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The Caves of Covadonga

by Zsolt Aradi

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    This article gives a brief description of the image of Our Lady in the Caves of Covadonga.
  • Larger Work:
    Shrines to Our Lady
  • Pages: 43-45
  • Publisher & Date:
    Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954

After the rise of Mohammedanism in Asia Minor and North Africa, the Moors turned against Spain. The Visigothic Kingdom was weak at the time and thus in 711 Arab troops from North Africa landed without great difficulty in the neighborhood of the present Gibraltar. In the decisive battle between the Moors and the Visigoths during the same year, the Visigoths were defeated and their King Rodrigo fell in the battle. Legends spread throughout the country that Rodrigo had actually not perished but had probably become a hermit or, if he had died, he appeared in different form to strengthen his beaten people.

The remnants of the beaten Gothic army scattered in panic and only one man, a kinsman of the monarch, Don Pelayo, did not despair. He slowly retired with groups of courageous knights and soldiers into the dark hills and mountains of Asturia, where they hid themselves around a place known as Covadonga (Cueva honga means "deep cave").

When they arrived in this hiding place, Don Pelayo wanted to discipline an unruly member who fled the group. Don Pelayo pursued him and was about to take him prisoner when a hermit appeared before the leader in front of one of the caves and told him that he should honor that cave as a sanctuary, according asylum to the fleeing criminal. "If you pardon the culprit now, you will find haven one day at the same spot and thus remake the Empire," said the hermit. Don Pelayo knew that the cave from time immemorial had been considered a sanctuary of the Madonna, whose image was venerated there by the hermits and so he pardoned the man.

This little army hid for seven years in these labyrinthine hills preparing for the final battle. Then in 718, the Moors sent an entire army into Asturia with orders to destroy Don Pelayo and his men. When the leader was informed of the danger, he went to the sanctuary of the Madonna. Remembering the words of the hermit, he prayed in the cave and solemnly vowed to win a victory or die in battle.

When the Moors appeared with their immense army, Don Pelayo and his men seemed doomed. Arrows darkened the sky and the mountain air was filled with darts and lances. Suddenly the defenders realized that these weapons did not reach them but merely bounced off the rocks. Soon the Moors fled in confusion pursued by the small Christian army. The enemy made for the safety of the plains at Mount Auceva. Instantly a tremendous rainstorm broke over the hills, the river Deva overflowed its banks and a landslide crushed the Saracen army.

After the victory of 718, Spain was not yet saved. The greater part of the country remained for centuries under Moorish domination. Nevertheless this victory had the greatest significance for the future of the peninsula. Don Pelayo, chief of the Visigoths, became King of Asturia and united the remaining Visigoths and the Hispano-Roman tribes. With the unification of the Visigoths and the Hispanic tribes begins the creation of historic Spain. Ever since, the Virgin of Covadonga has become one of the great symbols of the Spanish nation.

The sanctuary is one of the most romantic spots in Spain. A visitor describes the cave with these words:

"The upper part of the rocky mass, from whose center springs the source of the river Deva which, rushing underneath the cave, with a loud roar that is answered by a thousand echoes from the surrounding hollows and rocks, dashes over precipices and falls with tremendous noise into a basin ninety feel below" (Historic Shrines of Spain by Isabel Allardyce).

And of the image of Our Lady, the Asturians say that even if a painter were to come down from Heaven, he would be unable to reproduce the beauty of this lovely statue.

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