Ten kilometres from the town of Oñate stands one of the most avant-garde religious buildings in the world, the Sanctuary of Arantzazu. Legend has it, and a small figure attests to this, that the Virgin in a thorn-bush appeared before a shepherd named Rodrigo de Balzategi in 1469. The astounded shepherd exclaimed to the Virgin: "Arantzan zu?" (Thou, among the thorns?). A sanctuary was built in the place where this happened, a valley full of canyons and lush vegetation, and it has gradually grown and filled with worshippers.
The founders include Juana de Arriaran, the serora (a kind of solitary nun) of the Santa María de Oñati hermitage, an educated woman said to be a famous healer whose services were required by even the queens of that time and who ended up living very close to the sanctuary in order to offer her healing powers to passing pilgrims. Centuries later, in 1951, it was decided to build a basilica on the site to make the most of the spirit of the religious enclave. However, the works did not stop there, but caused a true revolution in the society, the Church and art.
Construction of the new church was awarded to Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza and Luis Laorga. Both architects managed to gather together some of the leading Basque artists to take part in the project. Arrival at the Sanctuary of Arantzazu is impressive. Hanging off a cliff, it stands majestic. The two twin towers framing the church, with the bell tower to one side, were built from blocks of diamond point limestone. The door, known as hell's door, is the work of Eduardo Chillida and is made of cast iron in an abstract style. The sculptor, Jorge Oteiza designed the sculptures of the 14 apostles on the façade while the paintings in the crypt are by Néstor Basterretxea, with special mention for the Christ depicted in red.
The huge altarpiece designed by Lucio Muñoz inside the church is particularly impressive together with the effect achieved by the architects making the light look as though it comes out of the rock itself. The small Andra-Mari shines upwards and seems even more fragile in its huge surroundings; however it is thanks to this that the special religious space is a hymn to freedom and art, and it helped, with its radical and spectacular avant-garde appearance, to achieve a necessary social change in Euskal Herria.