers and the quartermaster’s depot.

In January, 1814 the church was closed and all the jewels that had been donated to the Virgin disappeared, as well as the silver throne that the city had given to their Patron Saint. The image of the Virgin and the incorrupt remains of St. María de Cervelló were taken from the church and kept in the cathedral for greater security, returning to the church again in 1817. That same year a procession was made to the cathedral with the image because of the drought and another in 1821 because of typhoid.

In 1822, during the Trienio Liberal ( “Liberal Triennium”/1820-1823), the community was supressed and the convent closed once again. Anyway, the church remained open as a parish church. The Town Council demolished the two bridges that joined the convent to the church, being re-built in 1824, when the friars went back to the convent.

In 1835, by a Royal Decree on 11th October, the religious orders were supressed in Spain, so the Mercedarians ceased to exist in this troubled and tumultuous country until 1824, the year of their return. Now without the Mercedarians , the parish of San Miguel was transferred to the church of la Merced, in 1869 thereby denominating the parish church as “Parroquia de San Miguel y de la Mare de Déu de la Mercé” (Parish of St. Michael and Mother of God of Mercy). Its Renaissance door from the 16th century was dismantled and re-built between 1871 and 1872 in Ample street, giving access to the basilica from the side.

The convent had two uses; tax office, barracks of a battalion of the National Militia, headquarters of an infantry regiment, military casino, …. Finally, on 29th August, 1845 the new General Captain, Manuel Bretón, converted the building into the General Captaincy of Catalonia. The building was inaugurated as such on 10th October, 1846.

Getting back to the church again, in the year 1883 the dome was built over the transept of the temple, work of Joan Martorell. Also in 1883 the bishop of Barcelona, José Urquinaona y Bidot died and his grave was installed in the presbytery of la Merced , in a marble sarcophagus on two columns around the door of the alcove staircase. In 1885, the sculpture of the bishop, Agapito Vallmitjaba was placed on top.

For the event of the World Exhibition of Barcelona in 1888, the dome was completed and it was crowned with a majestic bronze image of the Virgin extending her sceptre over the city, work of Maximí Solá. That same year the image of the Virgin was crowned canonically in the cathedral of Barcelona by bishop Jaume Català. In the room next to the Virgin’s alcove a marble relief was installed which represented the “Descent of the Virgin before St. Pedro Nolasco”, work of Josep Limona, the relief that gave the name to the chapel , it still has now.

On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the foundation of the Order of la Merced, the basilica was made Minor Basilica in 1918, and the Town Council gave the sceptre to the Virgin as Patron Saint of the city.

And with these swings so characteristic of our history, we reach 1936. In July the uprising that led to the Civil War took place. That same month the basilica was set on fire. Although the firemen came, they only made sure that the fire did not reach the surrounding buildings. Thanks to the intervention of some brave parishioners, the image of the Virgin and the body of St. María de Cervelló were saved and have remained intact to this day. The bronze image that crowned the dome was melted down for military use. Everything that happened in the church of la Merced was described point by point by Mosén José Sanabre, the archivist of the diocese of Barcelona: “The evening of 19th July the frenzied mob invaded the building of the General Captaincy and, immediately after, went to the church of la Merced demanding its destruction. It was not until the following day that, accompanied by the armed forces, they were able to penetrate the temple after firing numerous rifle bullets at the façade. Immediately afterwards they set fire inside the church so that the pictures in the main vault were burnt and the frescoes of the dome were blackened by smoke. The wooden stands, the organ and all the images in the side altars were destroyed. The firemen took care that the fire only burnt the church and did not pass to the nearby houses. The fire was rekindled several times the following days”.

The image of the Virgin was thrown from the alcove onto the Tabernacle of the main altar, and some days later, other revolutionaries knocked it down onto the floor in front of the altar.

Father Luis Pelegrí Nicolás, beneficiary of the church and martyrized for this reason on 29th March, 1937, planned to rescue the Gothic image. After finding out what state the image was in, he asked for help from a family of the parish well related to the Minister of Interior of the Generalitat, don José María España Sirat. At 4 pm on 27th July three trustworthy agents of the Minister, together with two policemen, two Assault guards and two civil guards came out of the regional Government Ministry building. Miss Teresa Coll, who had handled the operation with the Minister, joined them. The group drove to la Merced in a van under the pretext of recovering the safe with the Virgin’s jewels which the assailants had not found because they were in a wall of the alcove. After emptying the safe and on passing in front of the fallen image before the altar, Miss Coll suggested they could take that work of art.

The members of the group were surprised by the unusual proposal but one of the agents, who had been instructed by the Minister, and the locksmith who had opened the safe supported the idea and finally the image was deposited in the van and covered with a sheet which Miss Coll already had. Then they went to the Captaincy where they had to collect another safe that had been in the rectory. Once in the central courtyard, out of public curiosity ,they lowered the image of the Virgin and hid it in a room under the grand staircase where they kept the cleaning tools and also where they deposited the mortal remains of St. María Cervelló.

The janitor of the Captaincy took care of the sacred objects for over two months. On 28th September, 1936 the Director of Service of the museums of the Generalitat ordered the removal of the image and the sarcophagus of St. María de Cervelló to the Museo del Palacio Nacional de Montjuïc (museum of the National Palace of Montjuïc) where they restored both pieces. After the relocation, the body of St. María de Cervelló was abandoned in the Captaincy. The architect, Josep Francesc Ráfols Fontanals (1889-1965) who was then in the Service of the Furniture-storeroom of the Generalitat, took it and kept it hidden in his home until 1939 and it was even used as an altar and mass was celebrated secretly on the body of the saint several times . The “Minister” España had to go into exile on 23rd October, 1936 as his life was in danger because he had protected religious peoples and objects of worship.

The church of la Merced was abandoned, presenting a desolate aspect, the chapel of Descent completely destroyed, next to the alcove, where the paintings of St. Joseph’s dream and the Plague of locusts were burnt. The archangels of the door of St Michael were likewise destroyed, as well as the images of St. Joaquim and St. Ana by Rámon Amadeu, St. Hippolytus and St. Anthony of the altar of St. José Oriol, the archangels by Salvador Gurri of the chapel of the Santisimo and on the altar of St. María de Cervelló, the images of St. Anthony by Pere Serra, St. Isabel by Enrique Clarassó and St. Pedro Nolasco by Amadeu.

When the war was over, between 1940 and 1976, the basilica experienced a rapid process of restoration. Soon after the war ended the General Captains of the Army (Alvarez Arenas, Orgaz Kindelán) put the battalion of Army Corps of Engineers at the disposal of the parish. The successive reconstruction works were largely paid for by private entities. Between 1939 and 1947 the pavement of the nave,the side altars, the sacristies and the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was redone. Between 1948 and 1955, work was done in the alcove and the hall of Descent. In 1956 the new image of the Virgin was placed on top of the dome, as the previous one was knocked down and melted down at the beginning of the Civil War. It is the work of the brothers Miguel (1879-1959) and Luciano (1880-1951) Oslé Sáenz de Medrano, made of bronze in a foundry in Valls.

Francisco Folguera drew the doors of the sacristy and alcove. In the pendentives of the dome and the presbytery arches there are fresco paintings by José Obiols Palau (1894-1967). Pallàs directed the restoration of the door of San Miguel and Luis Bonet did the staircase of the alcove in 1972, in the same year that Pablo Macià Pons made the decorative paintings of the soffit of the vault of the nave. Oriol Sunyer Gaspar (1923-1990) made the new silver throne of the Virgin.

Although the original Baroque style of the basilica was respected some new things had to be done: interior paintings, mouldings,… almost all of the sculptures in the side chapels were made by the Barcelona sculptor, Claudi Ríus. The main altar was designed by the architect Francisco Folguera in 1959, the presbytery being lined with marble of different colours. A new bronze image, bigger than the previous one weighing about five tonnes, was placed on top of the dome of the basilica in 1959.

In 1963 the LXXV anniversary of the coronation of the Virgin was celebrated and the new silver throne was used for the first time. On 26th July, 1964 the bishop of Barcelona, Dr. Gregorio Modrego Casáus established the Brotherhood of the Virgin of la Merced, and in the course of the same year the vestments of the virgin were removed so it could be seen as it was sculpted by Pedro Moragas in the 14th century. On 22nd February, 1976 the King and Queen of Spain visited the basilica.

In February, 1983 the fountain of Neptune, which had been inaugurated at the Fisherman’s wharf in the port on 24th April, 1826, was installed in the square. It is the work of Adrián Ferran Vallés (1774-1840). The sculptural part of the fountain is by Celedonio Guixà.

In 1992 the ancient palace Girona, opposite the church, was restored, destined for the Civil Registry. During 1990 and 1991 the church floor was refracted and the main façade was cleaned under the direction of the architect Jorge Bonet Armengol.

As icing on this whole process of restoration, on 21st, 22nd and 23rd September, 2018 the new organ of the basilica was inaugurated in a wonderful festival that had performers such as Maria Nacy, Montserrat Torrent and the French organist Thomas Ospital. It was blessed in November by Sr. Cardinal D. Juan José Omella Omella, the organist of that ceremony was D. Héctor Paris. The organ was built by the famous German master organ-builder, D. Gérhard Grenzing.

In conclusion, the Mercedarians returned to the basilica in 2018 for its pastoral care at the request of Excmo. Cardinal D. Juan José Omella, on the occasion of the eighth centenary of the Foundation of the Order of la Merced. Its current rector is P. Fermin Delgado Ramirez.