Church of Mericell – The main temple of Andorra

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Church of Mericell – the main temple of Andorra

The Church of Mericell, or the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Merichelle, is the main temple of the Palamental Principality of Andorra, located in the Canillo district and dedicated to the cult of Our Lady of Merichel, the patroness of Andorra. Our Lady of Mericell was officially declared the patroness of Andorra back in 1873, and on September 8, 1921, the image of the Virgin of Mericell was solemnly crowned in accordance with all the canons of the Catholic Church. On May 13, 2014, Pope Francis granted the church the status of a minor papal basilica.

The history of the Sanctuary of Merichel, like the cult of the Virgin of Merichel, is more than 1,000 years old. According to legend, the statue of the Virgin was discovered in time immemorial by pilgrims traveling from Canillo to Encamp. The image of the Virgin of Merichel was surrounded by flowering plants, although the weather was harsh and the slopes of the mountains were completely covered with snow.

Much amazed at this miracle, the pilgrims took the image of the Virgin to Canillo, but soon the statue mysteriously disappeared from there and was again found in the same place, among the plants blossoming in the midst of winter.

The second time it was decided to take it to Encamp, but history repeated itself: the statue disappeared again and was once again found in its original place. Then, finally, the inhabitants of small but proud Andorra realized that this was a sign given from above: they say, it is at the place of discovery that a church dedicated to the Mother of God should be erected.

And so they did – although, frankly, the futuristic appearance of the temple of Merichel does not fit well in perception with the distant eleventh century:

Church of Mericell in Andorra

So it is: the first temple, or rather, what was left of it after numerous reconstructions and a fire in 1972, is located nearby and looks somewhat different:

The “old church” or “old sanctuary” is a small chapel built in the first half of the 12th century or somewhat earlier. Around 1658, a global reform of the temple, which had become very decrepit by that time, was carried out. The church, one might say, was rebuilt on the foundations of the previous Romanesque building, acquired a small bell tower over the main façade and, in general, acquired the same look that we see today.

The last major reform of the old church building dates back to the 19th century and concerned, first of all, interiors. In 1866, the artist Josep Oromi from La Seo de Urgell painted the interiors of the temple in the simple and laconic Romanesque style typical of Andorran churches, but this work was not destined to survive to this day.

On the night of September 8-9, 1972, a fire destroyed most of the church, including the original ancient documents kept at the sanctuary. Together with the documents, all the images and altarpieces that adorned the interior of the temple were lost, including the revered statue of the Virgin of Merichel herself. 

The stone frame, however, survived, and after restoration in 1994, the chapel of Santa Maria de Mericel became the site of the permanent exhibition of the Meritxell Memoria.

Church of Mericell in Andorra

The new sanctuary was designed by the prominent Barcelona architect Ricardo Bofill, who, among other things, built the W Hotel in Barcelona. The concept of the new church, according to Bofill’s project, is based on three pillars: faith, the national identity of the Andorrans and the peculiarities of the local culture, including its architectural manifestation.

The new complex, according to Bofill’s idea, should have been fully integrated into the surrounding natural landscape – which, in our opinion, he certainly succeeded.

Bofill designed a very modern, monumental building that incorporates several artistic styles at once – however, this deliberate eclecticism with a pronounced touch of avant-garde does not cause rejection at all, as we have seen many times.

The church building itself has cylindrical vaults, recalling the first Romanesque construction of the Mericell sanctuary and is made in the form of a Greek cross. Around it are the rest of the premises, some of which are in the open air, subtly recalling, among other things, the ancient temples of Greece or the search for the golden ratio, so characteristic of the Italian Renaissance.

 

In general, Bofill, using different styles inherent in the cult buildings of different religions, obviously pursued the goal of reconciling different beliefs in the space of one complex: for example, the space adjacent to the church proper has indirect references to Buddhism, Islam and Judaism.

The inspiration that Bofill drew from Romanesque architecture is clearly evident in the abundance of open arches, which should remind us of the ruins of the first church; the monastery building, located on the south side of the temple, reminds of medieval monasteries in Western Europe, and the courtyard located to the north of the church building is arranged in accordance with the traditions of Islamic architecture:

The architectural complex is completed by a large rectangular bell tower, inspired by the bell towers of the Catalan Romanesque monasteries:

Austerity and minimalism characterize the whole complex as a whole, as if returning us to the origins, to those distant times when the church was not yet mired in luxury and preferred an extremely restrained decor that should decorate “the houses of God on Earth.”

Let us recall the majestic and extremely simple temples of the Cistercians (the Poblet and Santes Creus monasteries in the south of Catalonia) – and we will understand that Bofill’s idea was largely based on this, intentional and conscious, simplicity.

The interiors of the temple, completely not cluttered with decor, are spacious and delight with an abundance of light. The image of Our Lady of Merichel, restored from photographs, is the main decoration of the current church:

In addition, in the Basilica of Mericell, there are wooden carved statues of the patrons of other parishes of Andorra: Sant Serni (Canillo), Santa Eulalia (Encamp), Sant Corneli (Ordino), Sant Iscle (La Massana), Sant Esteve (Andorra la Vella), Sant Pere Màrtir. These sculptures were made by local sculptor Sergi Mas.

The materials used in the construction, which set the task, as we have already mentioned, the maximum integration of the building with the landscape, symbolize the various natural elements that surround the complex:

The slate is mined from the bowels of the mountain on which the complex is located – that is, it is a part of it that has previously been transformed.

The whiteness of the ceiling and floor, symbolizing snow, harmoniously coexists with the snowy winter landscape of the area.

The copper cladding of the roofs and the tower was used in such a way that over time, the copper sheets would turn green and resemble the meadows and pastures surrounding the sanctuary, located on the slopes of the mountains. Note that this has not happened yet – but the church, by any measure, is still quite young.

The consecration of the new Sanctuary of Mericell took place on September 8 (on this day, the Feast of the Virgin of Mericell is celebrated) in 1976, and the fact that the Andorran authorities subsequently declared the Sanctuary an architectural monument of national importance serves as a kind of recognition of the merits of Ricardo Bofill.

It is imperative to mention that the Sanctuary of Merichel houses an impressive collection of Bibles in 1900 languages ​​from five continents, belonging to 178 countries (in general, the Bible has been translated into 3000 languages).

The collection also contains copies of the Bible written in Braille (for the blind), the smallest Bible in the world, a Bible in the format of the video game Minecraft – and many other curiosities. All were collected by former Andorran banker Pere Roque over 26 years of continuous travel and subsequently donated to the Church of Mericell.

Visit schedule:

Wednesday to Monday: 9:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm.

the entrance is free

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