The miraculous rings of the Ribeira Sacra that reappeared centuries later

Galicia is a land where fact and fiction can easily be confused, especially if you are a bit of a novelist. Places like the monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, in the heart of the Ribeira Sacra in Ourense, make these reveries much easier. It is believed that this place, now converted into a National Parador, has been standing since the 6th century. Its documented origin dates back to the 10th century, coinciding with the arrival of the nine bishops who changed its history forever.

This monastery could be the protagonist of these and other lines for many reasons, artistic or cultural, but in this text it remains as a simple setting in which a story took place. A story related to some miraculous rings. One of those that, as we have begun to say, move between what really happened and what has ended up becoming a legend.

What happened: nine great bishops who renounced everything

monastery of Santo Estevo

The monastery of Santo Estevo is a place where fact and fiction can be confused. | Shutterstock

Near Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, today, is the small village of the same name, the nature of the Ribeira Sacra and little else. In the 10th century, it was simply a remote and isolated place that was chosen, some time ago, as a place of prayer by the first Christians. They built monasteries designed for recollection and reflection, and around these they congregated.

The story of nine powerful bishops who renounced their status to retire to this secluded monastery is already recorded in the texts of the time. They were called, or so a 16th century chronicle states, Ansurio, Afonso, Froarengo, Gonzalo, Paio, Pedro, Servando, Viliúlfo and Vimarasio. They came from different parts of the Iberian Peninsula. It was a surprise for their contemporaries and an honour for those who already lived in Santo Estevo, so much so that the monastery’s coat of arms contains nine mitres, in memory of this event.

When the bishops died, their bodies were buried in a privileged place known today as the Cloister of the Bishops. They were later moved inside the church to be venerated. Today, the remains rest in a recently restored 17th century reliquary. It was in this restoration that fact and fiction were united, but to understand this we must first talk about the legend.

The legend: pilgrimage towards the miracle


Cloister of the Bishops. | Shutterstock

It is said that the miracles happened while the bishops were still alive, but especially shortly after their death. The real strength of the story lies in the episcopal rings they wore with them. Nine bishops with nine rings to dominate them all, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental work, but set in the Ribeira Sacra. These were not made in the fires of Mordor: they were silver rings, of simple workmanship. When Ansurio and company passed away, these rings were placed in a silver box.

Over time, it came to be believed that this chest had magical properties, mostly related to the cure of disease. It was also believed to protect people’s health, to the extent that the chest would leave the monastery to be present at the birth of local women. It was believed that, in this way, everything would turn out well.

These impossible events soon spread throughout the peninsula. Despite the difficulty of the journey to the monastery, pilgrims, who had nothing to do with the Way of St. James, began to arrive. Also to venerate those bishops of whom it was said, when they were still alive, that they were even able to scare demons away.

You can imagine the affection that the nearby villages felt for these rings and the bishops. A relationship that María Oruña wanted to take as a starting point for writing El bosque de los cuatro vientos (The Forest of the Four Winds). Months after the publication of this book, another miracle happened: the rings, lost since the 17th century, reappeared.

The unexpected: the rings reappear

santo estevo

This is how the monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, now a National Parador, welcomes visitors. | Shutterstock

It all began with restoration work here in the Ribeira Sacra. Specifically, of the side reliquaries of the church, where the bishops rest. In this process, an ancient cloth bag with gold embroidery was found. Inside, to the surprise of the lucky restorers, were four of the nine rings of the legend. Three of them still retained the stone that identified them as such.

With these rings was a note: ‘These four rings are those that remained of the nine Holy Bishops. They are the ones that have remained. The others have disappeared. Water is passed through them for the sick and many are healed’. This is how the last miracle happened, centuries after their disappearance. Who knows if there will be no more news to report in the times to come, for the whereabouts of the remaining five are still unknown.

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