Fair Winds and Freed Slaves: the Bonaria Church in Cagliari

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Sanctuary and Basilica of Bonaria, Santuario e Basilica di Bonaria, Cagliari, Sardinia

If you go out to Poetto beach by bus, you will trundle past a grand staircase that leads up to a glistening white church.  This splendidly located building, facing the sea, is dedicated to Our Lady of Bonaria.  It is one of the city’s most important sites.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria (Fair Winds) is part of a complex run by the Mercedarians, a religious order which has overseen the care of the shrine since 1325.  It stands on a hill that the Catalans called Bon Ayre (Bonaria in Sardinian) due to the more pleasant conditions at this location than in the old town.  They used this site as their base for attacking the castle of Cagliari.

The Order of Our Lady of Mercy was founded in Barcelona in about 1218 by St Peter Nolasco with the aim of freeing Christian slaves.  From the 8th to the 15th century, the Christian kingdoms of southern Europe were at (irregular) war with the Islamic North African states.  Christians were regularly kidnapped by Muslims – and Muslims were regularly kidnapped by Christians.

According to tradition, Nolasco had been paying the ransom of Christian captives since 1203 and after seeing just how much work there was to be done, he and some friends set up a structured religious order to tackle the problem directly.  The members are most commonly called Mercedarians, and those of the order take a fourth vow – to die in the place of another who is in danger of losing their faith.

One of the last missions of the Bonaria Mercedarians was at the end of the 18th century when they rescued the hundreds of inhabitants of the island of San Pietro who had been captured by North African pirates and held as slaves in Tunisia for fifteen years.  You can see some of the ex-votos donated by grateful freed men and women in the museum next to the church.

The current church is actually two buildings:  there is the Basilica on the right (as you look at it), and the older Sanctuary, on the left.  Entry to the Sanctuary is via the Basilica.

Now, while the Basilica is imposing,  it isn’t terribly beautiful.  It was the product of hiccup-y building work (starting in 1704, resumed in 1910, finishing in 1920) and sadly the interior was destroyed by a bomb during World War Two.  Restoration continued until 1988, and now there are many modern paintings in the chapels – of varying quality.  The War Chapel, on the right of the altar, is impressive, though.

The most striking object of the church, though, is the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Bonaria.  I’m not sure when this one dates from, but the original, in the Sanctuary next door, is said to be from the 14th century and has a great legend attached to it…

It’s said that in 1370, a ship was travelling from Spain towards Italy and was caught in a terrible storm.  Desperate to save the ship and its crew, the captain gave the order for all the cargo to be thrown overboard.  The last crate to land in the water suddenly cause the storm to end.  After unsuccessfully trying to recapture the crate, the ship continued its course.

The crate landed on the beach, at the foot of the Bonaria hill.  People assembled around it and tried to get it open, but with no success.  They tried to lift it, again, with no success.  A child suggested calling for the Mercedarian Friars.  They came and lifted it, with no difficulties, and carried it to their church.  Upon opening the crate, they discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms, and a lit candle in her right hand.

The image was much venerated, particularly by Spanish sailors, and the Argentinian capital was called Buenos Aires by its founders in honour of this miraculous statue which was regarded as a protectress of those at sea.  Sitting in the nave on a stormy day, with the wind howling through the open doors and practically bringing the sea spray with it, it didn’t take much to understand quite why this tranquil and reassuring Virgin was a source of  hope and the focus of prayer for sailors and their families.

The Sanctuary of Bonaria next door is smaller and more lovely than its sister Basilica.  It is, as you can see below, quite plain, but it exudes a more spiritual air.

Be sure to spot the little ivory ship hanging in front of the altar.  It dates from 1400, and is the oldest of the gifts donated to the sanctuary.  It also has a mysterious ability to show the wind direction coming in from over the sea nearby.

So In Summary

Quite honestly, while the basilica isn’t that exciting, the historical and cultural significance of the sanctuary makes it worth visiting.  The attached museum helps to highlight the important role played by Bonaria not only with regard to saving slaves, but also in the everyday lives of those who went to sea.

Further Information

If you do visit the church, be sure to try and time your trip with the opening hours of their little museum next door – for me, it made the whole visit worthwhile.  But be aware that they aren’t always open when they say they will be…

When I was writing this post, the official website (in English) wasn’t working, but it may by the time you use it: www.bonaria.eu

Also, there is a graveyard just behind the basilica which has lots of interesting looking tombs and monuments.  Due to the wet weather, we decided to give it a skip – I know it’s silly to not want to walk round a graveyard when it’s thundering and lightning, and now I think we missed out on a unique experience… still, next time.

How To Get There

You can walk to the church from the old town, but it is quite a trudge.  There are buses to the Piazza Bonaria, which is directly in front of the church (via a steep staircase).

The transport website for Cagliari is not very user-friendly for the non-Italian speaker.  So, here’s the city’s official transport website: www.ctmcagliari.it – with some English information on Cagliari buses generally.  Here is a pdf of the bus map.  Now you’ve worked out what route you want to take, pop over here for a list of the bus numbers, so you can see the schedule of your bus.

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