Pilgrimage to Black Madonna of Pilar
Yesterday I pilgrimaged to Zaragoza for the Festival de Pilar. It consists of a week long homage to Nuestra Senora de Pilar: Our Lady of Pilar. When I told others I was coming here on this day, I wasn’t aware of what big deal it was. She is the Black Madonna that resides in Zaragoza, and Her church is the first church in the world dedicated to Mary. October 12th is a national holiday in Spain, National Festival of Spain. As the patroness of the Hispanic peoples, this day honors her, the Hispanic world, the Spanish Civil Guard, and yes it has coincided with when Columbus “founded America.” I have mixed feelings about the Catholic Crusades and Columbus day, but I love all things Black Madonna, and I was curious to learn more.
According to various tales, in 40 A.D. Mary appeared her to St. James while She was still alive but living in Jerusalem. It’s the only known bilocation case of Her, where Mary was in two places at once while living on earth. St. James was having difficulty converting others with minimal success, and She appeared to him to offer support and strength. I am curious as to the tales that exist behind this one. Who were the pagans worshipping before Nuestra Senora de Pilar existed? Are the celebrations now similar to those that occurred before?
Zaragoza sits on the path of the Camino de Santiago, which makes sense. Camino de Santiago is the Walk of St. James. Many of you may know this from the film The Way. A 500 mile pilgrimage from the edge of France to Santiago de Compostella, where the cathedral holds the remains of St. James. But before his remains were placed in Santiago de Compostella, St. James supposedly was here in Zaragoza trying to convert people to Catholicism.
I didn’t have plans to come to this particular Black Madonna, but a friend and fellow Black Madonna devotee nudged me to. Elaine Soto wrote in her book My Journey to the Black Madonna: a memoir about Nuestra Señora de Pillar and various other Black Madonnas. In addition, included her artwork that were inspired by them. When she encouraged me to come, I researched the information about Her and saw Her feast was approaching. Without much hesitation, I knew it was a sign, and I purchased the tickets.
Anyone who knows me knows I love three things: Black Madonna, Pilgrimages, and Dressing Up. This event had all three. I was aware that people would be dressing up in authentic clothes from the Aragon region, but I didn’t know what that meant. Therefore, I didn’t dress up. I could just experience it, as a pilgrim. I was curious what the attire would be, but I soon found out. What it meant was the women wore poufy long skirts and conservative tops that looked like they were from the 1800s. The men seemed to dress as if they were some type of pirates. The vibe was Jane Austen meets Pirates of Penzance. If participants weren’t wearing either of these outfits, people wore red and black tartan scarves around their neck. This pattern were from the region, and served as wearable souvenirs. The back of the scarves said either “Zaragoza” with an image of the city and the Black Madonna or “Madonna de Pillar” with an image of the Black Madonna. I seriously loved being around this tradition where there was a uniform to unite devotees for this day. I had to purchase a scarf from a vendor to look that I was at least somewhat celebratory.
I wondered why this was a red tartan scarf. The fabric choice seemed more of that of a Scottish clan or an American country style button down shirt, than that of Spanish vibes. But it later made sense. When I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help but think I had a similar look to myself 20 years ago. Then I had a red scarf around my neck and a white shirt, and was in a crowd of others who dressed in the same attire. It was the celebration of San Fermin, the running of the bulls. Both times I appeared disheveled and wore a backpack, perhaps things don’t change. Pamplona wasn’t too far from Zaragoza, and therefore there must be a linkage with the red scarves worn around the neck.
The trip to Zaragoza was short, but those hours were very full. When I arrived at the Zaragoza train station from Madrid on a 70 minute journey, I found out it was a 45 minute walk to the cathedral. I debated to take the public transportation, but this was also 40 minutes. Therefore it made sense to walk. Since the region was part of the camino, I figured I could be a peregrino for a day. I thought I would run into some of the events that were linked to this holiday and I did. The 45 minute walk was through a long dirt parking lot, urban developments, and eventually toward the town center. I didn’t expect the walk to be so dirty and treacherous, as I got stung by some type of plant in my Birkenstocks. At the end of the day, my feet were dirty, looking as if I walked for days versus solely hours.
I finally arrived at the Cathedral, but I couldn’t enter. Despite this fact, I was amazed. Outside of the Cathedral was the Black Madonna of Pilar in all Her glory. A non-stop all day parade of various groups and individuals came by to offer her flowers that would go on a massive float that carried Her. All the volunteers dressed in red or purple tartan placed the flowers received from those in the parade on this makeshift float. Offerings were made to Her by people dressed in their authentic costumes, and it reminded me as one would greet a couple at their wedding reception. She was there amidst all her glory, welcoming guests who travelled far to see her for this special day. It was pure celebration.
Each time I visit a Black Madonna, I try to discern the minute differences they offer through a vibe from what She exudes. All Black Madonnas linked with various miracles and stories, and have various mystical powers. But they all give off a different energy. This Black Madonna of Pillar exemplified a sense of joy and playfulness. It could be that I was here for this fiesta. I witnessed how the crowd interacted with Her and the homage they made to Her. This wasn’t somber and monotone, but had the vibes of town carnival. This is Her essence. I wonder what She means for the people now. They engage in this tradition to honor Her, but what does She signify? Are there ways they worship Her that are parallel to how the pagans worshipped their goddesses (as we find in many of the Mediterranean areas with Mary nowadays)? Is she a maternal ancestor meant to visit once a year with flowers? Do they pray to Her in times of need or thank Her for the bounty given? Does any of this really have to do with Spain “finding America”, Spanish power, or Spanish heritage? Or is there something underlying this all that is linked with worship of the land? This is what I must figure out. But in the meantime, I loved it.
To read out more about her, check these sites out https://www.interfaithmary.net/black-madonna-index/zaragoza and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Pillar#:~:text=The%20feast%20of%20Our%20Lady%20of%20the%20Pillar%20is%20celebrated,every%20year%20in%20her%20honour