This year, like every year, Our Lady of Atocha was carried at sunset through my neighborhood on the first Sunday of October. The little procession, traveling about half a kilometer through side streets to and from the Atocha Basilica, tries to be solemn but winds up being neighborly.
People on the curb greet friends in the procession. Grandparents bring grandchildren, who enjoy seeing the police honor guard horses and stare at the women in mantillas and Goyesque costumes. Boys dash out to help push the floats.
One of the floats, of course, carries the statue of the Virgin. Tradition says that the statue was made by the disciples of Saint Peter while the Virgin was still alive. It’s actually late Byzantine, maybe 700 years old, although the veneration goes back centuries earlier. Saint Ildefonso, Archbishop of Toledo, wrote in 665 A.D. that an image of the Virgin was being worshiped in a small chapel near the banks of the Manzanares River.
Every local Virgin has her legends and miracles, and this is one of Atocha’s:
In the year 720, the mayor of Madrid, the knight Gracián Ramírez, often went to the chapel near the Manzanares to pray, but he went in secret because the area had fallen under the control of the invading Moors. One day the statue was missing, and as he searched for it, he pledged that if he found it, he would build a new chapel at that spot. He found it in a field of esparto grass, which is called “atocha” in this part of Spain – thus she got her name.
He gathered some men and construction began at the site of the current basilica, but as it neared completion, the Moors suspected that he was building a fort and amassed to attack. They greatly outnumbered the Christians, and despite his prayers, Gracián feared defeat. To prevent his wife and two daughters from falling into the hands of the Moors, he brought them to the altar, drew his sword, and chopped off their heads. He left their corpses in the church and went out to fight to his death.
But at that moment, great flashes of lightning blinded the Moors and terrified them. They trampled each other as they tried to run away, giving the Christians an easy victory. After the battle, they hurried back to the chapel to give their thanks. But when they arrived, Garcián discovered his wife and daughters on their knees praying before the altar – alive and well, but with a red line around their neck where he had severed their heads to remind him of his lack of faith.
(Astute readers will see a few historical problems with this story. Well, yes. It’s a traditional story, and “tradition” means that you should take it for its dramatic, folkloric, or didactic value, not as fact.)
Over the years, the chapel became a church, and more miracles occurred. Eventually, the kings of Spain became regular worshipers, and Our Lady of Atocha became the patroness of the royal house. The queens of Spain donate their wedding dresses to the Virgin, so sometimes she wears the finest silk and lace. The church was rebuilt several times and eventually designated a basilica. It was damaged during the French occupation in 1808 and burned down during the Civil War in 1936. The current building was inaugurated on Christmas Day, 1951.
But over the centuries, the statue has been protected and venerated.
Our Lady of Atocha is made of dark wood, 60 centimeters high from head to foot, seated on a throne with a crown on her head. She holds an apple in her right hand as a symbol of redemption. The Christ Child sits on her lap, holding a book and raising two fingers in benediction.
During the processions, the Virgin’s dark, gentle eyes gaze out at the people of the neighborhood as she passes. They applaud and cheer. Every year – for centuries.