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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Heritage and identity (28). A novel story: the relics of San Veremundo in the War of Independence.

Fri, 06 Mar 2020 11:38:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The historical figure of St. Veremundo presents an abbot who governed his monastery of Irache wisely, making possible the acquisition of a rich patrimony in the third quarter of the 11th century, under the reign of his great protector, Sancho el de Peñalén (1054-1076), who issued thirty-two diplomas in his favor, while his predecessors Sancho el Mayor (†1035) did so on one occasion and García el de Nájera (1035-1054) on four. Cereal lands, vineyards, mills, small monasteries, forests and orchards came to belong to his monastic domain.

After centuries, his figure would be vindicated as a saint through a veneration that was growing since the sixteenth century, coinciding with the incorporation of Irache to the Benedictine congregation of Valladolid. His remains could not be left out of the cult. After the recognition of his sanctity in the XII century, according to the monastic chronicles, the data of his cult is documented since the XVI century, and especially at the end of the century, in harmony with what was happening with the relics in El Escorial with Felipe II, where they arrived, between 1574 and 1598, from numerous places in Spain and especially from Germany, to avoid their profanation. The particular exaltation of the saints and their relics in the post-Tridentine period explains the extension of the cult of St. Veremundo and the construction of the three chests or urns for his relics, the Renaissance of 1584, the Baroque silver one of 1657 and the current neoclassical one, in 1816. In addition, outstanding reliquaries of the saint are kept in the Benedictine Sisters of Estella (1617) and the parish of Villatuerta (1640). Since 1969 he has been the patron saint of the Way of St. James in Navarre.

The Renaissance reliquary chest of 1584

This delicate piece was attributed by Biurrun to the sculptor Pedro de Troas, a fact that has been repeated, although it was the work of a sculptor named Francisco -possibly Francisco de Iciz- who worked on it with his servant for fifty-one days, Master Martín de Morgota who did it for seventeen days, and Pedro de Gabiria for twenty-five days, for which they received payments in December 1584 and June of the following year. Pedro de Troas made some figures of angels and an Infant Jesus for the cover that have not been preserved. The polychromy of the whole was the work of the prestigious Juan de Frías Salazar at position . We know that Francisco de Iciz attended the auction of the altarpiece of San Juan de Estella in 1563, which speaks of an artist with the ability and possibility of forming a workshop to undertake such a task business. The reliefs on its faces narrate different miraculous passages of his life. In July 1613 the monks ordered an altarpiece to be made so that the ark would be with greater dignity "in the arch of the church, where the tomb is, in front of the door of Wayside Cross".

Silver chest in a singular altarpiece inside a sumptuous baroque chapel

In the middle of the XVII century it was decided to demolish the wall where the sepulcher was located in order to build an opulent chapel, demolished in 1982, and described at the time as sacellum novum ac speciosissimum. The manager and mentor of project was an abbot from Navarre, who governed the monastery between 1653 and 1657, Fray Pedro de Úriz, a virtuous and learned monk, born in Sada and previously abbot of Nájera, between 1649 and 1653. The fact must be put in relation with the petitions to Rome so that the saint's feast had greater rank and was extended to Navarre. The monastery of Irache and its abbot, the clergy of Navarre and the Deputation of the Kingdom sent their petitions to the Pope in 1657, the same year in which the Roman Pontiff had sanctioned the co-patronage of St. Francis Xavier and St. Fermin for Navarre. This fact and its prolegomena awakened in the abbey of Irache a vindication of Saint Veremundo, because he was a native of the Kingdom and his relics were there.

In 1654 and 1655 the deeds were signed for the construction of its beautiful chapel, with an altarpiece of design designed by the Benedictine master Friar Esteban de Cervera and made in 1656. The enclosure had very rich taffeta hangings acquired immediately and inventoried in detail in 1680. The urn made of silver in 1657 is described in that year as "curious and rich". According to the Bolandists' text, it was extremely heavy and could barely be carried by four robust young men: "pretiosam admirabilis structurae structurae urnam ex puro argento formata, quem portare vix quatuor iuvenes robusti sufficiunt". Its price amounted to 7,580 silver reales, while the gilded altarpiece cost 8,800 and the construction of the chapel 19,741.

Between 1808 and 1813: feigning his transfer to Castile and in Igúzquiza in safekeeping

At the beginning of the War of Independence, when the monks of Irache had to leave their monastery for the first time, they decided to hide part of the silver of their trousseau and the silver urn of the relics of the saint, to "save them from the outrage, subtraction and contingencies to which they were exposed in the turbulent and licentious days of the war". The following story has been partially copied, without many details, since it was made known, in 1899, through a text by Pedro Velasco, priest of Muniáin de la Solana. The enquiry of two processes in the file General of Navarre and of another of the file Diocesan of Pamplona in whose track don José Luis Sales put us, have allowed us to recompose with clarity some real facts that seem extracted of a novel story.

In September 1809, before the departure of all the monks, Friar Antonio Mosquera, butler, and Friar Benito López entrusted two servants of the monastery: José Hugarte, a native of Zúñiga and Antonio Ruiz, from the Santander Mountains, to take the ark and other silver pieces (two lamps, a censer and a virile) to the house of Don Tomás Sanz, vicar of Igúzquiza. At average night and with horses they carried out their task, without incident. To completely mislead possible witnesses, the aforementioned Friar Antonio Mosquera had already taken measures, since he took advantage of the opportunity given to him by Commander Cuevillas (Ignacio Alonso de Cuevillas, 1764-1835) the previous year of 1808, pretending to take the urn to Castile, so we suppose that, between 1808 and 1809, the piece was hidden in the monastery.

In that autumn night of 1809, the vicar of Igúzquiza received the urn and hid it, provisionally, in the hayloft. But very soon, after six or seven days, and from agreement with the village farmer Antonio Lisarri, they hid it in the upper part of the house, in an attic room that could also be accessed from the house of their neighbor Diego Arellano. After making a hole in the main wall and introducing the urn, they partitioned the place, with the maximum secrecy.

It remained there until the end of September 1812, when, for fear of the French, a daughter of the aforementioned Diego Arellano, named Antonia, went to hide some pieces in the upper part of her house, for which she forced a window and accompanied by a candle she entered the dark place where the urn was, being surprised by the finding and the brightness of the silver. Frightened and being alone at home, she went to look for Don Gabriel Irisarri, a student, and both returned, recognizing the ark of the saint because they had seen it before in the monastery, especially Gabriel Irisarri, who had lived in Irache as a student and relative. Immediately, Antonia went to communicate it with the vicar don Tomás Sanz who answered her that "she should not be so admired, because he knew what it was and who had placed it there".

1813: the silver urn in the hands of a patriot, liberator of Mina el Mozo and confidant of Francisco Espoz y Mina.

The indiscretion of some of those mentioned so far, made the news reach, in March 1813, the ears of Hilario Martija, innkeeper of Estella, the same one who on October 14, 1809 had saved Javier Mina the boy from being captured by the French, hiding him in his house and providing him with a disguise to leave Estella at night on his way to Urbasa, which cost him a long imprisonment in Pamplona. Hilario Martija was well aware of everything that was happening in Irache, since he had been named manager for the conservation of the monastery by Ramón Espoz, commissioner of the national goods, in 1813.

According to Martija, he always proceeded by order of General Francisco Espoz y Mina and with the permission of the Provisor Don Miguel framework. After ascertaining the whereabouts of the piece, he went to Igúzquiza and located it. The following day, he ordered the Pamplona silversmith Miguel de Cildoz, who lived in Estella, to go to portal de San Nicolás, where his servant would be waiting for him, without saying where they would go and with the only warning that he should be equipped with the tools of his profession as a goldsmith. Once in Igúzquiza, Martija ordered to extract the relics to a Mercedarian of the convent of Estella, Fray José Arcaya, while the silversmith received the order to undo the silver urn, whose plates with other pieces, were introduced in a seron, taking them to the goldsmith's house in Estella. The following morning, Hilario Martija and Bernardino Jalón, buyer of the silver, merchant in Logroño, administrator of Don Luis de Múzquiz y Aldunate and of the Real Tabla in Viana and future national militiaman, showed up at the aforementioned house. The price of all amounted to 11,895 reales fuertes. 

In the judicial diligences carried out in 1814, Hilario Martija gave many excuses, leaving the last responsibility in the general Francisco Espoz y Mina, although the latter denied to the vicar of Igúzquiza to have given those orders, limiting himself only to find out the whereabouts of the relics. At a certain moment, Martija declared that Espoz y Mina wanted to anticipate what the French would have done with the proceeds from the sale of the silver to provide for the subsistence of the troops. In the end, pressed by the judge, he presented the receipt of July 3, 1813 signed by Espoz y Mina in which the submission of the money received for the silver was recorded. Even the accounts of the Division of Navarre, in possession of Melchor Ornat, treasurer of the Navarra Division, were reviewed. This evidence earned Martija the revocation of a first conviction. In his defense he argued as a mitigating factor that the urn had been sold at eight reales per ounce, a price much higher than that which was awarded to the silver pieces sold from many churches.

The loss of the ark must be contextualized in the continuous alienation of silver from the churches and monasteries during the war studied, among others, by J. A. Marcellán and I. Miguéliz. In some cases it was due to the rapacity of the French, in others to the contributions ordered by the authority and in others, finally, to the action of the guerrillas to subsidize the expenses of the conflict.

Recovery of the scattered relics 

In 1814, the monks of Irache were not only concerned with recovering the silver ark, but also with rescuing the relics of St. Veremundo. On this occasion, the vicar of the parish of San Juan de Estella was in charge of the whole transcript and the examination of witnesses, who proceeded with all firmness.

The sagacity of trainer made that a good part of the relics extracted in the spring of 1813 in Igúzquiza by the Mercedarian Fray José Arcaya, returned to their place. Most of the relics were taken by Martija to the house of Don Joaquín Abaroa, beneficiary of San Pedro de la Rúa, who lent himself to keep them and from there they were taken to the sanctuary of El Puy, depositing them behind a partition of the altar of the chapel, in a beech box that Martija had made ad hoc. From this last place they were taken in procession to the parish of San Miguel, in the spring of 1814, where they were exposed to public veneration.

However, those who had handled the relics kept various fragments that they distributed among friends and devotees, even ordering silver-plated reliquaries from different silversmiths. Martija kept a bone the size of a goring that he later divided to give to Teresa Ilundáin, mother of Francisco Espoz y Mina and to the latter, adding that "he knows and has seen that the latter, because of his appreciation and veneration of the saint, carries it in his chest". He also gave other particles to Don Pedro Ramón Espoz, administrator of the national goods and to his secretary Don Lucas Tarazona. The Mercedarian Fray José Arcaya also took a bone the size of an egg that he would end up giving, out of remorse, to the abbess of San Benito, Sister Josefa Carranza, but not without first giving some parts to other ladies, among them Doña Bernarda de San Pedro and Doña Genara Zabala. Joaquín Abaroa also kept a rib and other parts "out of blind devotion to the saint", which came into the hands of some Poor Clares and other people who are identified.

The silversmiths Miguel Cildoz in Estella and Francisco Iturralde, in Arróniz, were commissioned to make several silver-plated reliquaries of virile by the aforementioned Friar José Arcaya and, especially, Hilario Martija.

When everything could be put together, in March 1815, on the eve of the feast of St. Veremundo, they were transferred to Irache, in a solemn procession accompanied by the civil and religious authorities and guilds with their banners. The following year, on March 7, 1816, the abbot of the monastery placed all the relics in the new neoclassical urn, which is the current one, made of rich wood and bronze. Veremundo Arias y Tejeiro, a Benedictine monk, doctor of Irache (1781), bishop of Pamplona until 1814 and archbishop of Valencia. From the latter city he wrote a letter on March 28, 1816, with some expressions that seem to prove it: "I celebrate that the holy relics of my glorious saint have already been placed in his urn, although it is not as precious as the one he deserves..., I have done more than I could for my saint and if in it there was some short merit, he will know how to reward me superabundantly".

Of the later history of the relics, their transfers, openings and exchange quinquenal between Villatuerta and Arellano, we have news by different monographs, singularly those published in 1899, 1926 and 1968 by Pedro Velasco, Miguel Imas and Pablo Rodriguez.