Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 Virgen del Carmen




Back in May, the town of Nerja paid its annual hommage to the patron saint of the land, San Isidro. But the town’s economy traditionally encompassed the sea as well, and this month it’s time to remember how dangerous and for how little reward these waters have been worked down the years. Few people are more superstitious than the people who work on the sea, so it’s unsurprising that they have a much revered patron, La Virgen del Carmen, to watch over them and to whom they direct their prayers, and she is honoured on the 16th July in coastal towns and villages all over Spain, as well as in the Spanish navy.

virgen del carmenIn the late afternoon of this day in Nerja, the Virgin, with the Infant Jesus in her arms and a halo of light above her head, is collected from her altar in the El Salvador church on the Balcón de Europa. She is placed upon a flower-decked throne and carried to the beach. Her bearers are local fishermen or members of the Virgin’s ‘cofradía’, who will typically wear a white top, a red sash, trousers rolled up to the knees, and nothing on their feet. Just off shore, a flotilla of brightly-decked craft await her. On arrival at the Calahonda beach on the eastern side of the Balcón, and sea conditions permitting, she is placed, not without difficulty, on a little boat. Then out to sea she goes on her mission to bestow her blessing and protection for another year on Nerja’s waters, her entourage of enthusiastic vessels accompanying her, many whizzing backwards and forwards in barely-contained excitement.

Meanwhile, as dusk falls, a claustrophic mass of people collects to watch from the Balcón, with some of them spilling down the path to the beach. All are waiting for her return, when a fine display of fireworks pays a joyous and noisy tribute to her, while shrouding her and everything else on the water in thick smoke. When that is over, she is hauled back onto the beach, as people brush ash from their clothes and hair, small boys collect the fallen rocket sticks from the sand, and stressed-out birds return to their roosting perches in the trees. Then, one of the great sights of the festive year in Nerja: amid shouts of ‘¡Viva la Virgen del Carmen! ¡Viva!’ from her tired bearers, she is heaved up the steep gradient back to the Balcón and her home in the church, while a party or ‘verbena’ gets under way outside.

The Virgin has given her name, of course, to women all over Spain. To understand where her name came from, however, we must travel to north-west Palestine, not far from the port of Haifa. There stands a low mountain range containing Mount Carmel, which has been considered a holy place for millennia. The name of the mountain means something like ‘fertile garden’, which explains why the word ‘carmen’ is also used in Granada to describe villas with fine gardens or orchards. It was on Mount Carmen that the Old Testament prophet Elijah had a famous confrontation with the four hundred and fifty false prophets of Baal. Elijah was determined to defend the purity of his people’s faith from corruption by the worshippers of Baal, and succeeded by means of an impressive miracle involving fire from on high and a rain storm which ended a three-year drought. This would later be interpreted by the Catholic Church as a sign or message from the Virgin Mary that through her Son there would be a ‘rain of grace’ on sinners.

The Mountbecame a place where pious former pilgrims or crusaders would go to live as hermits in search of spiritual perfection and sanctity, following the example of Elijah. They lived a tough and lonely life of silence and they called themselves the Brothers of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel. Thus was born the Roman Catholic Carmelite order in the 12th century. With the failure of the crusades in the 13th century, the monks left Palestine for Europe, some settling in England, where St Simon Stock would become their leader. It was a difficult time for the order, and Simon prayed for help to the Virgin Mary. She responded by appearing to him in a vision – on the 16th July, 1251. She also brought him a gift, a garment consisting of two pieces of brown cloth which were tied together at the shoulder. It was called a scapula, and the vision informed Simon that the wearer of the scapula could be assured of her protection and salvation from the fires of Hell. The scapula henceforth became a symbol of the Carmelite Order and also of those lay people who wanted to manifest their association with the order by wearing one under their clothes.

Three hundred years later in Spain two famous saints would become involved in reforming the order. The formidable Saint Teresa of Ávila was convinced the order was going soft and founded the much stricter branch called the ‘discalced’ or barefoot order of the Carmelites (although in fact they wore sandals). At her monastery in Ávila she imposed strict rules of poverty and constant abstinence on her nuns. She also persuaded St John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic and poet, to set up similar institutions for men, which got him into considerable trouble with the authorites.

But why did the Virgen del Carmen become the patron saint of seafarers? (It is a role she shares, incidentally, with St Elmo of St Elmo’s Fire fame.) The answer seems to lie in her symbolism: for a long time, the people who travelled the seas and oceans of the world depended on the stars in the night sky to guide them. In a similar way, so the reasoning goes, Mary guides her followers through the difficult waters of life, like a star of the sea. Hence the words to her hymn, known to Spanish sailors everywhere, the ‘Salve Marinera’, which translated reads as follows:

Hail, Star of the seas,
Rainbow of the seas,
and of eternal good fortune.
Hail, oh Phoenix of beauty
Mother of divine love!
May your clemency
Give comfort
To the sorrows of your people.
May our fervent cry reach unto heaven
And to Thee, and to Thee.
Hail, Star of the seas!

You can listen to the episode below.