Virgo Sacrario – The Marian Tabernacle of the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca

The traditional advent hymn Creator Alme Siderum sings the following verse:

E Virginis sacrario | Intacta prodis victima.

Proceeding from a virgin shrine | The spotless victim all divine.

A beautiful expression that helps us contemplate the Maternity of Mary, and indeed her role as the first vessel, the first tabernacle for the Body of Christ. This poetic concept was brought into material form in the main altarpiece of the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca.

Constructed in the late 14th century, this gothic altarpiece consisted of an open gallery of intricate gilded ogival arches. The central arch was occupied by a monumental statue of Our Lady, 7 ½ feet tall. The particularity of this image is that it is hollow, and for centuries was used as a tabernacle. An arched door on the side of the statue opens to reveal a reservatorium decorated in blue with gilded stars.

Digital reconstruction of the original 14th century gothic altar according to Antoni Pons' hypothesis.
Montage by the author.

The use as sacramental tabernacle for the image of Nostra Dona de la Seu, as it is called, likely lasted until the baroque refurbishment of the Cathedral’s sanctuary. A new baroque altarpiece, more in line with the fashion of the time, was built in the mid 18th century to replace the original gothic structure. Thankfully, most of this altarpiece was preserved and is today displayed upon the walls of the Nave. This baroque altarpiece was in turn dismantled and relocated to another church during Antonio Gaudi’s refurbishment of the sanctuary in the 19th century. The Statue, now devoid of its sacramental use, was placed by Gaudi above the sanctuary under a gothic canopy he designed himself.

Our Lady of la Seu in its present location. Pictures by the Capitulum Cathedralis Maiorcensis.

This particular tradition of eucharistic statues became a common feature in Mallorca during late gothic and early renaissance. However, this is not a custom exclusive to the Spanish archipelago. During the 13th century, the famous enamel workshops of Limoges produced several statuettes of Our Lady seated on a throne with a compartment destined to contain the Blessed Sacrament and relics. Other examples of tabernacle-statues could be found in several Cistercian abbeys such as La Trappe or Doberan.

Further reading:

WikiSeu – an encyclopedic project promoted by the Cathedral Chapter

Pons Cortés, Antoni and Francisco Molina Bergas. “Reformas y pervivencias medievales en la Capilla Real de la Seu de Mallorca: el caso del retablo gótico del altar mayor (s. XV-XX).” Porticvm. Revista D’estudis Medievals, nº 3, 2012.

Cerdà Garriga, María Magdalena. “Las imágenes de María en el gótico mallorquín. Tipologías y variantes iconográfica.” 2013.

Llompart, Gabriel And Jerónimo Juan.Jerónimo, 1965, “Las Vírgenes-sagrario de Mallorca”, Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lulliana, nº 32, 1965.

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