A Brief History: Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona
What is the Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy?
The Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy, also known locally as ‘La Mercé’, is an 18th-century Baroque church in Barcelona that was designed by Josep Mas i Dordal and replaced a medieval structure built in honour of the Virgin Mary.
Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy History
The story of this Baroque church goes back to the 13th century. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Peter Nolasco in a dream and asked him to create a monastic order in her name. The order was tasked with the rescue of Christians taken prisoner during attacks by Moorish armies (‘Moors’ being the European name for Muslim settlers of the Iberian peninsula), as they believed the prisoners were in danger of losing their faith.
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy initially placed its headquarters in a hospital near Barcelona Cathedral. Yet in 1232, Ramon de Plegamans, a wealthy merchant, donated some land near the port to Saint Peter Nolasco and his order, on which was constructed a Gothic church in honour of La Mercé. The church's defining feature was the sculpture resting on its central altar: a 14th-century, wooden Virgin Mary. The basilica soon became a place of pilgrimage for believers seeking spiritual aid and forgiveness.
The church regained importance again in the late 17th century when Barcelona suffered a severe famine caused by a (suitably biblical) plague of locusts. The city council supposedly asked the Virgin of Mercy to save the city, promising to invest her as patron saint of Barcelona if she listened to their prayers. When, shortly afterwards, the plague subsided, the council proclaimed La Mercè co-patron saint of Barcelona (along with Saint Eulalia). As the friary grew, the church became too small for its community, and thus it was torn down and rebuilt in the mid-18th century, taking the form you see today.
The Baroque church, designed by architect Josep Mas i Dordal, required ten years to complete. The nave (the area intended for the congregation) is flanked by twin pulpits (or raised platforms) and decorated in an ornate style typical of Baroque equivalents in the period. Large stained glass windows depict various scenes of the Virgin of Mercy’s life and fill the church's interior with shifting bright colours throughout the day. In contrast with the ornate interior, a mass of sparkling gold, the building's exterior is strikingly simple.
Like many other religious buildings, the basilica was badly damaged during the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936, the church was set alight, and most of the original sculptures and decorations were destroyed. Fortunately, the 14th-century statue of La Mercè and a few other religious artefacts were saved and taken into safekeeping. Sadly, the iconic bronze statue on the church’s dome could not manage a similar escape: it was instead melted down to make ammunition. After the war, Franco’s fascist government restored the basilica and replaced the bronze statue in the 1950s.
Today, faithful devotees from across the city continue to pray to the Virgin. Some of Barcelona FC’s footballers visit the church after their wins to offer thanks for their triumphs to Mary. In Catalan, the word mercè is synonymous with service, help, and compassion; the association of this peaceful basilica with all those qualities endures to this day.
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