Sainte-Engrâce is a tiny commune in a small pass deep in Basque country on the French side of the border with Spain. We made our way there on a slightly overcast day wending our way deeper and deeper into the the Pyrénéean foothills through the old pass between the Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. It was here that Duke Arimbert of the Franks was ambushed and defeated by the Basques in 635, just as the rear guard of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was ambushed and defeated by those same Basques fifty miles west at the pass of Roncesvalles just 142 years later.
Today Saint Engrâce is literally a turnout from the road and has a population of 208, On the horizon loom the Pyrénées mountains feeding the cold rushing streams. Just to the south is the spectacular Gorges de Kakuetta.
But for us, Sainte-Engrâce is home to a lovely 11th century Romanesque church in a spectacular setting, the Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce.
Sainte-Engrâce (Urdatx-Santa-Grazi in Basque) is thoroughly Basque, as much as the Euskera language and the frontón where pelota is played in every town. The cemetery adjacent to the church is filled with Basque surnames and mysterious Hilarri, disc-shaped funerary steles, remnants of long-past pre-Christian Basque traditions.
The church was built in the community of Urdaix in the late 11th century by a resident group of canons of Saint Augustine. The canons named their new church after a Lusitanian martyr of the 4th century. A young Christian girl from Braga, Engracia, was traveling with eighteen companions to marry a Christian noble of Roussillon. On the way through the town of Zaragosa in 303, Engracia learned of the persecution of Christians by the Roman governor Dacian. She attempted to persuade him to stop his persecution and she was martyred after the most brutal tortures, and her eighteen companions decapitated. Legend has it that thieves stole the arm of the martyred saint from her shrine in Zaragosa and fled to the mountains where they hid the arm in the hollow of an oak tree beside the Fountain of the Virgin Mother. A bull whose horns blazed “like two candles on the altar” knelt before the oak and the relic was discovered. The relic was placed in the sacristy of a nearby church but returned time and again to the oak. This was interpreted to mean that the saint wished a church to be built on this site and in 1085 the canons of Saint Augustine acceded to her wish.
Shortly after the construction of the church, a hospital was added to tend to pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela. About the same time as the completion of the church building, Sanche I, King of Navarre and Aragon, placed it under the suzerainty of the wealthy Benedictine monastery of Leyre in Navarre. This was not a pleasing result for the Augustinians, who finally arrived at an agreement in 1125. The collegiate was required to provide the monastery two river salmon each year and two cows on Ascension and the Feast of John the Baptist. This relationship continued until 1512.
The church is classic Romanesque, with a nave and two side aisles and an ornate side chapel on either side of the apse. The barrel vault is segmented by each of the three bays of the nave. The apse features a lovely painted oven vault featuring the Holy Trinity – Christ and God the Father seated with the Holy Spirit hovering above. This is almost certainly of a later date, probably early 15th century at the time that Sainte-Engrâce became a royal borough.
One of the delights of the church are the superb capitals, found on the pillars of the side aisle and the altar. They vividly illustrate various stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of my favorites is off the left side of the altar and depicts the Magi giving gifts to the infant Christ.
There is another interesting legend about the martyrdom of Engracia, the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza, Dacian wished to discover the extent of the Christian population and promised to allow them to practice their religion. But first they had to leave the city at a fixed time by a certain gate. As soon as they gathered to obey his order, Dacian ordered them executed. In order to prevent their veneration as martyrs, he burned the corpses and mixed their ashes with those of executed criminals. But a shower of rain fell and washed the ashes, separating them into two groups. The white ashes here those of the martyrs and were known as the “holy masses”, las santas masas. They were deposited in a church dedicated to Santa Engratia in Zaragosa where they are still preserved.
As outlandish as this legend sounds, I understand its power completely. Who does not look around and wonder why the evil and the haughty seem to prosper in this world while the meek and those who daily create the bounty of the world are doomed to suffer? Our martyrs aren’t decapitated for their faith, but we still have martyrs who advocate for compassion, rational discourse, and social justice. Who does not wonder why these multitudes are not protected by the divine power who calls them “blessed”? Who does not hope for a divine rain to wash through the world and separate the saints from the criminals?
Just as a footnote, my mother comes from a Basque family in Eibar who came to the New World in the 16th century, settling in what became New Mexico. He was part of the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján in 1540 in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.
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