The Cistercian and Templar church of Santa María la Blanca here is a jewel from the 12th and 13th centuries. (The Cistercians were a reform order of the Benedictines founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.) The church is connected to a larger complex that included where the Templars resided.
The Templars built this complex, lived here, and protected pilgrims from here as well as along many other sites where members of their order did the same, the most famous coming up ahead in Ponferrada. The Order of Santiago also protected the Camino from here. (As did a few other orders, but these are some of the best known orders.)
All that survives today is the church. The rest crumbled in the 1777 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon (and many other places across Iberia and Morocco, such as Meknes).
Inside, the church holds several polychrome-painted and carved tombs of nobility and knights. The oldest belongs to the Templars’ grand master from the 12th or early 13th century.
The prominent rose window on the western wall is unusual. It has two layers of petals, an interior one of 14 petals and an exterior circle of 28 petals. The very center has a smaller flower with seven petals, a geometric form that is harder to draw and requires mastery of mathematics and geometry.
Most rose windows are 6, 8 or 12 petaled, easier symmetrical forms to execute. Is this 7-14-28 pattern simply an idiosyncratic expression of beauty or does it offer a deeper meaning? Perhaps it begins with seven, the alchemists number, the magical number of heaven, and invites us to multiply this quality. Some esoteric thinkers passionate about this church would argue the journey goes deeper here.
The most important aspect of the church is its Madonna, Our Lady the White, Nuestra Señora la Blanca, who has performed many miracles, most during or just before the time of Castile and León’s king, Alfonso X, known as El Sabio (the Wise or Learned). He was also known as the Poet King for he was quite talented and prolific in writing (and commissioning) devotional and popular songs (cantigas) that minstrels performed in court, most of them in Gallego, Galician, the court language. He wrote five cantigas for Nuestra Senora de Castrojeríz and twelve to Nuestra Senora La Blanca.
Santa María la Blanca lifted sin from the heavy heart, gave vision to the blind, hearing to the deaf, restored physical prowess to the paralyzed and crippled, and even worked long-distance to save a boatful of Italian pilgrims in the Mediterranean on their way to Spain.
One pilgrim from Toulouse, as penance, had to carry a heavy iron weight to Santiago. In Villalcazár he rested it on the altar and asked for forgiveness. Mary split the weight in two and made it so fixed to the earth that no one could move it, releasing him from his ordeal. She cured a German cripple who had made his way slowly to Santiago and had stopped in Villalcazár on his return journey. Thereafter, he walked briskly home.
Perhaps Nuestra Señora la Blanca refers to the color white, blanca, but it is also likely that she takes the name of her original patroness, Queen Blanca of Navarra and Castile. Married to Sancho III of Castile (CE 1134-1158), Queen Blanca’s patronage in the mid-12th century resulted in the construction of this Templar church and the knights’ residences nearby. The 13th century Gothic statue of La Blanca sits on the altar but there are several other statues of Mary in the church, heavily defining it as a major Marian center.
There is no indication how the original 13th century sculpture on the altar of La Blanca came here. (And she is not to be confused with a second one, that came later and was dedicated to Our Lady of the Cantigas, after Alfonso X’s songs drew more attention to her shrine.) It was probably an offering from a patron or a pilgrim, but the Marian appearances began to occur almost as soon as the Templars built this church. In fact, they occurred in so frequently that Villalcazár became an important destination on the Camino just prior it was bypassed or unknown.
Today, many pilgrims again bypass Sirga because they are rushing to Carrión de los Condes to find a bed. Perhaps you will be among the small handful of pilgrims who take the time to visit? Who knows, you just might experience a miracle.