Tradition dates the origin of the Our Lady of Pilar shrine to the year 40 A.D., when St. James the Apostle was sitting here on the bank of the Ebro River, discouraged and heartsick at his lack of success in bringing Christianity to the region. The Virgin Mary appeared to him and reassured him that his efforts would not be in vain. She also asked him to consecrate a church in her name, and left behind a pillar of jasper to mark the spot where she had made her appearance.
As Mary promised, St. James was indeed successful in bringing Christianity to Spain, and the place of his encounter with the Virgin became a holy place. Through the centuries—including years when Zaragoza was under Muslim control, when it suffered from plague and famine, and through years of civil war and unrest—this site has continued to draw the faithful. Holy men and women such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Ignatius of Loyola have all made the journey here to show their devotion to Our Lady of Pilar, who is the patroness of Spain.
The most prominent miracle associated with the shrine happened in the seventeenth century to a poor beggar named Miguel Juan Pellicer from the town of Calanda. Unable to work because of an amputated leg, he had a great devotion to the shrine and frequently prayed there for help. The Virgin Mary answered his prayers by restoring his missing leg, and after word spread of the miracle, the number of pilgrims to the church greatly increased.
Multiple church structures have occupied the site, each one larger than the one it replaced. Today the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, as it is formally known, includes 11 brightly colored tiled domes and is the second biggest church in Spain (only the cathedral in Seville is larger). Its construction was begun in 1681 under the direction of King Charles II. Parts of its interior date back even farther, including a magnificent main altar of alabaster designed by Damian Forment in the fifteenth century. Two of the frescos that line its domes were painted by Goya, the famous eighteenth-century Spanish artist who was born in the nearby village of Fuendetodos.
Our Lady of Pilar came to international prominence when in 1492 Christopher Columbus landed in the New World on her feast day of October 12. She was subsequently named patroness of the New World. In the early twentieth century, the shrine also played an important role in the founding of the Opus Dei movement. As a young seminarian in Zaragoza, St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, made daily visits to Our Lady of Pilar to pray for guidance. Opus Dei members continue to honor her feast day each year.