Today is a holiday in here in Madrid, Spain, celebrating Our Lady of the Almudena, the image of the Virgin Mary that is the protectress of the city. She will preside over an open-air Mass in the Plaza Mayor and will then be carried through the streets in a religious procession.
Every city and town in Spain is protected by a patron, a representation of the Virgin Mary, or both. Every saint and Virgin has its holiday. And every saint and Virgin has at least one traditional story to go with it — "traditional" in Spanish means a story handed down from generation to generation. You might call them legends. The joy of these stories lies in their inventiveness, not their veracity.
Almudena in Arabic means "city wall" (or perhaps "granary"; official sources disagree) and is the name for that image of the Virgin Mary. There are many legends (often contradictory) about the image, and this is my melodramatic favorite:
In the year 39 A.D. the Apostle James the Great came from Jerusalem to Spain (a traditional visit not mentioned in the Scriptures) to preach the Gospel, and when he came to the town later known as Madrid (which did not exist by any name at the time; it was founded centuries later after the Moorish conquest), he gave its pious inhabitants (had there been any) a statue of the Virgin Mary (although the cult of the Madonna was actually established centuries later). It had been carved (tradition says) by the hand of Nicodemus and painted by the Apostle Luke.
When the Moors attacked the area sometime between 711 and 714 (this is true), a blacksmith, fearing that the holy statue would be profaned during the conquest, took it from the church (which didn't exist) and hid Her nearby in the old Roman wall around the town (which also didn't exist). Two candles were included in the niche with the wooden image (was that wise?) so that she would not be alone in the dark. (One source claims the image was stone.)
The Moors built a fortress on a river bluff in 852 to protect the northern approach to Toledo (this is true), and eventually a village called Mayrit grew up around it with a protective wall, (also true), and the original village church was made into a mosque (not really).
When King Alfonso VI liberated the town in 1085 (if he actually did; some doubt that he bothered. Others say he did, but he mistook the hamlet of Madrid for the major city of Toledo, somehow), the townspeople told him about the legend of the statue of the Virgin, for which they had been hunting in vain. Everyone had forgotten that it was in the wall. On November 9, the King led a religious procession, whose members included El Cid (who else?), to search for it.
But despite their prayers, they found nothing. Finally, a woman stepped forward to say she was a descendant of the blacksmith, and declared that she would give her life if they could only find the Virgin — upon which some stones from the town wall fell down and killed her (let that be a lesson: don't tempt God), revealing the statue hidden inside.
(There are other versions of the story of the discovery of the statue in which no one gets killed, but I like this one, so I'm sticking to it — although the one involving a famine has its merits. A niche in the rebuilt wall now marks the spot.)
The two candles, miraculously, were still lit, and the centuries of smoke had stained the statue's face was dark. (Many early statues of the Virgin and Child in Spain are dark-skinned. This was originally believed to be the result of aging, but further investigations have revealed that sometimes the skin was originally painted dark brown or jet black. No one knows why.) The mosque was made into a church. (True.)
The original statue was lost in the 1400s, perhaps in a fire that destroyed much of the church (it did burn) or somehow otherwise was permanently misplaced (tradition gets fuzzy here), and a new image was made in the 1500s (true), which has been retouched and revised several times (even sawed into two pieces so the Madonna and Child could be dressed in robes more easily). It is always accompanied by two lit candles (or, these days and more wisely, electric lightbulbs). Pope Pius X declared her the official patroness in 1908 and November 9 as her feast day, confirming a tradition that was (genuinely) many centuries old.
After a lot of false starts and decades of budget problems (not to mention a nasty Civil War), the Cathedral of Our Royal Lady of Almudena was erected on the site of Mayrit's former mosque (next to the famous wall — see photo) and dedicated in 1993. The Pope came to bless it, and he was showered by Madrid residents with yellow and white confetti (the official papal colors) made of chopped-up telephone directories. (Madrid recycles.)
Tradition: It has served to pass down stories as a parallel to dry, factual history — the story not of what did happen but what should have happened. As the capital city of an empire, Madrid deserved an exceptional image as its Patroness, and so it came to pass (one way or another).
¡Viva la Virgen de La Almudena!
— Sue Burke