Basque Fact of the Week: The Sanctuary of Arantzazu

The Sanctuary of Arantzazu is nestled in the mountains just outside of the city of Oñati, famous itself for the University of Oñati, one of the oldest buildings in Iberia. Arantzazu is known for its uncharacteristic and distinctly modern look, “one of the most avant-garde religious buildings in the world“. The spires are covered in pointed stones evoking thorns while the entrance is overshadowed by abstract representations of the apostles. It was also the site of my uncle and aunt’s wedding.

Image from Oñati Tourism.
  • Arantzazu gets its name, and origin, from the supposed discovery, way back in 1469, of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a bush of thorns. The story goes that the shepherd who found the statue, one Rodrigo de Balanzategui, exclaimed “Arantzan zu?” (“You, in the thorns?”) However, there is also a town in Bizkaia called Arantzazu, suggesting it might be a toponymic name.
  • One of the original founders of the sanctuary was a serora, Juana de Arriaran, who was known as a famous healer, even consulting to queens. She made her home near the sanctuary so she could help heal passing pilgrims.
  • In the 1940s, the Franciscans who run the Sanctuary decide it is time for a new basilica and they hold a contest for the design, choosing Francisco Sáenz de Oiza and Luis Laorga’s avant-garde concept for the new basilica. The new project attracted some of the biggest names in the Basque architectural and art world, including Jorge Oteiza, Eduardo Chillida, and Nestor Basterretxea.
  • Oteiza was in charge of sculpture above the entrance. In the end, he settled on a scene of 14 apostles, 2 more than are in the Bible. A lot of stories surrounded where the extra came from, including that there is really only one apostle depicted, it is just various points of view of the same man. However, most likely, Oteiza chose 14 simply because it fit his space best.
  • During the actual sculpting of the apostles, the Church in Rome gets involved and decides that the style of art is too weird, too far away from acceptable religious art. For 15 years, a partially-carved set of apostles sits on the side of the road. After appeals by the Franciscans, Rome is still against the art, but allows the bishop in Donosti to decide. Eventually, he okays going forward.
  • However, Oteiza is having his own doubts and isn’t immediately interested in finishing the project. He had done everything he wanted to do in sculpture and had moved on to other art forms. Eventually, knowing the importance of this project to the Basque Country, he completes the sculpture.

Primary sources: Naiz (by Gara); Basque Country Magazine; Wikipedia; Mujika Aldasoro, Xabier. Santuario de Arantzazu. Oñati. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [online], 2019. Available at:

One thought on “Basque Fact of the Week: The Sanctuary of Arantzazu”

  1. Beautiful road to get there, spend the night and then walk the pathways around the hill. One more journey into our Basque land.

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