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The Story Behind the Legendary Holy Christ of Lepanto

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives, and has a martial arts background.

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I’m not exactly into travels, and I’m more comfortable in my desk facing my laptop. Nevertheless, when given a chance, I will be willing to spend a great deal of money to make a pilgrimage to various holy sites. Religion is my driving force to go to the Holy Land and the rest of those gems. But even some nonreligious people couldn’t help but appreciate the historical importance of those places of worships. They contributed a great deal to growth of humanity, which made religion a living and breathing entity. And a friend pointed out that a certain place in Spain could be of a great interest to me, as it houses great object of reverence among Catholics.

The Barcelona Cathedral is a lovely church, boasting a striking Gothic design and impressive carvings. I could describe it as a free-standing artwork that could inspire a deep religious ardor and romance as well. But venture inside and enter the Chapel of Lepanto, and you will come face to face with an important historical and religious relic. Standing in the chapel is a wooden crucifix with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in its shadow. But if the carved Jesus could miraculously talk, just wish that He will tell you what He witnessed in a great battle in Lepanto, where the Ottoman Empire tasted defeat.

The interior of the Chapel of Lepanto.

The interior of the Chapel of Lepanto.

The Chapel of Lepanto

Firstly, let’s start with the place in the Cathedral housing the sacred piece. During 1407, Amau Barguez constructed a small side chapel named The Chapel of the Holy Sacrament and of the Holy Christ of Lepanto. Rebuilding took place in the seventeenth century, to house a saintly relic. Saint Olegarius Bonestruga was the Bishop of Barcelona (1116) and Tarragona (1118). He was a known reformer and a leader, and he rebuilt Tarragona after its reconquest from the moors, in addition to his diplomatic activities. He earned himself a place among the holies and was canonized as a saint in 1675, and his tomb was housed in the chapel. But overlooking his tomb are two images. One is the Our Lady of Sorrows, the image of a weeping Mary, and the other is a life-size crucifix.

The said crucifix is the Santo Cristo de Lepanto, or the Holy Christ of Lepanto. It’s an image of Jesus hanging on a cross carved from wood. This object of reverence is widely venerated among the people of Barcelona. It was taken out in certain days, especially in Good Fridays for a procession, and photo taking was not allowed when viewing inside the chapel. Not only that the crucifix an object of utmost veneration, but legends also revolved around it.

Closeup of the sacred crucifix.

Closeup of the sacred crucifix.

The Holy Christ of Lepanto

The Holy Christ of Lepanto stood on its eternal vigil over the tomb of Saint Olegarius on the upper part of the chapel’s entrance. The crucifix is a life size image and made of wood. One might notice that the crucifix has dark color. This is the result of aging, whereas centuries of patina built up on its exterior. There are portions of the crucifix that exhibited lighter color, the legs to be exact. Maybe because this is the part that believers touch in their veneration of this miraculous image.

When I saw this crucifix, I thought that it has a very medieval style of artwork. Not surprising, as the cathedral could trace its completion in 1448. And another noticeable feature of the crucifix is the curvature of the “corpus,” or the figure of the crucified Christ. Some describe the posture as unnatural, with the torso and the legs creating a semicircle. Legend has it that the curvature was the result of a miraculous event that coincided with the defeat of an empire during a sea battle. Because this is the actual crucifix that a man named John of Austria carried into the battle, as he and the Holy League engaged the Ottoman Empire.

John of Austria, the admiral of the Holy League.

John of Austria, the admiral of the Holy League.

The Holy League

Back in the late 1500s, the Ottoman Empire was viewed as a threat in the Mediterranean. Their navy undermined the safety of maritime trade both in the said place and even in the mainland Europe. Then, there was the Ottoman-Venetian War that started in 1570. To break the control of the Ottoman in the eastern Mediterranean, Pope Pius V organized the Holy League in 1571 consisting of major Catholic nations. Its strength was to consist of 200 galleys, 100 vessels, 50,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and sufficient artillery. Their leader is Don Juan de Austria, or John of Austria, the half-brother of Philip II of Spain.

Initially, the fleet was assembled to aid the Venetians against the Ottomans, which came in too late. They only learned of the Ottoman victory after arriving in Corfu from Messina. But in Lepanto (known today as Nafpaktos), an Ottoman fleet under Muezzinzade Ali Pasha was anchored and was sighted by a lookout in Don Juan’s ship. Both sides then chose to engage.

John of Austria's ship, La Real.

John of Austria's ship, La Real.

The Opposing Forces

What the Holy League was up against was an imposing force. Ali Pasha was supported by a corsair Mehmed Sirocco and Uluc Ali, and under their command were 22 galleys, 56 galliots, and other smaller vessels. They were manned by skilled and expert sailors.

The Holy League had a smaller force, with 206 galleys and 6 galleasses. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Holy League boasted skilled Spanish infantries in addition to fire powers. Aboard their warships were the more superior artilleries and firearms and the soldiers trained on their usage. In fact, the Christians came into the battle with sufficient arquebusiers and musketeers, while the Ottomans relied on their bowmen.

John of Austria led the battle onboard his ship La Real, a large and ornately decorated vessel carrying 400 men. And it was said that on the prow was the Holy Christ of Lepanto, as if watching over and protecting the Christian fighters.

Battle of Lepanto painting by Juan Luna.

Battle of Lepanto painting by Juan Luna.

The Battle

Despite the wind going against the Christian fleet, the Holy League managed to assume the battle position of their ships. The galleasses in the front opened fire at the Turkish fleet, disrupting the battle array before the two sides clashed. And the first to make contact were the Squadrons of Agostino Barbarigo, a Venetian nobleman and Mehmed Sirocco. It culminated into a ship-to-ship melee with both leaders getting killed. But the Christians galley slaves from the Turkish fleet got freed to join the fight, and the battle turned against the Ottomans. Sirocco himself was beheaded by the Venetian Giovanni Contarini.

The same melee combat ensued in the center when Ali Pasha’s Galley drove into the Real. The Spanish Tercio, skilled infantries with firearms, collided with the janissaries, with the Real nearing to be taken. But Marcantonio II Colonna, Duke and Prince of Paliano, and a Roman aristocrat mounted a counterattack, and the Turks were pushed off the Real. The Ottoman ships were boarded, resulting in the death of Ali Pasha and the defeat of his forces.

Uluc Ali did manage to capture a Knights of Malta flag, thanks to the action of Geanandrea Doria (when he sailed away from the assigned position and opened a gap). Nevertheless, he retreated upon the arrival of the reserved forces of Santa Cruz. Isolated fighting continued until the Ottoman forces were defeated.

Aftermath

The League attributed their victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Pope Pius V instituting the feast of Our Lady of Victory, now celebrated as Our Lady of the Rosary.

The victory was also credited to the protection of the great Holy Christ of Lepanto, which as legend says, moved by itself as the battle ravaged. Going back to the unusual curvature of the corpus, it became something like when a cannon ball flew, and the corpus leaned to avoid the projectile. Other sources said that it assumed its curvature to block the hole on the ship, caused by a cannon fire damage.

And considering that the Ottoman Empire was invincible at sea during that time, the victory could be considered miraculous. The mighty Ottoman Empire suffered their first decisive defeat at sea, and it tarnished the mystique of their force. And the silent witness of that downfall now stands proudly in the chapel of the Cathedral of Barcelona, The Holy Christ of Lepanto.

References

  • Edward Steese, "The Great Churches of Catalonia" Parnassus 7.3 (March, 1935:9-12) p. 9.
  • "History." cathedralbcn,org
  • "Holy Christ of Lepanto." cathedralbcn,org.
  • The Story of Don John of Austria – Luis Coloma, SJ, trans. Lady Moreton, (New York: John Lane Company, 1912), pp. 265–71
  • "Battle of Lepanto (1571)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 8 October 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 14, 2021:

Very interesting. Well depicted.