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Saint of the week

The Spanish abbot who liberated Christian slaves

St Dominic of Silos (December 20) is an example of the remarkable possibilities open to low-born talent in the medieval Church

By on Monday, 20 December 2010

The Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos

The Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos

Dominic of Silos (c1000-1073), to be distinguished from St Dominic the founder of the Black Friars who was named after him, is one of the most popular saints in Spain.

He is also an example of the remarkable possibilities open to low-born talent in the medieval Church. For Dominic was the son of a peasant who lived at Cañas in Navarre; as a boy he looked after the family’s flocks in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Perhaps this work developed his love of peace and solitude. At any rate, he decided to become a monk at the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla, in La Rioja area, which came under the Diocese of Burgos. Dominic rose rapidly to the position of prior.

Unfortunately Garcia III of Navarre, determined to expand his authority, demanded that San Millán should surrender land to him. When Dominic refused to bow to his will, Garcia drove him out.

In this crisis he was well received by Ferdinand I of Castile, who appointed him abbot at San Sebastian of Silos, south of Burgos. This monastery was in a state of extreme decay, both material and spiritual. Dominic took up his post in January 1041, and stayed there for the remaining 33 years of his life.

Inspired by Cluniac ideals, he began by restoring discipline and order. Within a few years the abbey was well-known throughout Spain. 

Dominic himself was responsible for rebuilding the church, while the scriptorium which he established would acquire many treasures, including the spectacularly illustrated Apocalypse which is now in the British Library.

If the abbey’s two-storey cloister – one of the glories of the Romanesque, with its elegant columns and carved scenes from Scripture – was constructed after Dominic’s death, it owes its existence to the reputation which he had created. The monastery of San Sebastian was re-named St Dominic of Silos. The saint also became celebrated as a powerful healer; it was even claimed that no disease existed which he had not cured. In addition, Dominic was credited with liberating Christian slaves from the Moors.

Around 1169, nearly 100 years after Dominic’s death, a woman made a pilgrimage to his shrine from Caleruega in Castile and received assurance that she would have another son. The boy whom she bore proved to be an even more renowned St Dominic.

For centuries Abbot Dominic’s pastoral staff was carried to the bedside of the Queens of Spain when they were in labour, and kept there until they had given birth.

In 1835 the abbey of Silos was closed, along with other monasteries in Spain. A new phase began in 1880 when Benedictine monks from Solesmes in France revived the foundation. 

Since 1957 the monks have become renowned for their recordings of Gregorian chant.