THE HOPES OF THE PEOPLE ON THEIR SHOULDERS: THE LEGENDARY BASTAIXOS OF SANTA MARIA DEL MAR
From the old stone quarries of Montjuïc down to the labyrinthian streets of the La Ribera neighborhood, there are approximately 4.5 kilometers between them, depending on the route. With the network of streets we have today, you’d make the walk in about 50-55 minutes. If you were to venture back in time to 1329, however, when the landscape looked vastly different, the journey on foot would prove to be much longer.
Imagine making that 14th-century walk with a boulder on your back.
Back then, Barcelona had become one of the main powers in the Mediterranean thanks to the maritime expansion of the Crown of Aragon. The city was, itself, in the middle of an expansion period, outgrowing its 13th-century walls. In this time of expansion and good fortune, the construction of a cathedral was commissioned by the royal family and Barcelona’s upper class. The district that would house the cathedral was the city’s ecclesiastical and political center. In the neighboring Vilanova del Mar (now La Ribera) district, which was named for its proximity to the sea —the sea shore really did reach the neighborhood, and what we know today as Barceloneta was still an island— you could find Barcelona’s economic center.
Due to the commercial, artisanal and seafaring activity in the area, the city’s great merchants claimed a substantial stake in the neighborhood, building their great palaces there, such as those you can still find today on Carrer de Montcada. According to a 1389 census, 79% of the city’s seafaring activity, 57% of the textile and clothing-making activities and 44% of the city’s merchants were concentrated in the neighborhood. Beyond a doubt, Vilanova del Mar was Barcelona’s economic engine.
As mentioned before, plans were in the works to build a cathedral. While this was happening, the increase in the Vilanova del Mar neighborhood’s population, together with the desire of a group of craftsmen, merchants and shipowners to have their own temple of great dimensions and, unlike the cathedral, not linked to the city’s nobility or royalty, an impulse was growing to begin the expansion of the humble Santa Maria de les Arenes chapel— previously known as the Iglesia de Santa Eulàlia —whose name was in homage to the land it occupied; the Roman Barcino amphitheatre had been located there. The idea saw the approval from the ecclesiastical authorities as well as from the great families of the area, who were happy to finance the project. Pedro III of Aragon granted the necessary permission to demolish various buildings in the area and reuse their components for the basilica. He also authorized the extraction of stone from the quarries of Montjuïc, both from La Foixarda and La Roca, the latter being used exclusively by the Crown.
With the project having the funding and planning necessary to begin, it was time assign the construction’s architects. The task fell at the feet of Berenguer de Montagut, who had been responsible for the design of the Seu de Manresa and the Catedral de Palma de Mallorca, both great gothic buildings, and Ramon Despuig, who had designed the Catedral de Vic’s cloister.
From the moment that the first stone was laid on March 25, 1329, it was clearly established that the basilica would belong exclusively to the parishioners of Vilanova del Mar, as it would be paid for by the rich, with their money, and by the poor, with their labor. It was to be a temple for the people of Barcelona, by the people of Barcelona, and the neighborhood was abuzz with excitement, anxiousness and pride at the notion of finally erecting their very own basilica.
The construction was completed in just 54 years, which was a record for back then. This is not only impressive for being a record in itself, but also because the construction saw a forced interruption due to the arrival of the Black Plague, which had its epicenter in the neighborhood. To give you some further perspective on how quick the construction of the basilica was for the time, the Catedral de Barcelona took 122 years to be completed; on average, building construction, in general, was estimated to take 100 years back then. The speed of the project was thanks, in large part, to the fundamental, collective work of those who made up the workforce: the area’s fishermen, artisans and residents, whom were assisted by the now legendary bastaixos (“porters“).
Els bastaixos were Barcelona’s porters, in charge of loading and unloading goods from incoming and outgoing ships, between the 13th and 15th centuries. They were also called macips de ribera due to their slave origins; “macip” is the equivalent of “mancebo” in Spanish, which means “servant or apprentice of trade,” and comes from the Latin word “mancipium,” which means “slave.” However, in the first quarter of the 14th century, all of the men were free despite continuing to belong to the humble brotherhood.
When the bastaixos heard of the project, they took it upon themselves, from a sense of service and devotion, to claim the rock hauling as their own task, and they would do it for free. As was authorized by Pedro III, the stones to be used for the basilica’s construction would be taken from the royal stone quarries on Montjuïc; the exception made for Santa Maria del Mar was that they would receive the stone for free. We mentioned earlier that those quarries, by today’s standards, are four and a half kilometers away from the site of the temple; back then, however, the distance was closer to six kilometers.
How did the bastaixos bring the rocks all the way from the mountaintop to the construction site?
They hoisted up the enormous blocks of stone on the back of their necks, using their hands to help balance them there, and carried them down the mountain to the sea nearby. From there, they walked along the coastline all the way to the site of the temple, delivering them to the stonemasons who were awaiting their arrival in order to cut the stones down to the size and shape required for whichever part of the temple was being built at the moment. In order to protect his head and neck, a bastaix would wear what was called a capçana, which was a type of rolled-up turban worn on the head that draped down over the neck; the part that was rolled up acted as a cushion, both to avoid receiving gashes and blistering and to help support the crushing weight.
Day after day, from dawn til dusk, back and forth they would go. It was a spectacle to behold, and those in the area would look on in admiration and astonishment. Silently, the bastaixos would carry out their task, bent down under the weight of the stone, able to do so, it is believed, because of their devout faith; they carried the stones for the Virgin Mary, knowing that the stones would go on to be the walls that would house her temple, and believed that she would take some of the weight. When the porters arrived at the construction site, they were always greeted affectionately. Along their arduous journey, some would even offer them water or wine.
What the bastaixos lacked in monetary wealth, they had in spades with regard to the people’s respect.
Imagine trying to carry a stone, which weighed at least 40 kilograms, on your neck and upper back just a few steps. What’s more, try to imagine even being able to avoid crumbling under that weight after a kilometer or two. Now, imagine carrying stone after stone, one by one, all the way to the site every day until all of the necessary stones were finally delivered. That’s the stuff of legends. This is why the Santa Maria del Mar has paid homage to these heroic men at various spots around the basilica. Inside, you can see two depictions of them at both sides of the altar’s steps. You can also find two framed, wooden carvings of them at the back of the temple (when entering through the main doors, turn right; they’re on that back wall).
Another depiction had to be pointed out to us: an allegorical one represented in one of the basilica’s windows, located in the nave. Entering through the main doors, located on the left wall, it’s the window in the second-to-last chapel. It shows the journey of the bastaixos, coming down Montjuïc.
On the basilica’s outer wall, where the main entrance is, you can see them depicted on the capitals wrapping around both sides of the portal; looking at the statues at each side of the archway, there are four columns next to each of them, and the bastaixos are on the capitals furthest away from the statues. There is one more depiction on the exterior, the most prominent, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Thanks to the determined work of these bastaixos, and to the workers in charge of cutting and carving the stones and putting them in place, the people’s temple was finished in 1383. The first mass was given the following year, when the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar was consecrated by the Bishop of Barcelona on August 15, 1384.
Meant to rival the Barcelona’s cathedral from the outset, the people were determined to make it faster and better. In the eyes of those from Vilanova del Mar, the idea was, “You will have your big, fancy cathedral, funded by a bottomless supply of money, but we will have our temple, and, though humble in its origins and construction, it will be far more beautiful than yours ever will.”
The wish and desire to create the most beautiful church in the name of the Virgin Mary was fulfilled; even today, it is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Barcelona’s, and even Catalonia’s, gothic temples. Fitting then, that two wrought-iron bastaixos adorn the main entry doors, welcoming all who enter, as well as reminding everyone who carried many of the stones used to build the “people’s cathedral.”
SANTA MARIA DEL MAR IN POP CULTURE
- Ildefonso Falcone‘s debut novel, La Catedral del Mar, is a historical thriller that tells the story of 14th-century Barcelona, focusing on the construction of the Santa Maria del Mar and its importance to the book’s protagonist. If you haven’t yet read it, we highly recommend this one!
- Falcone’s novel was made into a TV series of the same name by Atresmedia, in collaboration with Netflix and TV3, among others, back in 2017. If you’ve got an account, or have a friend with one, you can watch it on Netflix.
- The late Carlos Ruiz Zafón references the basilica in El Juego del Ángel. This is the second in a series of four books, called El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados, which, as with Falcones’s novel, we whole-heartedly recommend.
- Another literary reference can be found in Àfrica Ragel‘s young adult novel Thesaurus.
By EMILY BENSON
Information gathered from:
Carles, our guide on the day we went to take photos for this piece. Moltes gràcies, Carles!
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