Església del Sant Àngel Custodi de Barcelona
Function: Parish church; popular shrine
Address: Vilardell 50
In 1398 the redoubtable Catalan Saint Vincent Ferrer, Dominican theologian and fiery preacher, was arriving at the north gate of the fortified walls which surrounded the City of Barcelona. As he prepared to pass through the portal, he looked up and had a vision of an angel standing over the gate, holding a sword aloft in his right hand and carrying a crown in his left. “Angel of God, what are you doing here?” asked St. Vincent, in Catalan. “I am guarding Barcelona by order of The Most High,” replied the angel, also in Catalan.
This is a wonderful story, but unfortunately it is one which has been forgotten by many people in Barcelona. Now, it is rather something indeed for a city – which of course is not a human being and does not have an immortal soul – to have a guardian angel assigned to it personally by God Himself. So at the time this miracle occurred, it is no surprise that the tale of this vision captured the popular imagination in the city.
Devotion to the Holy Guardian Angel of Barcelona began immediately, and by 1466 a tiny but beautifully decorated chapel was erected inside the gateway itself. The gate was renamed as the “Portal de l’Àngel” or “Gate of the Angel”, as confirmed in an official edict from the city council. A stone statue of the Guardian Angel matching St. Vincent’s description of the vision was the centerpiece of the little shrine.
Every year on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, which happens to coincide with the beginning of pomegranate season, a fair was held atop the city walls in this location. Pomegranates were displayed and sold, indicating that it was now the appropriate time of year to eat them. It was the custom for expectant mothers to purchase a pomegranate – which was often featured in Christian iconography of the period, a fruit appearing in the hand of the Christ Child – and eat one. They would ask Barcelona’s Guardian Angel to protect their unborn child and help them have a safe delivery.
When the city walls were torn down in 1854, the image of Barcelona’s Guardian Angel was removed from its little chapel, and taken to the nearby church of Santa Anna for safekeeping. During this time, as was occurring all over the city because of the population explosion occurring in newly industrializing Barcelona, a new parish church was constructed in the Hostafranchs-Sants area in the western part of the city, at the foot of Montjuich, and named for the Holy Guardian Angel of Barcelona. The statue was moved from Santa Anna to its new home in 1857 as part of a grand religious procession, but not without protest. Many residents of the old city lamented the fact that the statue was being taken away from the site of the apparition, and were concerned that devotion to the miraculous apparition of the city’s Guardian Angel would decrease when it was no longer in its original location.
As one might expect, during the Civil War both the church and the statue of the Angel were burnt by the Leftists in one of their usual fits of anti-Catholicism. A replacement for the original statue was made, based more or less on extant photographs of the original. However popular sentiment is that the Angel was not very pleased about what happened, both with being moved from the site of the vision and also how the statue was treated, so although devotion to him has resumed it will never again be what it once was.
While the Gate of the Angel itself is no more, the street which replaced it (one of Barcelona’s most popular shopping streets) is still officially named “Avenue of the Gate of the Angel,” though usually shortened to simply “Portal de l’Àngel”, recalling the name of the gate itself. On the corner of this street and the Carrer Fontanella is the grand neo-Renaissance Bank of Spain, where the old gate used to stand. In a niche on the side of the bank, an observant eye will spot a more modern sculpture of the Guardian Angel of Barcelona. It was donated to the city by sculptor Ángel Ferrant Vázquez in 1948.