Arantzazu – Aránzazu

Sanctuary of Modern Art

Arantzazu-Aránzazu, a few kilometres from Oñati-Oñate, is a sanctuary with a double meaning: it is the centre of both Catholicism in Gipuzkoa and of Basque art in the second half of the 20th century.

Plan Your Visit to Arantzazu - Aránzazu

The sanctuary of Aránzazu is located in the great Natural Park of Aizkorri. For this reason, it is common for visitors who go hiking there to park their car and use the sanctuary as a resting place once they arrive. Visitors typically spend an hour visiting Aránzazu and several hours walking around its surroundings. Then they usually go down to the beautiful streets of Oñati, which we strongly recommend seeing. Despite its beauty, Aránzazu is not a recognized tourist destination and so it does not have many options for spending the night– we recommend viewing these two pages for more information: where to sleep and eat in Aránzazu and where to sleep and eat in Oñati.

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In the middle of the 15th century, the shepherd Rodrigo de Baltzategi saw an image of the Virgin appear in the thorns of Mount Aloña, to which he could only exclaim: “Arantzan zu,” which in Basque means “On the thorns, you?” This is the origin of the name of the Virgin that, with the passage of time, would end up becoming the patron saint of Gipuzkoa.

Located in the heart of the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park and nestled on the edge of a ravine, the Aránzazu Sanctuary today represents the perfect union between spirituality and contemporary art. This centre of Marian pilgrimage– the main one in the province– welcomed its first community of friars from the Marian community in 1493. Later, in 1508, it passed into the hands of the Dominicans and, after a dispute over ownership, ended up being managed by Franciscan friars, a community that has remained a part of the monastery throughout the history of Aránzazu ever since.

The history of the Sanctuary of Aránzazu is presided over by the continuous remodeling of the Sanctuary, since there were three fires that reduced most of its installations to ashes. The first fire, in 1553, originated in the kitchen and only left the church standing. The reconstruction was made possible due to donations from noblemen and friars. The new monastery was inaugurated fourteen years later, but all its archives and the votive offerings left by pilgrims were lost. In 1622 the fire destroyed it again. At that time, a new renovation was proposed that included new land gained from the ravine; a second chapel was built in the church and teaching rooms and a new pilgrims’ hospital were inaugurated. The last fire took place in 1834, during the first Carlist war.

Due to the political instability of the nineteenth century, reconstruction was slow and problematic, so it was not until the twentieth century that Aránzazu faced its definitive remodeling. This restoration resulted in a surprising and definitive shift towards the most avant-garde trends in art.

In 1950, the idea of erecting a new basilica was raised and a design contest was held for this purpose. The guiding ideas were to give the sanctuary a new artistic importance and breadth, while respecting what already existed.

The winning project was submitted by the architects Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza and Luis Laorga. The artists said that the new basilica “will be sturdy, frankly wild; the bell tower will be studded with pointed stones, a symbol of the hawthorn,” and instead of delicate beauty, it “will have the characteristics of robustness and simplicity of the Basque people.”

Vista del Santuario de Arantzazu en 1915
Vista del Santuario de Arantzazu en 1915

During its construction, important figures of Spanish contemporary art collaborated closely: Jorge de Oteiza worked on the frieze of the main façade, Eduardo Chillida created the main doors, Néstor Basterretxea decorated the walls of the crypt and Lucio Muñoz designed the main altarpiece of the apse. The main idea of the ensemble was to combine 20th century art with traditional religious sentiment.

In 1955, the new basilica was opened to the liturgy. However, in that same year, the works suffered a serious setback when an opinion of the Diocesan Commission of Sacred Art decided that the artistic concepts of the new temple did not match the “decorum of Sacred Art, according to the directives of the Holy See.” The works were censored for years until, thanks to the new directives arising from the Second Vatican Council, the new basilica was definitively consecrated in 1969.

Thus, the Sanctuary of Arantzazu has become one of the main tourist attractions in the Basque Country, both for being a center of Marian pilgrimage and for its artistic relevance.

As an interesting fact, it is worth mentioning that several scenes from the film The Day of the Beast by Alex de la Iglesia were shot here.

To get to the Sanctuary of Arantzazu you have to take a winding road from Oñati-Oñate, going up the mountain that borders the cliff over the river. This path is sown with small chapels, statues of virgins and other elements which introduce us to the religious atmosphere of this place. We will then arrive at a large square, which is partly used as a car park. From there we can see the impressive main façade, framed between two towers and, a little further away, the basilica tower.

The sanctuary is the must-see attraction in Arantzazu-Aránzazu. It has a sober and robust appearance, like the surrounding mountains. As the architects pointed out in their memory of the project, it combines “mural painting, wrought iron, wood and limestone, which undoubtedly can achieve the proper atmosphere of a mountain temple such as the one being planned.” Its spacious interior is equipped to serve the services of the Franciscan community and to welcome the large number of pilgrims who come each year.

The main façade is one of the most impressive elements of the building. Its design includes a large smooth stone panel decorated with sculptures by Jorge Oteiza, framed by two towers built with large limestone stones carved with a diamond-shaped tip, which symbolize the thorns in which the Virgin appeared. It is located on a lower level of the road, so the impressive frieze with the apostles is at the height of the road and the visitor’s view. This relief is 12 metres long and is made up of fourteen stone figures that are 3 metres high and weigh more than 5 tonnes. There are fourteen apostles, not twelve, because the sculptor wanted to symbolize apostolicity as an open community, although he was strongly criticized for this representation. Each of them is within a cubic module, in isolation from each other, but they are connected by the positions of their arms and hands and the inclination of their heads. They are hollow stone figures, and as Oteiza himself describes it, “like sacred animals open in a channel, they repeat to us that they have emptied themselves because they have placed their hearts in others.” Brutalist architecture, primitivism and formal expressionism are the main characteristics of the Sanctuary. The smooth walls on the frieze symbolise the loneliness of death. It is crowned with a figure of the Virgin Dolorosa, who offers her son, dead and lying at her feet, to the pilgrim or visitor who arrives. The four access doors, designed in iron by sculptor Eduardo Chillida according to a layout of asymmetrical geometric drawings, form a kind of metallic collage by superimposing plates with different levels of hues and shine. They are accessed through stairs that descend from the roadway, which give the impression of entering an underground world.

Edificio moderno

The interior of the basilica, covered with a wooden vault, is arranged in a Latin cross plan, with a single nave of great amplitude and side chapels (seven on each side). From the altar, the nave resembles a ship. This aspect is reinforced by the windows, which are designed in the shape of portholes and decorated with abstract stained-glass windows of undulating shapes and varied colors designed by the Franciscan friar Javier Álvarez de Eulate from Donostia. The decoration of the apse, known as the “Sistine Chapel of the 20th century,” is the result of the collaboration between Lucio Muñoz, Julio López and Joaquín Ramos. It is a kind of stage or, better said, wooden altarpiece inspired by the nature of the region that frames the image of the Virgin of Arantzazu in a direct light, the same that Rodrigo de Baltzategi found and that has survived all the fires. The composition, framed within the vein of naturalist abstractionism, unites the structural outlines of the landscape of Aránzazu with the historical account of the sacred image. It is divided into three superimposed natural spaces: the earth, in ochre tones; the hawthorn with the figure of the shepherd and the Virgin surrounded by the mountains; and the blue sky.

As mentioned in the historical section of Aránzazu above, after the fire of 1834, reconstruction work began and lasted until the twentieth century due to various problems. In 1920 there was an expansion project, subsidized by Pablo Gámiz, whose goal was to build a Neo-romantic building. However, he only completed the head of the building, leaving the rest of the temple unfinished due to a lack of funds. The apse is currently under construction and has been converted into a crypt. It is decorated with murals designed by Néstor Basterretxea which, due to differences with those in charge of the church, were censored for 25 years. These 18 paintings of great expressive force and somewhat aggressive colour revolve around the creation of the universe and man’s confusion before the force of nature and the birth of myths, culminating in an impressive and even frightening figure of the risen Christ dressed in red and standing before the altar.

Must to see

Altar Mayor
Detalle de la fachada principal

Practical Data


42° 58′ 44.06″ N, 2° 23′ 54.89″ W


Oñati 10 km, Bilbao 82 km, Donostia-San Sebastián 83 km, Madrid 404 km


At the entrance from road GI-3591


750 m

Virgin of Arantzazu (9th of September)

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