The Black Madonna : Virgin of Candelaria

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Candelaria is a small coastal town in Tenerife, one of a group of volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the North-West coast of Africa forming an autonomous region of Spain. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands where agriculture has now been largely overtaken by the tourism related industry. Tenerife covers around 2020 sq. kilometres. Santa Cruz, or Holy Cross, is the principal port and chief city from where it is easy to visit some varied and interesting places the length and breadth of the island.

The Black Madonna

Not far from Santa Cruz is the island’s main centre of pilgrimage. The object of veneration is the statue of the Virgin of Candelaria, an original of which was apparently discovered on a beach by two goatherds of the Guanche settlers in 1392. The story goes that when one of the shepherds tried to throw a stone at the statue, his arm became paralyzed. The statue was taken to the local Guanche chief who placed it in a cave from where it was stolen and taken to Lanzarote. So many strange happenings were associated with it that the statue was hastily returned to Tenerife. The Black Madonna soon acquired a reputation for curing illnesses and attracted pilgrims from all over the island. When the Spanish arrived they attributed the statue with the successful conversion of the Guanches to Christianity and built a church for her in 1526. In 1826 the Black Madonna was to return to her origins when a tidal wave swept her from the church in Candelaria back out to sea.

Legend tells that Guanche settlers saw the statue of the Black Madonna as protector of land and sea. When washed ashore she had a child in one hand and a green candle in the other, giving the name Candelaria. The large cave where she was kept is easily accessible where the history and legend are explained. Here she was venerated until a sanctuary, the Basilica of Our Lady of Candelaria, was built in 1526. It was destroyed by fire and replaced in the nineteenth century by the present church and an adjacent convent. The image that adorns the main altar is a copy of a copy sculpted by Fernanado Estevez. With her dark skin and shining crown, she is splendidly clothed in a dazzling green robe and traditionally carries a baby in her right hand and a candle in her left hand. On 15 August pilgrims come from far and wide to pay homage to the Black Madonna when she is ceremoniously carried out to sea by local fisherman. As patron of the island, she is fervently venerated in Candelaria and throughout Tenerife.

Ancient settlers

On the seaward side of the large square in front of the attractive basilica is a row of nine imposing bronze statutes mounted on volcanic plinths representing the Guanche leaders, or menceyes, at the time of the Spanish Conquest. They replace the original statues of sandstone that were in poor condition and are now on the newly built avenue to the north of the town. The island’s museums provide vivid testimony to the history, culture and funerary rites of these cave dwellers who were the ancient settlers.

Note : All sources and information used are acknowledged in the preparation of this text.

Ita Marguet, February 2006

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