The Old Church
The ‘Old Sanctuary’ (Romanesque style) was destroyed by a fire in 1972
The `Old church’ or `old sanctuary’ is a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of Meritxell. It is a building of Romanesque origin erected at some moment before the second half of the 12th century. Only a few elements have been preserved from the old Romanesque building: the west wall that has been integrated inside one of the sidewalls of the baroque building. Also the foundations of the apse have been preserved and were discovered during the archaeological excavations of 1991. During the excavation were also found the south porch and the floor plant of the Romanesque building.
These remains are enough to imagine a simple structure and of reduced dimensions. It was designed of popular style: humble temple of a single ship reinforced by a semicircular apse.
The decoration of the inner walls would probably evoke the religious subjects of those days.
Around 1658 a new reconstruction took place and as a result they got almost a new church of baroque style. It was a larger construction and it looked almost as it is today, except for the rear which was altered in the 19th century when a small chamber was built behind the altar and the interior was decorated with murals. An addition was made to this new church of larger dimensions, a bell tower of double eye bell gable. Starting from this new reconstruction, the interior was decorated with new altarpieces. They were larger, artistically richer and more elaborated, according to the baroque style.
The increase of the veneration from the faithful towards the Virgin of Meritxell, was the germ of the new change in the church structure (19th century). A new chapel was included so the image of the Virgin would be more welcoming to the Andorran people and the devotee. In 1866, the painter Josep Oromí, decorated the inner walls of the building using the ‘horror bacui’ style. The decoration was based on architectonic figurations and curtain like elements.
The night of the 8th to the 9th of September 1972 a fire destroyed the church almost entirely, including original documents of the sanctuary. Along with these documents, all the images and altarpieces that decorated the interior of this temple were lost, including the Romanesque wooden carving of the Virgin of Meritxell. The remains that stood still were used in the reconstruction of 1994. The chapel of Santa Maria de Meritxell has become the framework of the permanent exhibit `Meritxell Memory’.
The building that we can visit today has a rectangular floor plant, apse of square floor plant, gabled roof, bell gable tower and porch leaned to the South wall.
The fire of the Sanctuary of Meritxell, (night of the 8th to the 9th of September 1972) destroyed the building and everything what contained. The town, shocked by the ordeal, reacted immediately to the disaster, declaring its pain. At that time, everyone was talking about the catastrophe, the loss of Andorran personality and about the destruction of the patrimony.
In 1974, the Architecture studio of Ricardo Bofill presented the project of the new sanctuary that was inaugurated in 1976. The economic crisis, politics and the popular initial opposition made that the initial project was not fully executed. The new construction tries to synthesize and to combine the Romanesque forms and ruins of the old sanctuary with other architectonic elements (Renaissance and Islamic art).
The process of rehabilitation of the old or old sanctuary of Meritxell began 20 years after the fire. It ended in 1994 with the accomplishment of the commemorative `Meritxell Memory’ Exhibition Hall, which can be visited at the present time.
‘MERITXELL MEMORY’ EXHIBIT
The beginning of this exhibit takes the visitor underneath a flowery ‘escaramujo’ (wild rose bush). This is a main character that, according to the legend, protected the image of the Virgin of Meritxell in January.
Once in the interior, different display cabinets, inspired by the forms of the altarpieces, serve as frame to explain the town, the history, the patronage and the fire of Meritxell. Simultaneously, the pieces more representative that survived the fire are also part of the exhibit.
In the background there are several pictures that show important moments lived in the sanctuary.