Our Lady of the Pillar: firmness in faith

The devotion to Our Lady of the Pilar is part of the Christian heritage of Spain since the beginning of the evangelization of the peninsula, and crosses the ocean to the nations of Latin America, represented in the Basilica of the Pilar.

José Antonio Calvo-October 12, 2023-Reading time: 9 minutes

Apparition of the Virgin Mary to the apostle Santiago in Zaragoza

The memory of generations and generations takes us back to the beginnings of apostolic preaching. In Saragossa, the Roman Caesaraugusta, we find the Apostle Santiago el Mayor tired and burdened, praying together with a few converts, and the Virgin Mary who "comes" to console him and to remind him of the mission entrusted to him by Jesus Christ and the promise: "Know that I am with you always, to the end of time". This is not an apparition, but a coming: a coming "in mortal flesh", because the Virgin had not yet finished her days on this earth, she had not yet been assumed into heaven, but was in Jerusalem, in the Mother Church.

The pillar of the Virgin

The various accounts of this prodigious event speak of a "glorious coming", of a "night that became light", of "courts of angels"... and, above all, of a "pillar". This "pillar" is the "Pillar". The Virgin, in her meeting with the apostle James, pointed to a stone pillar of pink jasper 170 centimeters high and 24 centimeters in diameter. This pillar, which has not moved from the same place where the Coming took place, represents the firmness and security of the Christian faith in Spain and the community of Hispanic peoples who have in Mary a sign of hope.

The Virgin also reminded the Apostle that he had to build the Church: the Church and a temple where to worship God and preserve the memory of his maternal presence. The Pillar placed by the Virgin is the sign around which to build what is known as the first Marian temple; and, above all, the image of the Church that, by the hand of Mary and St. James, begins to spread. When did this happen? The Jacobean and Pilarist traditions take us to a time prior to the martyrdom of St. James and the Assumption of Mary. In the 17th century, it will be a Franciscan Conceptionist nun, the venerable mother María Jesús de Ágreda (1602-1665), who in her book "The Mystical City of God" places the Coming on the second of January of the year 40 of our Christian era.

The "temples" of the Pilar

Whoever knows the cathedral basilica of Pilar knows that it is a baroque temple. So, what happened between the year 40 and 1680, when the construction of the present building began? Tradition has it that the apostle St. James himself built a church. However, the documented history of the temple dates back to the 9th century, when a monk named Aimoino testifies to the existence of a Mozarabic church in the Muslim Saraqusta.

This church dedicated to Santa María occupied the same place where the Baroque basilica now stands and was in a poor state of preservation, since although the Muslims tolerated Christian worship, they did not allow renovations or the construction of new temples. After the conquest of Zaragoza by King Alfonso I of Aragon in 1118, the temple was rebuilt by constructing a Romanesque church whose works were not completed until the 11th-12th century, whose appearance is indicated by a tympanum that is preserved integrated into the current facade. However, a fire in 1434 led to the construction of a new building in Gothic-Mudejar style.

This temple did not last long: the Miracle of Calanda led to a new boom in pilgrimages and the building became too small. Very soon the construction of the current baroque temple would begin, which was not completed until 1961, with the last of its four towers.

The Miracle of Calanda

The story takes us to the end of July 1637. Miguel Juan Pellicer, a native of Calanda (Teruel) has an accident during his work. He fell to the ground and one of the wheels of his uncle's cart ran over his right leg. He broke it at about the level of his ankle. He was taken to the hospital in Valencia and, seeing that he was getting worse and worse, he was transferred to Zaragoza where he arrived at the beginning of October, with a high fever and a totally gangrenous leg. Before being admitted to the hospital, he went to the Pilar church, where he went to confession and received communion. Once in the hospital, the doctors, seeing that the leg could not be cured, decided to cut it off four fingers below the knee, with no more anesthesia than a well-filled drink of alcohol while he prayed to the Virgin of Pilar.

After the operation, two doctors buried the leg in the hospital cemetery. When he recovered from the operation, he spent two and a half years begging for alms at the door of the Pilar, anointing his stump with oil from the lamp of the church of the Pilar and sleeping in an inn or on the benches of the hospital. He returned to Calanda and on March 29, 1640, tired from work, he went to bed early and in the same room as his parents. Shortly after, when they entered the bedroom, they noticed a strange fragrance; the mother approached her son with the candle and saw that not one but both legs were sticking out from between the sheets. It was his own amputated leg: with old scars from his childhood and the injury near the ankle that the cart had caused when it ran over him.

The great feast of the day of the Pilar

The calendar has several dates marked around the devotion to the Virgin of Pilar. Obviously, the best known and probably the most popular is October 12: the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, patron saint of Zaragoza and Aragon. It should be noted that it was Pope Innocent XIII who, in the eighteenth century, set the date of October 12 as the day of the Virgin of Pilar, since it was on October 12 when the first Mass was celebrated after the recovery of the city of Zaragoza. How is October 12 celebrated? The great feast of the Virgen del Pilar is preceded and accompanied by numerous traditions that make this celebration of Marian faith unique.

-Eve of the Pilar: Vibrant. A day of waiting that focuses on the procession that, around 8:30 p.m. on October 11, leaves from the main altar to the Holy Chapel of the Pillar, to sing the Salve. This procession, known as "Claustro Magno", is traditionally presided over by the senior students and the archbishop of the archdiocese of Zaragoza.

-Infant Mass: Family. The most endearing celebration of this day dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It is the Day of the Pillar, it is 4:15 am. It is the middle of the night and the children are the first to sing the Blessed and praised to the Virgin on her feast day. The Holy Chapel is full, and no murmur is heard. A prayerful silence extends throughout the basilica where hundreds of devotees gather, some of whom have walked for miles. After this celebration, it is common to find families and the children themselves tasting a chocolate in the surroundings of the Marian basilica.

-Rosary of the Aurora: Sacrificed. After the awaited Mass of Infants, around 5:45 a.m., arrives at the Pilar, coming from the parish of San Pablo, that of the Hook. This singular artifact opens the way, without hurting, to the dawn that comes to pay respect to its Queen of the morning. Flower mantle made with the offerings of October 12.

-Seasonal Mass: Solemn. Twelfth of October, at 12:00 noon. It is the Mass, par excellence, celebrated by the diocesan pastor accompanied by all the people of God. A magna Eucharist that is interpreted with choir, rondalla, orchestra and organ. It is the Aragonese Mass of Master Berdejo-Marín. Thousands of people gather in the house of the Virgin, its square and surroundings to honor and venerate her in her greatest feast.

-Offerings to the Virgin: Extensive and intense. The first of these offerings is that of flowers. Hundreds of people approach the image of the Virgin of Pilar placed in the square, from 7:30 am, throughout the day on October twelfth carrying bouquets, centers and arrangements of flowers with which a huge and colorful mantle is woven. The second offering is that of fruits and is celebrated on the thirteenth, at 12:00 noon. Music will also be offered to weave a sonorous mantle to the Virgin of Pilar.

-Crystal Rosary: Every October 13, Zaragoza hosts the Crystal Rosary. This unique and beautiful custom dates back to 1889, from the founding of the Brotherhood of the Holy Rosary of the Virgen del Pilar. The day after the big feast of the Virgin, at 6:30 pm, from the Plaza de San Pedro Nolasco, a very special procession of 30 glass floats, illuminated from the inside, which allude to the Mysteries of the Rosary (Sorrowful, Joyful and Glorious).

This luminous procession punctuates the streets and the prayers of thousands of people like a Milky Way that has descended from heaven to earth and a symphony of light and color, art and incomparable magnificence. With the incorporation of the mysteries of Light, by St. John Paul to the Rosary, a new modern float representing these mysteries was incorporated to this procession.

Infantics and "measures".

Around the Virgen del Pilar we also find a series of institutions, traditions and curiosities. Among them, two of the best known are the Infanticos del Pilar and the "measures" of the Virgen del Pilar that tens of thousands of people carry in their cars, backpacks or knotted in their hands.

-The Infanticos: The Infantes del Pilar, popularly known as "Infanticos del Pilar", is one of the school groups that still survives in Spain today. The institution formally instituted dates from the 17th century, although we already find data of its existence since the 13th century. At present, there are fifteen children between the ages of six and twelve who sing daily at the chapter mass, in the morning, and the Gozos and the Salve, in the afternoon.

-The "Measures" of the Virgin: One of the most typical and requested souvenirs of the Pilar are the "measures". The "Measure" is a ribbon that is 36.5 centimeters, the size of the carving of Our Lady of the Pilar, as the legend printed on the textile says. The ribbons refer to the mantles that cover the Sacred Column and therefore have different colors: green, purple, light blue or with the flags of Spain or Aragon. These "Medidas" are carried by the Pilar and are a sign of devotion and Marian protection. How many cars, suitcases, dolls or baby cribs carry one of these famous "Medidas" as a sign of Marian filial devotion!

A universal devotion

One of the most striking elements kept inside the basilica-cathedral of Our Lady of the Pilar in Zaragoza, and in the room above the Pilarista Museum, is the collection of flags from different countries, communities or military detachments, offered to the Virgin at different times in our contemporary history. As José Enrique Pasamar and Leonardo Blanco Lalinde point out, "the oldest flags are related to the events of the Sieges of Zaragoza. The rest of the flags are generally related to the Hispanidad, since the Virgen del Pilar was proclaimed Queen and Patroness of the Hispanidad". The oldest flags arrived in 1908, when 19 American flags were offered to the Virgin: Dominican Republic, Cuba, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Haiti, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua; and the flag of the Philippines.

The flags had arrived in Spain after being blessed in Rome by St. Pius X. The Spanish flag was the next to arrive and it did so in 1909. It would be quite some time before a new flag was added to those offered to the Virgin: on May 17, 1953 the flag of Puerto Rico joined the collection of Latin American countries present in the basilica of the patron saint of Hispanity. Also in 1953 the flags of the Holy See, Portugal and Brazil arrived.

The deterioration of many of these flags led, in 1958, on the 50th anniversary of the offering of the American flags, to a renewal of the flags promoted by the Hispanic Cultural Institute of Aragon. 10 years later, in 1968, Florida offered its flag. The last flag offered is the flag of the United States of America, which joined the American flags on September 14, 2000.

On January 22, 2005, on the occasion of the Jubilee Year, and as part of the events of the Centenary of the canonical coronation of the image of the Virgin of the Pillar, the Philippines and Haiti renewed their flags. In the words of Pasamar and Lalinde, "today, still, the flags of the Pillar want to continue being messengers of unity, peace, fervor and above all of cooperation between countries".

Devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar is also strong in Latin American countries, where there are many temples dedicated to this maternal invocation. Examples of these are, to cite a few examples, the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in São João del Rei (Brazil), the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Buenos Aires (Argentina) or the festivities in honor of the Virgin of the Pillar in the Municipality Maneiro, Nueva Esparta State in Venezuela, where the Virgin of the Pillar is venerated as patron saint of the town.

Patronage of the Virgen del Pilar

Our Lady of the Pilar has the characteristic of uniting, as Patroness of the Hispanic world in her devotion, all Hispanic peoples.

The celebration of October 12 as Columbus Day recalls the cultural treasure of the union of Spanish-speaking countries, as well as vindicating the value of indigenous peoples, brotherhood and fraternity. In addition, the Virgen del Pilar holds the patronage, perhaps less known, of other institutions. The first of the patronages of the Virgen del Pilar is the Spanish Civil Guard. A patronage that owes its existence to the devotion of the military chaplain, Miguel Moreno Moreno who, in the Civil Guard College of Valdemoro, where he was stationed in 1864, placed the image of the Virgin of Pilar and introduced the young students to the devotion and love of the Virgin.

The devotion to the Pilar took shape in the Civil Guard and on February 8, 1913 by Royal Order, the Virgin of the Pilar was proclaimed patron saint of the Civil Guard. In addition to this, the Virgin of the Pilar is the patron saint of the Spanish Navy's submarine corps since 1946, since, long before, an image of Our Lady of the Pilar was taken on board in the first dive of Isaac Peral's torpedo submarine. Another patronage, less known, is that of the Spanish Postal Service. In 1935 the Hermandad del Pilar de Funcionarios de Correos was constituted and Our Lady of the Pilar was named patroness of the Postal Corps, while the apostle Santiago is the patroness of the Telegraph Corps.

The authorJosé Antonio Calvo

Media Delegate, Archbishopric of Zaragoza and canon of the cathedrals of Zaragoza.

Read more
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.
Banner advertising
Banner advertising