Founded in 1756 on the site of a shrine containing a tiny ceramic figure of the Virgin Mary, LUJÁN, about 70km west of Buenos Aires, is now one of the major religious centres in Latin America. The Virgin of Luján is the patron saint of Argentina and the epic basilica erected in her honour in 1887 in Luján attracts around eight million visitors a year. This Neo-Gothic edifice is one of the most memorable – though not the most beautiful – churches in Argentina. The town’s other major attraction, the vast Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo, is a multiplex museum with an important historical section, as well as being Argentina’s largest transport museum. Away from the museums and the basilica, all grouped around the central square, Luján is pretty much like any other provincial town, with some elegant, early twentieth-century townhouses and less-elegant modern buildings.
For a real flavour of Luján in full religious swing, you should visit at the weekend, when as many as eight Masses are held a day – but, unless you desperately want to take part, avoid visiting during the annual pilgrimages, when the town is seriously overcrowded. These take place on May 8, the day of the Coronation of the Virgin; the last Sunday of September for the Gaucho pilgrimage, when up to a million gauchos come to honour the Virgin of Luján; the first Sunday of October, when young people walk here from Buenos Aires; and December 8, when smaller pilgrimages mark the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday.
The miracle of the Virgin of Luján
The miracle of the Virgin of Luján
In 1630, a Portuguese ship that docked in Buenos Aires on its way from Brazil contained a simple terracotta image of the Virgin made by an anonymous Brazilian craftsman. The icon had been ordered by a merchant from Santiago del Estero and, after unloading, it was transported by cart towards his estancia. After the cart paused near Luján, so the story goes, it could not be moved. Packages were taken off the cart in an attempt to lighten the load but only when the tiny package containing the Virgin was removed would the cart budge. This was taken as a sign that the Virgin had decided on her own destination. A small chapel was built and the first pilgrims began to arrive.
The Virgin has been moved over the centuries, although according to legend it took three attempts and several days of prayer the first time. In 1872, Luján’s Lazarist order – a religious body founded in Paris in 1625 with the emphasis on preaching to the rural poor – was entrusted with the care of the Virgin by the archbishop of Buenos Aires. In 1875, a member of the order, Padre Jorge María Salvaire, was almost killed in one of the last Indian raids on Azul. Praying to the Virgin, he promised that if he survived he would promote her cult, write her history and build a temple in her name. He survived and the foundation stone to the basilica was laid in 1887.
The original terracotta Virgin is now barely recognizable: a protective bell-shaped silver casing was placed around it in the late nineteenth century. Sky-blue and white robes, the colours of the Argentine flag, were added as well as a Gothic golden surround. The face of the original statue can now just about be seen, peering through a tiny gap in the casing. Even if you don’t visit Luján itself, you cannot avoid seeing images of the Virgin: she is the patron saint of roads and paths, and almost every bus and many other vehicles all over the country sport Luján figures and stickers.