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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Santa María del Pi in Barcelona

What is Santa María del Pi?

Basílica de Santa María del Pi is a Striking 14th-century basilica whose name refers to a medieval legend of a fisherman discovering the Virgin Mary’s image on a pine tree.

Santa María del Pi

Santa María del Pi History

According to tradition, a 5th-century fisherman discovered the Virgin Mary's image on a pi (or pine tree) that he intended to cut down to build a boat. Struck by the vision, he instead built a small church, later succeeded by this striking Gothic structure.

After the substantial economic success enjoyed by the Crown of Aragon during the 13th and 14th centuries, Barcelona’s most important churches were renovated. Between 1318 and 1320, construction began on the Romanesque church that preceded the current basilica. However, due to several misfortunes, including the heavy losses Barcelona suffered at the hands of the Black Death, it was not until 1391 that building was finished. The impressive 14th-century basilica is a classic of Catalan Gothic architecture, with an imposing façade, a vast interior and a single nave. The simple decor in the main section contrasts with the gilded chapels and exquisite 20th-century replica of the original rose window. One of the world’s greatest, and the largest of all the churches in Barcelona, the rosette bathes the interior of the church in beautiful refractions throughout the day.

Among the numerous chapels in the church, the one known as the Chapel of the Blood, stands out. It’s conceived as a small church (annexed to the southern side of the main building) with a single nave, polygonal apse and covered with two sections of ribbed vaulting. It depicts several angels, and its ornamentation is no less striking: the capitals at the entrance are decorated with a series of fantastic animals, including monkeys, eagles, and griffins.

However, the basilica's period of most extraordinary splendour coincided with the beginning of the 16th century and the arrival of the Renaissance in Catalonia. But this golden age was brief: the War of Succession and the various sieges that Barcelona suffered at the beginning of the 18th century left significant damage on the church. In 1714, several bombs fell on the presbytery vault, destroying the High Altarpiece and its ornaments. Thankfully, the Virgin and the rest of the images were left unharmed; parishioners interpreted it as a miracle.

The church was under attack again during the 20th century, when groups of uncontrolled anti-clericals set fire to several churches in Barcelona, one of which was Santa María del Pi. The fire completely consumed the High Altar and the choir stalls, the doorways and some chapels, including the Chapel of the Blood and the principle organ. The stained glass windows exploded from the heat. The building suffered severe structural damage, especially to the roof and the vault. Only the Archive, which contains documentation from the 12th century to the present day, was saved thanks to the action of some government officials, among whom was the famous Catalan librarian and historian Jordi Rubió i Balaguer.

Despite the decidedly mixed circumstances the basilica has weathered over the years, the building still stands strong. It remains the imposing centre of the Gothic Quarter, along with an ancient pine tree which still grows in the adjacent square to this day.

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