The historical archive of the Basilica

The origins

It was during the pontificate of the bishop of Barcelona Berenguer de Palou (1212-1241), whose tomb can be admired in an archway of the chapel of St. Miguel in the ambulatory of the cathedral, when the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary to St. Pedro Nolasco occurred, according to tradition, on 2nd August, 1218. On the tenth of the same month and year the Order of la Merced was founded in the cathedral of Barcelona with the presence of the King, Jaime I of Aragon, the bishop Berenguer de Palou and San Ramón de Peñafort. The Order was officially established between 1222 and 1228, with the purpose of rescuing the captives held by Muslims. The Order adopted the shield with the silver cross on gules (red background) of the cathedral and the four stripes of Aragon.

In 1045 the hospital of Guitart, or St. Eulalia, established in the house of Pía Almoina near the cathedral had been founded in order to care for the poor and the pilgrims. On 19th July, 1131 the count of Barcelona, Ramón Berenguer III died on its premises. In 1218 King Jaime I gave the hospital to the newly created Order of la Merced so that its first convent could be established there.

On 5th August, 1232 don Ramón de Plegamans donated some land in Arenal de Roquets o dels Gòdols to the Mercedarians and they immediately began building the new hospital of St. Eulalia which was completed in 1234. The following year, Pope Gregory IX (Hugolino) approved the constitutions of the Order and in 1245 Pope Innocent IV (Sinibaldo Fieschi, 1243-1254) placed the hospital under the protection of the Holy See by means of an apostolic bull. In 1249 bishop Pedro de Centelles (1243-1251) granted a concession so that the church of the convent-hospital would have a public character.

The first Mercedarian convent

After the initial residency in the house of Pia Almoina, the Mercedarians’ convent was that of St. Eulalia at the beach of Roquetes and in 1252, the bridges were built over Carrer la Merced that linked the convent, closer to the sea with the church. The work was done with the approval of Jaime I, who had a room in the convent and also where Queen Violante de Bar, Juan I’s widow, resided in 1401.

In 1265 the feminine branch of the Order was created, the first Mother Superior being St. María de Cervelló (1230-1290) whose remains rest in the church of la Merced. In 1267 the first Gothic style temple is ready.

Between 1336 and 1377, the architect Jaime Cercés directed important reform works and in 1343 the door to Ancha (now Ample) street was opened. In 1361 Bernat Roca made the main altarpiece in the shape of a tabernacle where he installed the seven-foot- high image that could be the one currently worshiped. In 1380 King Pedro IV donated the urn where the remains of St. María de Cervelló rest. In 1389 the bell tower was completed. On 27th January, 1401 King Martin I , the Humano (Human one), granted the church the title of Royal Chapel and the friars of la Merced, the dignity of royal chaplains. In 1419 the Gothic façade of the church was completed, the appearance of which is known from a document in the Notarial Protocol Archive.

In 1492 a new main altarpiece was started, with architecture by Pedro Duran and images of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist by Juan Cassel, that Guillermo Duystach completed, both of German nationality. In 1501 the choir stalls were made of poplar wood and oak from Flanders, while the work of the altarpiece was continued by the painter Antoni Marqués in 1503. In 1516 the Renaissance doorway of the church of San Miguel was built next to the Consejo de Ciento, by the architects Pedro Mateu and Gabriel Pellicer and the sculpture by René Ducloux. This door was placed in the church of la Merced in 1870.

The Renaissance convent of la Merced

In 1650 they were working on the site of the new Renaissance style convent with black marble columns in the cloister. It is currently the headquarters of the Captaincy General. In 1605 the work was started by the architect Jerónimo Santacana and was continued by his son, Jacinto Santacana (1613-1621). In 1651 the gatehouse and grand staircase were completed. Lorenzo Passolas made the polychrome wainscoting of the cloister.

In 1667 the Gothic altarpiece was dismantled and the new one was built in Baroque style, 20 metres high and eight metres wide with a central window for the alcove, or angelic chamber. At the same time the choir stalls were dismantled too. On 10th September the sacristy burnt down, built from 1671 onwards.

A terrible plague blighted Barcelona in 1687 and the council of Ciento begged the Virgin for protection, proclaiming her the patron saint of the city on 25th September. The plague subsided the following year and was over on 15th September,1688. In 1689 the chair or throne of silver was made for the Virgin and the organ was installed. In 1693 the Consejo de Ciento gave away the urn containing the old polychrome wood in which the remains of St. María de Cervelló rest, on the event of her canonization.

On 28th September,1705, during the war of Succession, an artillery bomb fell on the presbytery and killed a woman. On 23rd July, 1714 the image of the Virgin was deposited in the cathedral during the siege of the city. In 1755 José Buxareu built the new organ.

The new church

In 1765 construction on the present temple began, specifically on 25th April, according to the project of Josep Mas Dordal architect and contractor, author among other things of buildings in Catalonia such as the palace Moja de la Rambla (1776-86), the reform of the church in Arenys de Mar (1774-1784), the parish of san Vicente de Sarría, the village and church of Almacelles (1774-1777), the palace of the bishop of Barcelona, Gabino Valladares Messía (1782-1786) and the la Mesa de Comunes Dépositos (Table of Common Deposits) in Barcelona square. He also planned the expansion of the port of Palamós. From 1789 he was a member of the Academy of Science. He worked in collaboration, with his brother, Pablo, who was also an architect.

On 25th April, 1765 the Marquis of Mina, the Captain-General of Catalonia, by express delegation of the king, Carlos III, laid the first stone of the new temple. The Gothic church had to be demolished and the great Baroque altarpiece went to the parish of St. Esteban de Granollers and in 1917 it went to the Museum of Art of Catalonia.

The work continued over ten years and in the ornamentation of the façade the sculptor Carlos Grau (1714-1798) collaborates with the same style that he had used on the church of St. Marta and on the palace of the duke of Sessa. Statues by Salvador Gurri (1749-1819) and Pablo Sierra (1749-1806) were installed on the various altars.

On 10th August, 1775 the image of the Virgin was taken, by procession, from the cathedral to the new temple.

The celebrations went on until 14th September. On the 9th of that month the blessing of the new temple had taken place.

The new altar was designed by the Valencian architect Vicente Marro and it was inaugurated on 2nd August, 1794.

The new church has a single nave with chapels between the buttresses and four sections of the barrel vault followed by transverse arches. It has a very discreet transept and dome. There is a high chancel at the entrance of the temple and laterally the chapel of the Santísimo (The Blessed Sacrament), that also has a small dome in the adjacent chapel. The sacristy and the staircase that goes to the alcove are around the presbytery.

The 19th Century

The church of Our Lady of Mercy, until it became the current late-Baroque monument, underwent various phases of remodelling since it was initially late-Roman or primitive Gothic, then fully Gothic until it was demolished and in the second half of the 18th century it was reconstructed in Baroque style. During the 19th century serious changes damaged the building in its decoration.

In 1806 the burials inside the church were suppressed and over the years the sepulchral slabs, that were recovered during the restoration work in 1990, were covered .

In 1808 the French became the owners of Barcelona and when they evacuated the city in 1814, they took the silver throne of the Virgin. Between 31st March and 5th July, the friars deposited the image of the Virgin and the urn of St. María de Cervelló for safe-keeping in the cathedral to avoid desecration .

At the end of the Liberal Triennial, on 18th January, 1823, the Town Council ordered the demolition of the bridges over the street of la Merced. The following month a Royal Order suppressed the convent of la Merced.

With the law of Confiscation of Ecclesiatical Assets of Mendizábal , the Mercedarians were seized and the convent was converted into offices of Amortization, headquarters of the National Militia and into a theatre to raise money for the Militia.

When King Fernando VII visited Barcelona he stayed in the old Ala dels Draps, which served as Captaincy General. From that moment the convent became the headquarters of the Captaincy General. The change was made official, valid until now, in 1846 when don Manuel Bretón held the position of Captain General.

On 2nd August, 1868 Pope Pius IX (Juan Mª Mastai-Ferretti, 1846-1878) proclaimed the Virgin of la Merced patron saint of the diocese of Barcelona.

The following year the parish church of San Miguel, next to the Town Hall, was knocked down and The Renaissance door of the 16th century by René Docloux was dismantled and rebuilt in Ancha street between 1870 and 1872, giving access to the church of la Merced. From then on the church of la Merced was converted into the parish of the Virgin of la Merced and San Miguel.

In 1883 the bishop of Barcelona, José Urquinaona y Bidot, died and his tomb was installed in the presbytery of la Merced, in a marble sarcophagus on two marble columns around the door of the staircase of the alcove. The sculpture of the bishop, by Agapito Vallmitjana, was placed on top in 1885.

In October, 1888 the new dome of the Merced was inaugurated shortly after the commemorative acts of the canonical coronation of the Virgin on 21st August at the hands of bishop J, Catalán y Albosa in the cathedral. The outside of the dome was topped by a bronze sculpture of the Virgin , the work of Maximino Sala Sánchez and the interior was painted al fresco by Victoria Codina Langlin (1844-1911) with scenes of the coronation of the Virgin.

Juan Matorell himself drew the metal throne of the Virgin which N. Sola cast in bronze. Likewise the staircase of the alcove was renovated. In 1895, the bishop gave the Chapter of the cathedral a large painting, by Franscico Galofré Oller (1865-1942), that faithfully reproduced the act of the coronation. It was in the chapel of St. Lucia in the cathedral and then went to the room next to the alcove of la Merced and in 1983 it was taken back to the cathedral and placed in the room of la Merced in the cloister.

20th Century

In 1914 the restoration of the chapel of the Santisimo (Blessed Sacrament) was done, and on both sides of the nave of the church were the marble and metal pulpits designed by Ramón Maria Riudor Capella (1868-1938).

The restoration work on the hall of the Descent of the Virgin, or of the Escolanía, was completed in 1916, with an altar by the architect Enric Sagnier Villavecchia (1858-1931), where the marble relief that represented the Descent was, the work of the sculpture Josep Llimoa Bruguer (1864-1934). The painting of The Coronation by Galofre Oller, donated by the canons of the headquarters, remained in the hall and also the painting that was given by the Consejo de Ciento in 1688 commemorating the end of the plague of locusts. In 1917 Father Gazulla published an interesting book on the church in which the plan of the Gothic temple, drawn by the architect Lluis Domench y Montaner, is reproduced.

On 24th September, 1918 the VII Centenary of the apparition of the Virgin to St. Pedro Nolasco, San Ramon de Peñafort and King Jaime I was commemorated and on that occasion Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa, 1914-1922) granted the church of la Merced the title of Minor Basilica. It was then when the painter Julio Borrell Pla (1877-1957) painted the soffit of the greater vault. Simultaneously the sculptor, José Maria Camps Arnau made a bas-relief which represented the bishop of Barcelonan Dr. Reig Casanova, receiving the insignia of the basilica from the Pope. It was placed above the door of the sacristy, opposite the monument to Bishop Urquinaona.

In 1928 on the occasion of the preparations for the International Exhibition of 1929, the architect Adolf Florensa (1889-1968), led the reform works of the façade of the Captaincy General. Tiled wainscoting with the shields of the Mercedarian priors and captain generals were placed in the cloister substituting the primitive tiles of the 17th century, work of Lorenzo Pasolas, that had disappeared at the end of the 19th century.

The destruction of 1936

And the terrible destruction of 1936 arrived. Everything that happened in the church of la Merced was described point by point by Mosen José Sanabre, the archivist of the diocese of Barcelona. On the evening of 19th July the frenzied mob invaded the building of the Captaincy General, and immediately afterwards went to the church of la Merced demanding its destruction. It wasn’t till the next day when, accompanied by armed forces, they were able to enter the temple after firing numerous bullets at the façade. Then they set fire to the interior of the church so that the paintings of the major vault were burnt and the frescos of the dome damaged with smoke. The wooden stalls, the organ and all the images of the side altars were destroyed. The firemen ensured that the fire only burnt the church and did not spread to the nearby houses. The fire was rekindled several times on the following days.

The carved image of the Virgin was thrown from the alcove onto the tabernacle of the main altar and some days later, other revolutionaries threw it 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, proposed to rescue the gothic image. After finding out how the image was, 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 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.

The reconstruction

When the war ended, the process of restoration was started immediately with the help of Captain Gernerals, Álvarez Arenas, Orgaz and Kindelán, who made the battalions of Army Corps engineers available to the parish. The reconstruction of the alcove was begun by the architect, Juan Ventura Pòlit and his colleagues, Francisco Folguera Grassi (1891-1960), Camilo Pallàs Arisa (1918-1982), José M. Sagnier and Luis Bonet Gari also collaborated.

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.

During the restoration works, in 1942, a terracotta image of the Virgin that was in the tympanum of the Gothic church was found buried. It was taken to the Museo Diocesano. In 1950, one of the 17th century ceramic wainscoting from the cloister was installed in the museum. In 1960 the restoration of the main altar was completed, which was carried out in accordance with conciliatory liturgical rules.

The last actions in the church

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, and on 7th July, 1981 the rector, don Lorenzo Castells Pujol died not being able to see the new square of la Merced opposite the main façade, after the demolition of a block of houses, which had been one of his greatest dreams.

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.

On 21st January, 1992 the medal was imposed on the First Ladies of the Brotherhood of la Merced.

The church of la Merced

The church of la Merced is a clear example of Barcelona architecture of the 18th century, with significantly classic features. Its architect, José Mas Dordal was inspired by the French classicist style of the Louis although it contains elements that are certainly Baroque within the simplicity of the lines. The dome is the work of Juan Martorell of 1888; it also has a certain French air within the eclecticism of that period. It has a similar style to the building of Crédito Mercantil (1900) in la Merced square.

The interior structure of the basilica preserves its original architectural lines, although not the decorative ones, as it was necessary to rebuild the altars in 1939.

The main altar has the opening of the alcove or angelic chamber above it and all the presbytery is lined in marble of different colours.

The doors to the alcove and sacristy are to the right and left of the presbytery, and the transept, with the altar of St. María de Cervelló on the right and the altar of St.Pedro de Nolasco on the left, is immediately found.

In the part of the Evangelio (Gospel) there are the lateral altars between buttresses that correspond to St. Miguel, and Our Lady of Sorrows, that lead to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin of Hope, the Virgin of the Holy Christ and the baptismal chapel. In the part of the Epístola (Epistle) there are the altars dedicated to St. Joseph, the Virgin of the Forsaken, St Ramon de Peñafort and St. Yves. And all these with modern images. In order to reach the alcove of the Virgin you can go up to the presbytery and cross the door, which is in turn the mausoleum of bishop Urquinaona, then climb up the staircase to the antechamber and from there to the angelic chamber or alcove to the Virgin. It is currently accessible through a door located to the left of the transept, without going through the presbytery.

The devotion of the people of Barcelona has been intense and continuous and crowds of parishioners from Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia, Spain and America come to the basilica to pray before the Virgin.

On 24th September the crowd that comes to the temple makes it totally insufficient in capacity to accommodate them all. The authorities, the members of the Brotherhood and all the parishioners surround the archbishop who concelebrates the mass with the rector and other priests.

The main festival of Barcelona is precisely the Festivity of la Merced and the service in the Basilica is its major event.

Another demonstration of the popularity and the citizens’ esteem for the sanctuary is the custom that sports teams offer the Virgin the trophies they win in different championships. The Catalans who travel to America visit with great enthusiasm the numerous churches there of the Mercedarian Order with its shield of the cross of Barcelona and four stripes of Aragon.

Barcelona has in the basilica one of its best attractions, of a spiritual and artistic nature and an international reference point of Marian stone.

Joan Bassegoda Nonell, Of the Brotherhood of the Virgin of Mercy

Archivo histórico de la Basílica 

Documentos gráficos, grabados varios, testimonios, cartas, rótulos, y correspondencia que dan fe del paso del tiempo pero también ofrecen información muy útil de nuestra historia.

Galería de imágenes de la Basílica

Galería de imágenes. Fotos Falcón

Colección de estampas en blanco y negro

Colección de estampas en color

Colección de postales

Colección de grabados

Colección de carteles publicitarios de la época

Selección de documentos históricos

Estatutos de la Pía Unión de San Miquel Arcángel

Homenaje con motivo de los 25 años de la Coronación de la Virgen

Certificados antiguos

Carteles de las Fiestas de la Mercè

Colección de planos

Dibujos de Josep Obiols

Fotografías de archivo histórico