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Christopher Columbus, Marian Devotion of

Christopher Columbus, Marian Devotion of

Q: Christopher Columbus and Mary: How Marian was he?

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 servant.

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.


At the very outset of his grand adventure he recorded his devotedness to Mary by giving her name to his flagship, the Santa María.

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 Admiral's flagship.

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 eyes.


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 Concepcíon.

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 secularized.

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.


The end seemed imminent on February 14, 1493. Columbus called together the crew, and urged them to implore God's help.

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 pilgrimage.

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.

Franciscan Heart

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 Conception.

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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