Arantzazu Sanctuary

Where religion and the avant-garde unite

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According to tradition, the Virgin appeared to a shepherd called Rodrigo de Balzategi in a hawthorn bush; astounded, he asked her "Arantzan zu?" (Is it you in the hawthorn?), thus paving the way for centuries of devotion, pilgrimages, art and culture expertly organised by the Franciscan community in those inhospitable heights. The monastery suffered both accidental and intentional fires on numerous occasions: 1553, 1622 and 1934, and had to be rebuilt every time. After the fire that took place during the Carlist War, the church and monastery were completely rebuilt, but in an effort to curb the monks' absolutist aspirations, the new church was far too small to hold the large number of pilgrims that once flocked to the site.

In 1951, instead of continuing with the partial rebuilding works in the neo-Romanesque and neo-baroque styles, the decision was taken to build a new basilica, which would be fittingly large and distinguished, but which, above all, would express a modern artistic language. An official competition was therefore organised and the winning project was a design by Francisco Javier Saénz de Oiza and Luis Laorga.

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The towers and belfry rise stately from the middle of the deep ravine, covered with thousands of diamond shaped tips made of limestone, representing the continuation of the karstic landscape and the sharp thorns of the hawthorn bushes. Originally, the main façade was to be adorned with cherubs, but in the end it was left free of ornamentation, a sombre, flat wall whose only features are the stains made by the falling rain. At the base there is a frieze depicting 14 apostles, crowned by a image of the Pietà. The figures are bare and empty, reflecting the ice sculptures formed in the rocks and symbolising artist, Jorge Oteiza's pursuit of symbolic Basque emptiness.

The local tradition, in which churches have always had porches to welcome the locals and provide them with an area for meeting and chatting that is protected from the rain, mist and cold winds, was also taken into consideration during the building of the avant-garde Arantzazu Basilica, as evident in its beautiful and irregular sheltered arcade. The four doors that provide access to the church were designed by Eduardo Chillida and seem to be almost below ground, being set at the bottom of a steep staircase. With their mineral appearance, the doors suggest the entrance to the underground world, an impression which is further reinforced inside the church by the massive high altarpiece, which measures over 600 square metres. The altarpiece was designed by Lucio Muñoz and is carved in wood of many different colours.

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Thanks to the increase in light, the colours used and the softening of the style as the eye moves upwards, the viewer is left with the impression of being transported from the darkest underground lands to the brightest heavens. The Virgin stands in an alcove between these two worlds, perhaps serving as a link between them. The symbolism of the altarpiece recalls an old theme that was once extremely popular in the region: peace, i.e. the idea that the appearance of the Virgin of Arantzazu brought about a suspension of the bloody wars that ravaged the country during the 15th century. The gothic statue dates from the 11th century, although it was repaired during the fourteen hundreds. It is made from chalk stone, a material that is not found in the local area. The small bell is even older than the statue.

The play of light is achieved partly by means of the stained-glass windows by Javier Alvarez de Eulate, in which there is a marked predominance of blue. In the ambulatory behind the Virgin's alcove, there are eight pictures by Xabier Egaña featuring reflections about the Book of Job, the absurdity of pain (a feeling so closely linked to mankind's existence), and the Apocalypse. The crypt, decorated by Nestor Basterretxea, contains 18 murals of exceptional expressive strength, which have a somewhat aggressive use of colour. The avant-garde character of the works of art that make up the Arantzazu project were not always understood or appreciated, a circumstance which resulted in long periods of inactivity and, in some cases, forced the artists to modify their original designs.