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A fisherman found this Madonna in a river near Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source: Conchi Paz via Apatrigal

Investigators Puzzle Over 700-Year-Old Madonna in a Spanish River

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A mysterious Madonna (statue of the Virgin Mary) has been recovered from a river in Galicia, Spain. The religious figure is believed to be up to 700 years old. Researchers are attempting to solve the puzzle of the Madonna in the river and there are a number of theories as to why it ended up in the water.

The Galician Madonna was found by chance by a fisherman, Fernando Brey, as he was fishing in the River Sar in north-west Spain. It was found in plain sight in shallow water. The fisherman soon established that it was not an ordinary stone, even though the Madonna was badly weathered and covered in moss. Mr. Brey alerted the relevant authorities and they retrieved the Virgin Mary statue and took it away for further examination.

The Madonna in the Sar River on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, before it was taken to a museum in the city. (Conchi Paz/Galician regional government)

The Madonna in the Sar River on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, before it was taken to a museum in the city. ( Conchi Paz/Galician regional government )

The Madonna in the Galician River

Researchers from the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the Association for the defense of Galician Heritage determined that the Madonna (a Virgin Mary statue) is made of granite and weighs 330 lbs. (149.69 kg). It depicts the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms. Based on the style of the piece it is believed to date to the 14th century and is created is in the Galician Gothic style . According to The Observer , ‘On both sides of the Virgin, by each of her shoulders, are two angels or putti’. The angels are holding up the Virgin Mary’s cloak and are watching her and the Holy Infant.

The base of the Madonna is decorated with a floral motif and it appears that it was designed to stand in a wall, based on the smoothness of its back. The face of Mary and the Holy Child’s head are missing. The Olive Press quotes Ramon Yzqueriod Perrin, a member of the local Royal Galician Academy, saying that this is a “Virgen de la leche as the carving depicts a mother breastfeeding a child.”

Example of a statue of Saint Mary. Monastery of Santa María de Oseira, San Cristovo de Cea, Galicia (Spain). (Luis miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga)/CC BY SA 4.0)

Example of a statue of Saint Mary. Monastery of Santa María de Oseira, San Cristovo de Cea, Galicia (Spain). (Luis miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga)/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Discovered on a World-famous Pilgrimage Route

Interestingly, the statue was found on the world-renowned Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. Vintage News reports that ‘Every year, hundreds of people take to the hiking trail that winds its way from Pamplona to the cathedral in Santiago, a cherished place many centuries old that marks the end of the pilgrims’ journey.’ Pilgrims have taken this trail as part of their spiritual awakening for many centuries and the route is also popular with tourists. However, it seems unlikely that the Virgin Mary statue found in the river was related to Santiago de Compostela.

How Did the Madonna End Up in the River?

Experts have turned to private investigators to solve the riddle of the medieval statue in the river. Some have focused on the fact that the Madonna was deliberately damaged. The Observer quoted Mr. Perrin as saying that the damage was “probably due to an old impact inflicted in an attempt to de-sanctify the piece.” This may have been done several centuries ago and it could have been linked to some political protest that is reminiscent of the tearing down of public monuments in the present-day.

However, some believe that the figure is connected to a local Catholic asylum that was founded in the 19th century. This was run by nuns and was the first such institution in Galicia. It is believed that the Madonna came from a small grotto in the gardens of the asylum. When the institution was close, materials from the hospital were used in the construction of a dam not far away.

The Olive Press quotes Ramon, a local whose family has lived in the locality for years, as saying that “There was a dam right there. My grandmother and mother always remembered it and I remembered it as a child too.” It appears that the statue was once part of the dam.

In 1985, during a severe flood, the dam was washed away, and the religious figure was swept downriver. But Perrin rejects this theory and believes that it came from the asylum and was deliberately defaced.

Relic from a Golden Age

Regional culture minister Roman Rodriguez visited the river where the enigmatic Madonna was found, and according to Vintage News , he stated that “Beyond its cultural and historic value, we’ll need to try to put together the story of this statue… it must be quite a story.” The figure is now at the local Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago, where it is undergoing further analysis. The debate as to the origin of the Madonna and how it ended up in a river will no doubt continue.

The Virgin Mary statue was removed and taken to the Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago. ( Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago )

What is beyond doubt is that the sculpture can help researchers better understand Medieval Galicia. This area of Spain, which has always had a strong regional identity, played an important part of the Reconquista - the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. The statue of the defaced Virgin Mary can help researchers to better understand the culture of the time, which is considered to be something of a Golden Age in Galicia.

Top image: A fisherman found this Madonna in a river near Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source: Conchi Paz via Apatrigal

By Ed Whelan

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