A New Look at Our Lady of the Pillar

Our Lady of the Pillar

I started out to do a short post on something I saw in a footnote long ago that haunted me. What I couldn’t just forget was that the first official siting of an apparition of Mary…was in Spain…in 40 A.D.

Donning my royal blue-colored glasses, I finally went looking…

First, of course, I Googled it and picked this version of the story from a Catholic website to share.[i]

The Story of Our Lady of the Pillar

After Pentecost, the 12 Apostles dispersed to preach the Gospel all over the world. St. James the Greater (James son of Zebedee), on one of his apostolic journeys, preached in the Iberian Peninsula in modern-day Spain.

St. James was discouraged that the pagans of that land were not responding to the Gospel and converting to Christianity. He had only a handful of converts to show for his labors. In the face of what he thought was failure in his mission, he prayed with his disciples by the Ebro River in modern day Zaragoza.

To bring him consolation, while she was still alive and living in Jerusalem, Our Lady appeared to him and his disciples atop a pillar of jasper stone carried by angels, while holding a smaller wooden statue of her holding the Christ Child. The date was October 12 in the year 40 AD.

According to one account, Our Lady had previously promised St. James that she would come to his aid when he needed it the most. In fact, it was she who sent James into that region of the Roman Empire to tell the people of Hispania about her Son, Jesus. And then, in his most desolate hour, when he was considering leaving his mission field, she comes to his rescue.

The Mother of God told St. James not to worry, that the people to whom he preached would not only be converted, but they would one day have faith as strong as the pillar on which she stood.

She gave the pillar and the statue to St. James and asked that a church be built on the spot in her honor, using the two items for the altar.

“This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build… and the people of this land will honor greatly my Son Jesus.”

After asking for her church to be built, she gave another promise that,

“It will stand from that moment until the end of time in order that God may work miracles and wonders through my intercession for all those who place themselves under my patronage.”

St. James built a small chapel as Our Lady requested, by the Ebro river in Zaragoza, Spain, the first known Marian shrine in history. It became known as Our Lady of the Pillar, or Nuestra Senora del Pilar.  The chapel was replaced by larger churches over the centuries…The statue and pillar have been preserved in the basilica just as they were given to St. James almost 2000 years ago…The pillar is now covered in an embossed metal covering, but behind the altar a portion of the pillar is exposed for veneration….

In the same vision Our Lady also recalled St. James to Jerusalem, where he met his martyrdom in 44 AD. His remains were taken by his followers back to Compostela, Spain, where a chapel was built in his honor. The chapel was later replaced by the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination outside of Rome and the Holy Land.

Red Threads

The story is mostly a product of the Middle Ages, of course. Mary would not have been called Mother of God only 5 or so years after Jesus was crucified by Rome. I am not going into that here. [ii] What I am interested in is what might lay behind the claim of the years 40 A.D. until 44 A.D. and a statue of Mary. There had to have been something about that time and place that triggered this story around her. As usual, I looked at Josephus first…

39-41 A.D.

These arguments prevailed with Herod (Antipas), so that he came to Caius (Caligula, Roman Emperor), by whom he was punished for his ambition, by being banished into Spain… So Herod died in Spain, whither his wife had followed him. Josephus Wars 2:183[iii]

If you are a student of first century Palestine, you know that Herod Antipas had married Herodias daughter of Aristobulus son of Mariamne I the Great Queen and both were exiled to Spain at exactly the same time as Mary’s visit…

From the Jewish Encyclopedia online, Antipas Is Banished

Antipas’ marriage with Herodias was neither of long duration nor very happy…After the death of Tiberius she induced her husband to make a personal appeal to the new emperor for the possession of the royal title (but)…he was stripped of all his lands and wealth, which Caligula gave to Agrippa, banishing Antipas (39 A.D.) to Lugdunum, in Gaul, whither Herodias followed him. He died shortly afterward. Whether this Lugdunum be the modern St. Bertrand de Comminges, near the Spanish border, or whether the ex-tetrarch removed from Lyons to Spain, cannot be ascertained. Josephus states definitely that Antipas died in Spain.[iv]

So…the years 39-41 A.D. and Spain and a Jewish “tetrarch/king” and “queen”…

Mariamne III/Mary Sent into Exile?

Remember my theory behind this blog…about Mariamne III, daughter of Aristobulus son of Mariamne I the Great Queen, being the mother of Jesus and a James…and that Mariamne III was also the sister of Herodias who was an official Queen. Mary is first noted to be with the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem right after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:14) variously thought to be 30-36 A.D. But then she disappears from the record. To make up for this lack of knowing, legends sprang up around all the various Marys–Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and even occasionally Mary herself with a changing cast of characters–the common thread is that they were all being exiled from Roman Palestine in 39-40 A.D.

The medieval Golden Legend[v] says this:

The Provençal legend tells us that the year 40 A.D. a boat was launched from Jerusalem, without sails, oars or supplies, and drifted across the Mediterranean until it came ashore at this site. Some think the disciples were forced into a boat without facilities, and then cast adrift, so that they would perish at sea…

Another version of the same legend in the Golden Legend says:

The refugees in the boat were: Mary Jacobi, “the mother of James and the sister of the Virgin”; Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles James and John; Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha; St Maximinus; Cedonius, who was born blind and cured, and Sarah, the “servant” of the two Marys, who was also on the boat.

These stories of miraculous sailings are quite common in Christian mythology; St. James was blown onto the coast of northern Spain, and Boulogne in northern France has a legend of Mary Magdalene arriving there in a boat without oars. Another version of the legend tells us the town was named after only the three Marys who were in a boat; Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Lazarus. With them was Mary Magdalene’s small daughter – called Sarah.

All the boats came ashore in Gaul/France in the vicinity of Marseilles or Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer (for the Three Marys). Meaning that these legends also had Mary in the area…in ca 40 A.D… though the Pillar legend carefully says she was only visiting in her spirit not her body.[vi]

Map Caesaraugusta

The James in the legend is said to be the son of Zebedee…a “Son of Thunder” in the New Testament. The author of the legend around James on the banks of the Ebro River knew that this James had to be back in Palestine again to be “killed with the sword” by King Agrippa I in 44 A.D. Also, according to Act, the family and disciples of Jesus son of Mary were in a running battle with the High Priest Caiaphas and their agent Saul/Paul after Jesus’ death and may well have been sent into exile…”James the Brother of the Lord” was spearheading that fight and may have thought it best to leave Jerusalem for a while. And if you had family being sent to Spain, why not join them.

So…40-44 A.D….Hispania…Herod Antipas, Herodias, Mary, and a James all in the Gaul-to- Spain region at the same time…one way or another.

A Look at the Players

Spain Gaul

A Town in Hispania

The site where Mary appeared along the banks of Ebro River is now the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in present day Zaragoza, Spain. Though the legend does not mention it, a town had been established many years prior to the 40 A.D. date as a retirement place for legionnaires but during the reigns of Caligula (37-41 A.D.) and Claudius (41-54 A.D.) the town became a Roman city with a forum, amphitheater, baths, a harbor and temples and was named Caesaraugusta: Augusta as in Livia wife of Caesar Augustus.[vii]

Livia Augusta

During Livia’s husband, Caesar Octavian’s life, it was mandated that he be worshipped as a Divine Emperor…Augustus…mostly out in the provinces but also in Rome. When he died in 14 A.D., his wife Livia was made a priestess in her husband’s temple and could have been made the divine “Augusta” then, except that her son Tiberius became Emperor from 14 A.D. to 37 A.D.

tributepennyTiberius bore many grudges against his mother but he had to respect her status and power in the court… and also…Tiberius was a widower when he succeeded Augustus so he made Livia his ‘First Lady’ in Roman society. Livia could not be shunted aside because she was immensely rich, owning many properties in Asia Minor, Gaul and in Judaea. Salome, the sister of Herod I the Great of Judaea, had bequeathed to Livia her entire estate… To manage her extensive holdings and wealth, (she) maintained a personal staff of 1,000 including her own praetorian body guards. To avoid conflict in the palace, Tiberius honored his mother and struck coins in gold, silver and bronze that emphasized her association with the divinities. Beside the well-known dupondii, the Emperor struck special coins, in gold and silver for Livia, imitating exactly an image of a seated goddess that appeared on the coins of Augustus…[viii]

In Rome, Tiberius blocked the deification of Livia after her death (in 29 A.D.), but the very fact of the prohibition suggests that the issue must have been taken seriously. In the end Livia was deified, by Claudius in 43 A.D. [ix]

Livia would have known Herodias and Mariamne/Mary whose grandmother was Salome sister of King Herod and friend of Livia. (See above.)  But divinity was in the air. About the same time that the exiled Jews arrived in Hispania, another young Roman woman was flat-out being made divine.

The Goddess Drusilla

The next Emperor was Caligula, (37-41 A.D.) the one that exiled Antipas and Herodias…and perhaps Mary, and then made their brother Agrippa king in Palestine who will kill James with the sword in 44 A.D.  Caligula had a sister that he was obsessed with. Her name was Drusilla and she died at age 21 in 38 A.D.

On 23 September…the birthday of Augustus…Drusilla was consecrated as a goddess. A gold effigy was designed for the senate-house, as well as one to stand alongside Venus in that goddess’ temple in the Forum. Her worship was to be overseen by a college of twenty priests, both male and female. These honors were certainly generous and unprecedented for a woman, but they were not the great violation of Roman tradition that is sometimes claimed. The worship of the imperial family, even during their lifetimes, was widespread outside Italy, and perhaps within Italy.[x]

Caligula was killed by Romans conspirators because he was trying to have himself revered as a god and even sent a statue of himself as a god to be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem[xi]…which would have started the war with Rome right then but contributed to the war in 65-70 A.D. The next Emperor was Claudius in 41 A.D., the grandson of Livia.


d21f32610b60913da7554b4721468173Messaline holding son 11 to 55 CEMessalina was a wild child in Rome but married Caesar Claudius in 38 A.D. when she was 15 years old. They had a son Britannicus born in 41 A.D., the year he became Emperor, who was then expected to be the next Emperor. Statues of her and her son were put up everywhere until Claudius had her killed for extreme debauchery in 48 A.D. Messalina’s son was probably poisoned in 55 A.D. but her statues show that the image of a standing mother holding her baby son was in Rome and most likely out in the provinces also from ca 41 A.D. [xii]

                   A Statue of Mary

The usual explanation for a reverence of Mary including statues of her…something strictly forbidden a devout Jew… has been that statues of Isis were repurposed to be statues of Mary holding her baby son, and in some places that was probably true…but the veneration of a mother and her son did not need to depend on Egyptian statues of Isis holding her son Horus where she was seated and most often nursing. There were other statues of goddesses holding sons who were gods besides Messalina’s standing statues holding her son and not nursing.


48b368504b9e15c4d67d8035b32a5ce1pinterest isis lactans grecoroman

le-Puy,a interfaith mary

On the left is a typical statue of Isis sitting and holding Horus. Second is a Greco-Roman version of the statue of Isis, seated and nursing her son. Next is a later rendering of Mary with Jesus seated in the Roman and Egyptian fashion. [xiii]


fig13 LiviaCaesar Claudius also began issuing coins for his grandmother as soon as he was named Emperor in 41 A.D…. showing her as Pietas[xiv]…Livia’s high status and role as mother of the imperial family is indicated through the iconography Livia’s image shares with that of such key goddesses.

Also, coins began to appear with Livia not only as Pietas, but also with a temple…a “house” built for her in Caesaraugusta, out in the provinces of Spain where the Empress Mother could be worshipped unimpeded.


On the website showing the above coins is this statement by the author[xv]

Piatas Augusta “Coins leave no alternative but to accept the existence in Caesaraugusta of two temples to Piatas Augusta (which we find difficult to admit) or, what seems more plausible and evident, that it is a single temple dedicated to Pietas Augusta, represented in two different ways.”

recreacion-virtual-foro-caesaraugusta1To this day the largest temple/cathedral found in Hispania today is the one in current metropolitan Zaragoza to Our Lady of the Pillar.


In the Our Lady of the Pillar story, Mary asks that a “house” (chapel or church) be built for her on the banks of the Ebro River and her “visitation” suggests some form of divinity for her. She hands James a wooden statue of herself standing and holding her son and heir and gives him a jasper pillar to set it upon…which is odd. If her son had recently died at the age of 30+, why would she be holding an infant…you would think she might be holding her dead son as in Michelangelo’s Pieta statue in Rome… unless, perhaps, they were repurposing Messalina’s statues.

zpilar_columnaThe statue came with a pillar to stand it on. Pillars, columns, plinths can all be used somewhat interchangeably in ancient architecture. Pillars are most often smaller columns that are used to hold up arches and small roofs, not statues. Looking at Google images for statues on Pillars does not reveal much. Graco-Roman statues of the time period were most often on plinths…or short platforms or in alcoves. Perhaps something more was being said.

Symbolic Pillars

The Old Testament uses the term Pillar as a column to hold up buildings and as a Pillar of Fire…

The New Testament has a different interpretation:

James, Cephas and John were reputed to be pillars” of the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9); the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15); he that overcomes is made “a pillar” in the temple of God (Revelation 3:12)…[xvi]  

Mary was being portrayed as a “pillar” emphasizing her role as queen mother offering her son and heir “from birth” to the world standing on a firm foundation…her bloodline. Also, the whole of the earliest message being broadcast in Palestine and now out into the world was that her son Jesus would return momentarily and claim his kingdom. Mary, as queen mother…Pietas…according to the legend even had the authority to send “James” to Hispania and to tell him when to return to Jerusalem.

Okay…the early Jewish-Christian Book of Revelations used “New Jerusalem” as a New World Order…a return of the Tower of Mariamne and the House of the Hasmoneans… awaiting the resurrection of Jesus. His mother, somewhere down the line was claiming to be able to communicate with her son…she can still intercedes with him. (See blog post on Bathsheba.) And, perhaps more importantly…he was still taking a hand in the lives of his disciples much as the sons of Mariamne I the Queen continued to do after their deaths.

Mariamne Tower

I always seem to do this…work my way back again to the Mariamne Tower. I have one last thought to add to the mix…Pillar as a substitute for Tower…Magdal…The Tower of the Queen…Mary the Magdal-ene, a descendent of Queen Mariamne I.  I know it is a stretch, but one could see…a thousand or more years later, that certain church fathers no longer were aware of the meaning the Tower had with the family of Jesus and Jerusalem before the war that destroyed the city and the temple in 65 A.D…but NOT the tower, itself. Mariamne Tower survived the war’s total destruction of the Temple and the homeland.

Our Lady of Le Puy–the Rock

9b2c3-6a00e5504a658688330167659817bb970b-pile le puy google imagesThe end year of 44 A.D. has been stressed in the Pillar legend as the date that James returned to Jerusalem by to be “killed with the sword.” Oddly, though, there is one other legend to toss into the mix. Le Puy, France, claims to have been visited by “missionaries” sent by Saint Peter in 46/47 A.D. This isn’t emphasized very much because most of the story relates to later times, especially the Crusades, but in 70 A.D….right at the end of the war with Rome in 65-70 A.D. with the siege walls of Jerusalem breeched, Mary came and healed a women of the Puy Valley and requested that a statue of her be put on the top of one of the high pointed volcanic rock mountains there and a church built. The visitation, this time, is said to be right after the death of Mary. (Meaning that Mary was alive until the end of the war…she would have been in her mid-80s.)[xviii]

Now…last point…consider this…

Mary was the Tower/Pillar of the family and the bloodline. Jesus was the Cornerstone of the tower…(Mark 12:10 for one.) the linchpin that would return the Tower of the Queen to power…”when his kingdom came.” And James, her second son, was given the title of Bulwark…a rampart, a defensive wall …a defense against attack. (Webster) There is an account of his exceeding great piety, calling him the Just (i.e. Zaddik) and Oblias (i.e. Ophla-am), which signifies Justice and the People’s Bulwark; as the Prophets declare concerning him.[xix]

Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. (Psalm 48:12-13)

So…Tower/Pillar/Cornerstone/Foundation Wall/Rock…can’t forget Simon, a possible brother of Jesus and James and a son of Mary renamed Peter…Petra…the Rock.

Back to the original question…why Mary and why 40 A.D.:

I think that Mariamne III and some of her extended family and perhaps her son James or James son of Zebedee, were sent into exile along with Herod Antipas, a half-brother, and her sister Herodias in 39 B.C.–perhaps landing in “Gaul” and traveling south to Spain in 40 A.D. They were there for the building of a temple dedicated to Livia who was named as the divine Augusta in 41 A.D. There were probably statues of Messalina and her baby son there. There were coins struck and probably statues of Livia erected and the town renamed itself Caesaraugusta. And, if Mary returned with “James” to Jerusalem, they came back with new ideas about the importance of Mary and her bloodline and began to grow a “Blessed Memory” for her as early as 40-44 A.D…which would have caused no end of trouble in Jerusalem and Palestine…and would have turned the Jewish disciples…who were forbidden just those kinds of images…and did not trust the royal side of Jesus’ family, anyway…to turning against Mary/Mariamne III. Hence both her “blessed memory” given her by her son which could not be excluded AND reports of his repudiation of her as recorded by the gospels.

I personally would like her to have returned to Jerusalem and to have been part of the growing resistance against the Ananias High Priests and Rome…even if it meant war…but that’s another story.

[i] https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/first-marian-apparition-our-lady-pillar/

[ii] Almost any site on the internet gives a line or two to the early siting and then concentrates on the Middle Ages establishment of the legend.

[iii] Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.VII.2 says that Caius/Caligula…awarded Herod Antipas a perpetual banishment, and appointed Lyons, a city of Gaul, to be his place of habitation. Josephus changed the banishment to Spain in Wars of the Jews

[iv] Wars of the Jews II.VI.3. Antipas’ brother Archelaus was banished to Vienna in Gaul in ca 10 A.D.

[v] The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Vorgine written in 1275.

[vi] Paul was evangelizing at just about the same time, the thought that there really wasn’t a bodily resurrection but a spiritual one…He claims to have seen the spiritual body of Jesus on the road to Damascus much as James saw the spiritual body of Mary in Spain…and about the same timeframe. We have no way of knowing what “kernel” of a story was being used in the Middle Ages to create the legend…maybe it is just a coincidence.

[vii] There is an archaeological website showing the remains of the Roman city. http://elboqueronviajero.com/en/spain/aragon-en/caesaraugusta-roman-route-zaragoza/

[viii] http://coinproject.com/jan/volume1/issue4/volume1-4-1.html The Journal of Ancient Numismatics, Volume I Issue 4, Livia–the First Augusta of Rome by Marvin Tameanko includes the tribute coin image

[ix] Agrippina,Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire by Antony A. Barrett, Yale University Press,1996

[x] Agrippina,Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire by Antony A. Barrett, Yale University Press,1996

[xi] Antiquities of the Jew XVIII.VIII.1

[xii] Messalina: http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2011/06/dont-mess-with-messalina.html

[xiii] Isis and the Virgin Mary, a Pagan Conversion by Meg Baker http://www.columbia.edu/~sf2220/Thing/web-content/Pages/meg2.html

[xiv] Pietas, translated variously as “duty”, “religiosity” or “religious behavior”, “loyalty”, “devotion”, or “filial piety” (English “piety”…was one of the chief virtues among the ancient Romans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietas

[xv] https://www.tesorillo.com/articulos/templos/caesaraugusta/caesaraugusta.htm Statement on temple and coin and Augusta found in Caesaraugusta.

[xvi] https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/pillar/

[xvii] Jasper, http://biblestudytools.com/concordances/jasper.html

[xviii] http://www.roman-catholic-saints.com/our-lady-of-puy.html and photo https://nevilletest.wordpress.com/tag/via-podiensis/

[xix] Hegesippus’ Five Books (165-175 A.D.)

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