Every Spanish town or city has its patron Virgin, and in a big city like Madrid, even neighborhoods have their own. Ours is Our Lady of Atocha. On the first Sunday of October — that is, today — she is taken out of the Royal Basilica of Atocha and carried in procession through the streets while neighbors applaud and cheer.
Tradition says that the statue was made by the disciples of Saint Peter while the Virgin was still alive. It's actually late Byzantine, although the veneration goes back centuries earlier. Saint Ildefonso, Archbishop of Toledo, wrote in 665 or 666 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 known as "atocha" in this part of Spain — thus, it seems, 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 badly 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 lights and 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" in Spain 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 church was rebuilt several times and eventually designated as 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, with its gentle, happy eyes, was protected and saved.
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. The Christ Child sits on her lap, holding a book and raising two fingers in benediction.
The queens of Spain donate their wedding dresses to the Virgin, and when she goes out on procession, she wears splendid clothing made from them — as you can see in the photo.
She's one of the "black Madonnas" that became popular in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Why were they black? No one is quite sure, but recent investigations have shown that they didn't turn dark through age. They were deliberately dark.
Today, she will be carried out of the church on a float decorated with flowers and candles. If it's like previous processions, as she emerges, the police band will play the Spanish national anthem, a royal march. Hundreds of people will greet her with applause and shouts of "Viva la Virgen!"
I plan to be there. I'm not Catholic, but Atocha is my neighborhood, and she's been here longer than anyone.
— Sue Burke
Also posted on my professional website: http://www.sue.burke.name