Escudo Merced The Shrine

The Place - The Church - The new Sacristy -The Virgin´s Chamber - The Image

THE PLACE. The wheat coloured monastery, austure and sombre, dominates the hillside. Yet, you can sense a happy combination of the caprice of stonework and brick connecting with lime and plaster and perhaps a touch of the song of the worker as well.

The building that we see today shows two different elements: the church proper and the monastery or convento or the living and work areas of the community. It forms a great rectangle based on the architectural style of Juan Herrero. He helped complete the famous Escorial near Madrid and his work is characterized by large walls punctuated with windows in orderly rows.

Today´s monastery was preceded by several smaller churches and convents. The first building dates back to the medieval days when the shepherd, Pedro Nobés, working for Don Gil de Atrosillo, a landowner from Estercuel, saw (according to the legend) a burning olive tree with the image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms.


The story of the Image of the Virgin, and the discovery of an anchient wooden statue in the olive grove, cause don Gil de Atrosillo to consturct the first small hermitage on the site. It was, also according to legend, built around the original olive tree where the shepherd saw the image. The statue that was discovered was one of Spain´s many "Black Virgins", statues that were buried centuries before to escape the advancing Moorish invasion.

Soon after, as devotion to the image grew, Don Gil invited the young Order of Mercy, founded by Saint Pedro Nolasco in 1218, to act as custodians of the hermitage. It was deeded to the order in 1258 along with the farm buildings, the olive grove and surrounding lands. Two years later, with the consent of his sons, Don Gill ratified the first deed and gave additional lands to the Monastery. Cairns were erected as property markers to show the limits of the property.

The simple original building was soon converted into a small Gothic church. It served, with small changes and additions, until the beginning of the 16th century when major changes converted the simple stone, brick and plaster building into the current eclectic structure. The construction of the present church was completed in two phases. Between the years 1513 and 1549, at the initiative of the Right Reverand Father Jaime Lorens de la Mata, the church was extended to where the present pulpit stands. In 1603, under the direction of Father Juan Durango, the rest of the church, with its vestiblue was constructed. There are outside walls with supporting buttresses and delicate additions in the Mudejar style of brick work, so popular in this part of Spain after the Moors were driven out. The vault of the church has a beautiful star-filled ceiling and Gothic decorations abound. Bold arcs sour across the church. There are truncated arcs in the choir where the asthetic equilibrium of the Renaissance stands out so beautifully.

The nave of the body of the church is 25 metres by 9.33 metres with two smaller chapels on each side. In the retablo of the alter, in the apse, is the image of the Virgin of the Olive Grove. The presbytery is seperated from the rest of the church by an iron railing. In the middle of the first stage of the presbytery, at the foot of the stairs that rise to the alter are two heavy wooden trapdoors. They cover the stairway descending to the crypt. In the simple crypt are the remains of the early patrons of the Monastery and the religious of the Order of Mercy who were martyred in The Spanish Civil War in 1936.

At the side of the presbytery, two large spaces open to the right and left. The right-hand one leads to the "new" sacristy. The left-hand one leads to the "old"sacristy and the musoleum built by Father Juan Herrero in 1709.


The new sacristy is large and well lit. Occupying most of one wall is the great wardrobe built and paid for by the Right Reverand Father Juan Cebrián. His coat of arms can be seen at the upper-back of the wardrobe. The beautiful decorations inside the wardrobe are almost certainly the delicate brush work of Brother Agustín Leanardo de Argensola, probably done in 1629. The wardrobe hold religious vestments, precious alter pieces, relequaries and other objects of veneration. It is one of the few objects at the monastery to survive during the Civil War.


From the New Sacristy, there is a stairway leading up to the small "Camarín de la Virgen" or "The Chamber of the Virgin Mary." It is in the back of the alterpiece, walled in alabaster and full of light. The area is also part of the new construction to the church which includes the new guest rooms.


The image that is now on the alter is a reproduction of the original which was venerated for generations. In 1936, a horrible year for all of Spain, the original statue, an ancient wooden Visigothic image about a metre and a half tall, was thrown onto a bonfire along with other religious objects and art works kept at the monastery. El Olivar, its religious and its heritage, along with many other churches and monasteries in Spain, suffered cruel repressions during the Civil War. But the reproduction is faithful to the original. The face of the virgin is the work of the distinguished Spanish artist, Pablo Serrano.




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© 1997 Comunidad Mercedaria de El Olivar