Officially 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 really 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 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 elegant, early twentieth-century townhouses and slightly less elegant modern buildings.
If you want to get a real flavour of Luján in full religious swing, you should visit at the weekend, when seven or eight Masses are held a day – but, unless you want to take part, try to avoid visiting during the annual pilgrimages, when the town becomes seriously full. These take place on the last Sunday of September for the Gaucho pilgrimage, when up to a million gauchos come to honour the Virgin of Lujan; the first Sunday of October, when young people walk here from Buenos Aires; May 8, the day of the Coronation of the Virgin; and December 8, when smaller, informal pilgrimages mark the Day of the Immaculate Conception.
A tiny miracle: the Virgin of Luján
A tiny miracle: the Virgin of Luján
In 1630, a Portuguese ship docked in Buenos Aires on its way back from Brazil. Among its cargo was a simple terracotta image of the Virgin made by an anonymous Brazilian craftsman. The icon had been brought to Argentina at the request of a merchant from Sumampa, Santiago del Estero, and, after unloading, it was transported by cart towards the estancia of its new owner. The cart paused on the outskirts of Luján, from where, the story goes, it could not be moved. Various packages were taken down from the cart in an attempt to lighten the load – all to no avail, until the tiny package containing the Virgin was removed. In the time-honoured tradition of miracles, 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 actually 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, finally, build a huge temple in her name. He survived, and the foundation stone to the basilica was laid on his initiative in 1887.
The original terracotta Virgin is now barely recognizable: a protective bell-shaped silver casing was placed around the image in the late nineteenth century. Sky-blue and white robes were also added, reflecting the colours of the Argentine flag, as well as a Gothic golden surround, in keeping with the style of the basilica. The face of the original statue can now just about be seen, peering out a small gap in the casing. Even if you don’t visit Luján itself, you’re likely to have seen the Virgin: she is the patron saint of roads and paths, and stickers with her image can be seen on almost every bus rear windscreen in Argentina.