Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Inventing Catholic Identities in Twentieth-Century Spain: The Virgin Bien-Aparecida, 1904-1910

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Inventing Catholic Identities in Twentieth-Century Spain: The Virgin Bien-Aparecida, 1904-1910

Article excerpt

Since The Invention of Tradition, the collective volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, was first published in 1983, a tremendous amount of historical research has been done along the lines proposed by the contributors to this most inspiring book. However, the study of religious traditions, especially of Catholic traditions, may not have benefited from this approach as much as the traditions of other areas of scholarly interest. The aim of this article is to explore how modern Catholic identities-or rather some signs that convey Catholic identities-may have been invented or re-invented-and why this necessity was felt.

To this purpose, a particular devotion is examined. It is the case of a local madonna who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was made the patroness of the Spanish northern diocese and province of Santander, more commonly known as La Montana or Cantabria (the latter has been the official name of this autonomous region since 1980). How the patronage was achieved (despite the non-existence of an alleged popular will); the enthusiasm of the Marian movement and the struggle against secularization which formed the context of the patronage; the unifying symbol that the Virgen Bien Aparecida was intended to represent, and the type of Catholic identity it related to and helped to promote are discussed in the following pages.

I

An August day in 1605: Some shepherd children from Marron (a small hamlet in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains) were sheltering from a storm in a little ruin of a shrine devoted to St. Mark, on a wooded hill known as Somahoz. Suddenly, they noticed strange lights shining from one of the windows. Curious about the origin of the lights, the children approached the window and discovered a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary and Child. They did not even dare to touch it. The following days they continued to visit the shrine, lingering in front of the luminous madonna until late at night. When asked about where they went for so long, they eventually confessed. Although the children were not believed, several villagers could not resist approaching the site of the"apparition" to ascertain for themselves the truth or falsehood of the story. When they got there, they could see an unusual light coming from the little church. Frightened, they went back to Marron and reported the fact to the parish priest. He became convinced that the children had told the truth and decided to lead a procession to St. Mark's.

On September 15, the villagers of Marr6n made their way toward Somahoz. When they arrived at the shrine, the priest looked for the madonna, found her on the window-sill and took her down to show her to the people. Then, the parishioners carried the statue around the church in a procession, went inside again, placed it on the altar and devoutly heard Mass.

Some days later, the townspeople decided to move the image to a nearby church, that of St. Peter, at least until St. Mark's was rebuilt. However, as they were attempting to do this, the sunny day was suddenly disturbed by a terrible thunderstorm. Frightened, the villagers returned to St. Mark's, replaced the madonna on the altar, and had a Mass said. The day cleared up again, as clear as the Virgin's will to remain at Somahoz. At that point, the inhabitants of Marron decided to have the Virgin's shrine built on the site of her apparition. And the Virgin was named Bien-Aparecida, that is the `Well-Appeared,' Virgin.1

So far, this would be just one example of a long series of discoveries of Marian statues and images in early modern Spain, and would tie in with the discovery pattern identified by William Christian-the finding of a sacred image by shepherds or their animals in the countryside, the miraculous failure of attempts to move it to the closest village, and the eventual building of a shrine on the very site of the apparition.2 However, three hundred years later, the Bien-Aparecida shrine was no longer just the objective of processions formed by local peasants, but the destination of larger pilgrimages coming from the provincial capital and from elsewhere in the diocese of Santander. …

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