The church of this very ancient parish, which was raised to the level of a Minor Basilica in 1946 by Pope Pius XII, is dedicated to Saint Justus and Saint Pastor. Justus and Pastor were two brothers, who were only 13 and 9 years old, respectively, when they martyred in 304 A.D. during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. According to the Roman poet Prudentius, who hailed from the city of Tarragona south of Barcelona, the boys heard about the Roman governor torturing other Christians, and ran away from school to protest. The governor had them whipped severely but when they refused to recant their faith, he had them privately beheaded.
There is mention of a paleo-christian church being established in catacombs at the site of the present structure, located just south of the site of the old Roman Forum, around the 4th century A.D. The catacombs were investigated during the 19th century, but their present location is unknown. The earliest architectural remnants that can be seen currently at the site date from the Visigothic period, i.e. after the Romans but before the Moorish conquests in the 8th century. It was re-built again beginning around 801 A.D.
During the 11th century, the old church served as Barcelona’s pro-Cathedral while the Romanesque-era Cathedral was being built. The structure which visitors see today was begun in 1342 on the site of the old church, and was largely completed by 1500. Additions to the interior continued through the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical periods as tastes changed, but the Gothic structure was not touched.
The entrance facade bears a curious 14th century inscription dedicating the building both to the martyred brothers and to “the black and beautiful Virgin”. This is a reference to a statue of the Madonna and Child known as “La Moreneta”, or “the little black lady”. The statue in question is that of Our Lady of Montserrat, preserved at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat outside Barcelona, and under whose title the Virgin Mary is patroness of Catalonia. It is one of a number of early medieval sculptures and paintings from around Europe where the skin of Jesus and Mary was painted either very dark or jet black. Above the inscription, the martyred brothers are shown kneeling on either side of the Virgin and Child.
Interestingly enough, Antoni Gaudí was arrested here in 1924 on La Diada, Catalonia’s national day, for speaking to a policeman in Catalan rather than Spanish when he tried to enter the church to attend mass. This was during the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera when Catalan was, at best, semi-forbidden. The great architect, who was then 72 years old, spent most of the day in jail until a friend discovered where he was and came to bail him out.
By tradition, the church holds several unusual legal powers. Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, granted that any King who declared his last will and testament in the Chapel of the Holy Cross inside the church would thereby create a binding legal document. Later this right was extended to all citizens who had died intestate. As attorneys reading this may know, one of the first requirements for a legally enforceable will is that it be written down, so this power was quite considerable.
Another tradition practiced in the church was that of restraining those prepared to fight in single combat: the litigants to a case which was to come to blows would give an oath here that they would fight fairly. Still another tradition made this the only location in the city, which used to have a substantial Jewish population, where Jews could give sworn legal testimony. Since Jews would not swear on any Christian object, the courts would provide a copy of the Ten Commandments for them to swear upon before testifying.