San Juan, born Juan Velázquez, was a disciple of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the 11th century, and along with him built important structures on the Camino and making it safer for pilgrims.
San Juan de Ortega is the village where San Juan settled after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This journey he undertook shortly after Santo Domingo died. On his return to Iberia he almost lost his life but was saved by the miraculous intervention of San Nicolás de Barí (and why San Juan’s church in Ortega is called San Nicolás).
San Juan himself built part of this monastery church in the mid-11th century and he chose this part of the Camino because it was still deemed dangerous and wanted to tame it for pilgrims through important building campaigns of roads, bridges, hospitals and churches.
Like Santo Domingo de la Calzada, as well as so many hermits-turned-saints, San Juan spent a good deal of time in the wilderness. His given name, Juan, John, also connects him to another man of the wilderness, Saint John the Baptist.
Saint John the Baptist is the wild man of Christianity and was intimately connected to Jesus as his cousin, as the one who announced Jesus’ arrival in the world as the Messiah, and as the one who baptized him.
Among the most beautiful and esoteric connections of the two is their dance of light throughout the year. Saint John the Baptist’s feast day is the summer solstice in late June, the longest day of the year (often celebrated in Celtic lands with bonfires on top of hills. These celebrations with bonfires also occur all across Spain today where Saint John’s Night (la noche de San Juan) in late June is one of Spain’s major annual festivals.
Then, exactly six months later, Jesus’ birthday is late December, the winter solstice, the longest night (and shortest day) of the year. This is a reminder that even at the darkest time, light will prevail. John heralds the celebration of light and Jesus in the darkest time tells us to hold tight. Since prehistory, humans have been aware of, and sensitive to, these celestial events of light and dark.
This fact makes it all the more beautiful that the monastic-church in San Juan de Ortega embodies this dance of light: Every year during the spring and the fall equinoxes—late March and September, when day and night are equal in length—a ray of light enters the church through a stained glass window and alights upon the central Romanesque triple capital that is to the left of the apse.
This triple capital is carved with three scenes from the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and at the equinox, the beam of sunlight falls directly onto Mary’s pregnant belly in the center, during the Visitation when her cousin Elizabeth, soon to give birth to John the Baptist, comes to announce that she too is pregnant.
It is one of the most joyousmoments in the life of Mary and also tells the devout exactly the relationship between these two unborn beings of light, and quite remarkably at the two annual midpoint between their birthdays, when darkness and light are equally balanced.
When San Juan de Ortega died in 1163, he was buried here. Barren women visited his
tomb, hoping his spiritual grace would help them conceive. The most famous was Queen Isabel la Católica, who visited his chapel in 1450. Upon lifting the lid of San Juan’s tomb, the scent of roses and swarms of white bees poured out. (She indeed conceived and gave birth to her firstborn, Juan. He died young, 1478-1497, and she was left with her second born, Juana (1479-1555), nicknamed Juana la Loca, the Mad, who the court deemed unfit to rule.)
On the bees, the most lyrical and beautiful part of this story, they were seen as the ancient patrons and protectors of children, as well as symbols of prosperity and fertility. In some cases, bees were fabled to be the souls of unborn children waiting to incarnate. Christian tradition honors the bee as the symbol of resurrection and immortality, an important theme at the core of the Camino.
The Camino now is passing through a landscape that was home to Europe’s first humans some 1.2 million years ago at Atapuerca.