Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Top choice in Zaragoza

This great baroque cavern of Catholicism stands on the site where, the faithful believe, the Virgin Mary appeared to Santiago (St James the Apostle) atop a pilar (pillar) of jasper on 2 January 40 CE, leaving the pillar behind as testimony of her visit. A chapel was built around the pillar, followed by a series of ever more grandiose churches, culminating in the enormous basilica.

A lift will whisk you most of the way up the basilica's northwest tower, leaving you to climb 109 steps to a superb viewpoint over the domes, river and city.

The basilica, originally designed in 1681 by local architect Felipe Sánchez y Herrera, was greatly modified in the 18th century by royal architect Ventura Rodríguez, who added the ultra-baroque Santa Capilla at the east end (housing the legendary pillar), and the flurry of 10 mini-domes around the main dome on the roof.

The famous pillar is topped by a small 15th-century Gothic sculpture of the Virgin and child, and is concealed inside an elaborate silver casing, which is itself usually three-quarters hidden by a long mantle (except on the 2nd, 12th and 20th of each month). A tiny oval-shaped portion of the pillar is exposed in the passage behind, and a steady stream of people lines up to brush lips with its polished and cracked cheek, which even popes have air-kissed. More than the architecture, these sacred symbols, and the devotion they inspire, are what make this church special.

Hung from the northeast column of the Santa Capilla are two wickedly slim bombs that were dropped on the basilica during the civil war. They failed to explode. A miracle, said the faithful; typical Czech munitions, said the more cynical.

The basilica's finest artwork is the 16th-century alabaster retablo mayor (main altarpiece) by Damián Forment, facing west in the basilica's middle. There are also two Goyas: La Adoración del Nombre del Dios, on the ceiling of the coreto (small choir) at the church's far east end, is an early classical piece from 1772; vastly different is Regina Martirum painted above the north aisle in 1780 (in the third cupola from the east). With its blurry impressionistic figures, it was hugely controversial at the time.

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