Legend of Nazaré
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The Legend of Nazaré has it that on the early morning of September 14, 1182, Dom Fuas Roupinho alcalde of Porto de Mós, Portugal, was out hunting in his domain, near the coast, when he saw a deer which he immediately began chasing. All of a sudden a heavy fog rose up from the sea. The deer ran towards the top of a cliff and Dom Fuas in the midst of the fog was cut off from his companions. When he realised he was on the edge of the cliff he recognised the place. He was next to a small grotto where a statue of Our Lady with the Enfant was venerated. Thus he prayed out loud Our Lady, Help Me. All of a sudden the horse miraculously stopped at the end of a rocky point suspended over the void, the Bico do Milagre (Point of the Miracle), thus saving the rider and his mount from a drop of more than 100 metres, that would certainly caused their death.
Dom Fuas dismounted and went down to the grotto to pray and give thanks for the miracle. Then he ordered his companions to fetch masons in order to build a small chapel over the grotto so that the miraculous image could be easily venerated by all and as a memorial to the miracle that saved him. Then before walling up the grotto the masons destroyed the existing altar where amongst the stones they found an ivory chest containing some reliques and an old parchment describing the story of the little wooden statue, one palm high, of Our Lady seated breastfeeding baby Jesus seated on her left leg.
According to the parchment the statue must have been venerated since the beginning of Christianity in Nazareth, in Palestine. It was rescued from the iconoclasts in the fifth century by the monk Ciriaco. It was he who brought it to Iberia, to the monastery of Cauliniana, near Mérida, where it remained until 711, the year of the battle of Guadalete, when the Christian forces were defeated by the Moorish invading army coming from north Africa.
When the news of the defeat arrived at Mérida, the friars of Cauliniana prepared to leave their monastery. Meanwhile the defeated king, Roderic, who was able to flee the battlefield alone and disguised as a beggar anonymously asked for shelter at the monastery. When he asked one of the friars, Frei Romano, to hear him in Confession he had to tell who he really was. Then the friar suggested they flee together taking with them an old and holy image of Mary with the Enfant venerated at the monastery.
So the statue of Our Lady of Nazaré, which received its name from the village in Holy Land where it was first venerated, was brought by friar Romano and by king Roderic to the Atlantic coast. When they reached their destination they settled in an empty hermitage on the top of a rocky hill, the Monte de S. Bartolomeu, and there they stayed for a few days. They then decided to separate and live by themselves as hermits. The friar took the image and settled in a little grotto, on the edge of a cliff above the sea, next to the hill where the king went on living.
A year went by and Roderic decided to leave the region. Friar Romano stayed in his hermitage above the sea until he died. The holy statue, a black Madonna, stayed on the altar where he left it until 1182, when Dom Fuas, after the miracle, moved it to the chapel built over the grotto as a memorial to the event that saved his life. Thus the still existing chapel was named Capela da Memória (Chapel of the Memory).
In 1377, because of the growing affluence of pilgrims, king Fernando had a church built near the chapel to where the holy statue was transferred. In the end of the sixteenth century this church suffered the first of a series of reconstructions and enlargements. The existing building is now the result of several interventions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries that give it a very peculiar character. This church or sanctuary is named Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré). The holy image is now on display in the main chapel in a small niche above the altar that can be accessed by a staircase leading from the sacristy. So the statue has remained in the same place since 711, in a village named after it Sítio da Nazaré (Place of the Nazaré). In this village, nowadays a quarter of the town of Nazaré, one can still visit the three sanctuaries mentioned above: the underground hermitage, the small chapel above it, the church where nowadays one can visit Our Lady of Nazaré.
According to oral tradition, the holy icon was sculpted by St. Joseph the carpenter, in Nazareth, when Jesus was still a baby. A few decades latter St. Luke the evangelist, painted it. So, it may well be the most ancient image venerated by Christians.
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