Santa María la Real is a legendary church intimately linked to the figure of García Sánchez III, king of Pamplona and Nájera (1035 -1054). This is known as “the one of Nájera” because he was born and lived in that town, where he established his court. In the chronicles that have come to us, we talk about a character very physically graceful: tall, strong and blond. He had eight children with his wife Estefanía, a child that increased even more with two bastard children he had with other women around him.
Towards the year of 1044, García Sánchez observed how his hawk chased a partridge and entered some bushes attached to a wall. The king, worried because his falcon did not return, made his way through the thick vegetation and discovered a cave in which he entered. The vision of the interior of the cave left him amazed: the falcon rested peacefully next to a partridge under a rustic altar with the image of a virgin with a child in her arms; he had at his feet a very bright lamp of light, a jug of white and fresh lilies – called “terraces” – and a bell. A miracle!
The king, moved by what he considered an undoubted miracle, gave the image the name of Santa Maria in the Cave. To house it properly, he ordered to build a temple near the cave, endowed with a monastery and a hospital for the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago. Finally, he decided to give a military orientation to such an event, founding the first military order in Spain. He named it with the name of the white lilies and the pitcher placed at the foot of the Virgin: the Order of the Terrace. As they had long considered the convenience of undertaking to conquer the rich Muslim city of Zaragoza, the rich city of Calahorra, this would be the first test for the new Order of the Terrace.
On April 30th of the following year, the king’s troops managed to take the assault on the Muslim city. The enormous booty obtained allowed to finance the temple promised to the Virgin by the miracle of which it had been witness: the Monastery of Santa Maria la Real, that was inaugurated in Nájera on December 12th, 1052.
The consecration of Santa Maria la Real was attended by his brothers, the kings Fernando I de León and Ramiro I de Aragón, as well as the Count Ramón Berenguer I of Barcelona, with other magnates and nobles of the four courts, as well as the bishops of Nájera , Álava and Pamplona.
No such meeting was remembered in the Christian Spain. Garcia decided to guard the most important relics of the kingdom there to encourage the pilgrimage to the temple. The bodies of San Prudencio and San Vicente Mártir were brought from the monastery of Mount Laturce, among other relics. When trying to move to Santa Maria la Real the body of San Felices (or Félix) of Bilibio, from some rocks near Haro, the problems began. The commission for the transfer was entrusted to the Bishop of Álava, on whom the place depended. The prelate went there with a group of gentlemen, who should escort the relics to Nájera. When the burial was opened, the bishop realized that an irresistible force made him separate from the burial mound, while simultaneously his face began to deform. For more information, it was not a sacred wish such a transfer to Santa Maria la Real, a terrible storm was unleashed. Bishop and companions, wet and terrified, gave up their efforts and left the place with a horse’s claw. The story of such an inconvenient miracle must have left the monarch worried. Moreover, when it was found that the bishop of Álava was not alleviated the deformation of the face, staying for life “silly face”, unequivocal proof that San Felicio did not want to go to Santa Maria la Real. Being the king a persevering man, he thought of another alternative to enhance the collection of relics of his new temple. If he could not guard San Felices, he could do it with San Millán, who had been a disciple of San Felices and who was even more a miracle worker (see San Millán and his miracles). The fact that San Millán had been proclaimed a saint by his father, King Sancho III el Mayor a few years before, should facilitate his management. He then decided to move his remains from the monastery of Suso to Nájera.
To ensure that this time there was no mishap and reach Santa Maria la Real, Garcia Sanchez personally supervised the transfer on May 29, 1053. When opening the burial nothing strange happened to the king or anyone of the group that accompanied him so the box, with the remains, was carefully placed in a cart. Next, the relic followed by a retinue left the monastery of Suso and descended to the valley. Suddenly, the oxen that pulled the cart remained motionless and there was no way to move them forward.
Faced with the impossibility of moving the cart and -possibly- in the face of the danger of “turning a fool’s face” on more than one, the king and the rest of the people quickly concluded that they were facing a miracle; for that reason they gave up in the attempt to transfer the relics of San Millán to Santa Maria la Real.
In case his action had delayed consequences, the king decided to ingratiate himself with San Millán and he ordered to build a monastery in the place where the oxen stopped. He also ordered that the monastery was built with dimensions as important as that of Nájera. This is how the construction of the Monastery of Suso began, where the saint’s body is still preserved today.
Text by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga and illustrations by Ximena Maier.
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