Q: Christopher Columbus and Mary: How Marian was
A: While a maelstrom of controversy and
uncertainty concerning Christopher Columbus has been aroused in the past
decade, there is no doubt of the Admiral's loving relationship with the
Blessed Virgin Mary. He was patently her devoted client and
Columbus was a staunch champion of the hotly contested
doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception. His veneration of the Mother of the
Redeemer was clearly a symbol of his faith and a mainspring of his life's
work of discovery.
Models of Santa María
Above: Model by R.C. Anderson. Addison Gallery
of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover
Below: Model after the D'Albertis plans in the Marine Museum, Pegli,
At the very outset of his grand adventure he recorded
his devotedness to Mary by giving her name to his flagship, the Santa
Spanish seamen of that era frequently referred to their
vessels under two designations: one was formal and dignified; the other was
informal and casual. Unusually the nickname was used more popularly than the
official, often religious, name of the ship.
The Niña ("Girl") derived her familiar name
from her master, Juan Niño. Formally christened the Santa Clara,
the caravel was almost always listed by her popular nickname. The
Pinta ("Painted One") most likely bore a saint's name, but it was
probably used so seldom that no extant document lists it.
Columbus' third and largest ship had been built in
Galicia and was called La Gallega. Crew members noticed her tendency
to lurch when turning, and dubbed the vessel Marigalanta ("Frivolous
Mary"). In May 1492 she was chartered from Juan de la Cosa of Santona.
Columbus himself named her the Santa Maria.
While the Niña and Pinta sailed
blithely into the pages of history under their nicknames, not so the
Each day at nightfall the Admiral gathered his crew to
sing the Salve Regina to salute their Protectress.
Christopher Columbus emphatically demonstrated that his
devotion to the Christian faith and to Mary was vital and vigorous. This is
attested by the names he bestowed on lands never before seen by European
He called his first discovery in the New World San
Salvador in honor of our Holy Savior. Next he expressed his devotion to
the Immaculate Conception by naming an island Santa Maria de la
Only after having given indication of his lively faith
did he name other lands for his adopted rulers and country --
Ferdinandina for the king, Isabella for the queen, Juana
for the crown prince, and Española for Spain.
Geographers identify these early discoveries with
Watling's Island, Rum Cay, Long Island, Cuba, Crooked Island, and Haiti.
Unfortunately, the names of religious and patriotic significance were
On subsequent voyages Columbus called an archipelago
east of Cuba "Our Lady's Sea," and an unusually circular island Santa
María Rotunda. Neither of these names has been preserved in modern
maps. And geographers have failed to identify the land he christened La
Concepcíon in August 1498.
On the return of the first voyage, difficulties
multiplied. The hardships endured were much more severe than those of the
westward sailing and tested the mettle of all crew members. Food was scarce
and supplies rapidly diminished. More than one hurricane struck and battered
the caravels mercilessly. The Santa María had already sunk on
December 25, 1492, after having run aground.
Columbus' three ships
- from his first voyage westward were re-created to
commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of his landing. Leading the
procession is the Niña, followed by the Pinta and
the Santa María.
The end seemed imminent on February 14, 1493.
Columbus called together the crew, and urged them to implore God's
After praying for a time, each crew member made a
solemn vow to make a pilgrimage if the lot should fall to him. Columbus
directed that the first act of thanksgiving be a pilgrimage to the
famous Marian shrine of Santa María de Guadalupe in
southern Spain, and that the chosen representative carry a five-pound
candle. Chick-peas were used to draw lots. One was marked with a cross.
Columbus himself drew the marked pea.
The Admiral selected a second renowned shrine of
Our Lady for pilgrimage -- Santa María de Loreto in Ancona,
Italy. This time the cross-marked pea was drawn by seaman Pedro de
Villa. Columbus promised to defray the expenses for this long
Yet another lot was drawn, and this bound the
Admiral to spend a night in prayer at the church of Santa Clara de
Moguer, home port of the Niña.
To conclude this intense time of prayerful
intercession, Christopher Columbus bound himself and the entire crew to
go in their shirts in thankful visit to the first church of the Virgin
Mary they encountered when they reached land.
Almost miraculously they rode out the storm. They
survived the damage and continued homeward.
But more danger awaited them. Two weeks later on
March 3 howling winds split their sails and threatened to rip them from
the masts. Again the crew stormed heaven and drew lots for a pilgrimage
to the Marian shrine of Santa María de la Cinta in Huelva,
the port from which they had departed on the historic and
world-changing voyage. Again the lot fell upon Columbus. The odds
against such a series of choice are enormous. It seemed almost that Our
Lady was intervening to bring the Admiral to her shrines.
This was an age in which people were quick to
take vows during times of distress, only to forget them when trouble
subsided and calm was restored. Not so Columbus.
Landing at the Azores on February 17 or 18, 1493,
he reminded his men of their obligation. Walking barefoot in their
shirts led by Columbus they went in procession to a small chapel
dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Mass was celebrated for them by a local
priest. For most of the day Columbus remained at the chapel in prayer.
When they reached Spain, Columbus was honored by
the monarchs and hailed by the common people. But in this hour of
triumph he was faithful to his vows. Traveling south from Barcelona to
Seville he went by way of the monastery and shrine of Santa
María de Guadalupe on the slope of the Sierra de Estremadura.
Not only did Columbus fulfill the promised pilgrimage, but on the
second voyage he named an island Guadipea because its mountains
resembled those behind Santa María de Guadalupe.
Until life's end Christopher Columbus actively
promoted the honor of Mary and her veneration. In 1498 he executed a
formal document for the disposition of his property and future income.
One of the major bequests was made for the establishment of a church on
Española to be named Santa María de la
Concepcion. Seven years later he stipulated in his last will and
testament the specific site for the proposed church. Sadly, the
memorial to Mary was never erected. Spanish rulers failed to honor
their contract with Columbus and his estate did not have enough funds
to materialize his wishes.
In his waning years Columbus's dedication to Mary
was evidenced even more openly. Frequently he wore the white cord of a
Franciscan, and at least on one occasion appeared in the full habit of
the sons of St. Francis of Assisi.
His ties with the Franciscans were close and
genuine. He sought them out for their guidance and moral support, and
the friars influenced his devotion to Mary and her Immaculate
In the fifteenth century the theological
opponents of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception were varied and
vocal. But the Franciscans were early and ardent supporters of the
doctrine. As early as 1263 the Franciscans celebrated the feast of the
Immaculate Conception. From 1480 they observed the feast with a
beautiful liturgy composed by Bernadine del Busti; Since 1484
Christopher Columbus enjoyed close relations with noted Franciscans.
They had befriended him in his darkest hour, successfully interceded
for him at court and persuaded Isabella to sponsor his first voyage. It
was the friary of Santa Maria de la Rábida in Huelva that
offered him the strongest support.
Columbus was Franciscan in spirit in his
veneration of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception. In time of
distress he turned to her for aid, and she responded.
Is it too much to conjecture that a major motive
in his unparalleled career of discovery was his desire to lay new
treasures at the feet of his Lady?
Ave Maria Purissima!
-- originally written by
Brother John Samaha, S.M.
The three D'Albertis models have been transferred
to the "The Sea and Seafearing Pavilion," in Genoa. (Source:
Jean-Michel Urvoy, Paris, France)
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