Spanish original + photos
One of the first things that caught my attention, on visiting the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Saints as a small boy, was the votive offerings, or ex-votos. The side walls of the church were covered with pictures and figures, offering accounts of miraculous deeds attributed to the Holy Virgin. There was scarcely room to fit in any more, because so many people wanted to record their gratitude to the Virgin that they had already covered all the free space on the walls. Some of the ex-votos had deteriorated with time and the Brotherhood had taken them down in order to preserve them.
The ex-voto is a form of iconography for ordinary people, signifying a simple faith and gratitude to the Virgin Mary. This custom is very ancient, and practised by people all over the world. It has endured to the current day, especially in Italy, France, Spain and Latin America. In Spain the ex-votos go back to the 14th Century, but they became particularly prolific from the 17th Century onwards. The ex-votos, or “offerings” are of distinct types: events at sea; shipwrecks reproduced with tiny little painted boats tragedies brought about by fires or dangerous occupations; extraordinary actions by people with physical handicaps represented by arms, legs, eyes and ears; cures for illnesses; dangerous situations which were resolved in an inexplicable manner.
I never imagined then that one day I myself would be the subject of an ex-voto on the Sanctuary wall. It was a tragedy which happened in 1945, the very year that we had left Alcalá. I attended the Christian Brothers school in Jerez de la Frontera. I was eleven years old and went on a trip to the beach at Sanlúcar de Barrameda with my classmates and teachers. We arrived at the beach around noon. The children were playing in the sand when a strong wind started to whip up the waters. Nine children had climbed onto a boat moored on the bank and we were having fun balancing ourselves against the rise and fall of the waves. Some fishermen had warned us that there was a strong undercurrent that day and it would be dangerous to go into the sea. We didn't take any notice and full of bravado, we took up the oars to set out to sea. Without us realising, the boat was being dragged by the undertow towards the channel at the mouth of the River Guadalquivir.
Suddenly, with a terrifying roar, a mighty wave came out of the depths of the sea, snatched up the boat and tipped it right over. I threw myself to the left-hand or port side of the boat, while the other eight boys fell towards the right-hand or starboard side. To this day I have never been able to forget that screaming as the boys were dragged down by the waters. They clutched at one another but rapidly succumbed to the waves. My strength was beginning to fail and I hoped that someone would be coming out to rescue us. In the middle of my despair I remembered something I had been told the previous day.
Father Redeemer, a monk from the Carmelite monastery whose residence was opposite our house in the Plaza del Carmen de Jerez, had come to our school to give religious instruction to the students. During his talk he told us about various shipwrecks where the sailors had been saved due to the intervention of the Virgin. In a split second it flashed through my mind to ask the Virgin to save me. That same moment I lost consciousness. Afterwards they told me that the teacher from the Christian Brothers school, Brother Arturo Javier, had taken off his habit and thrown himself into the sea to help the children. The first child he reached was me, as I was separated from the rest of the group, and he carried me back to the shore, totally unconscious. On the beach, first aid was administered by the marines of the Sanlúcar Naval School, but I didn't respond and was taken to the local hospital. The other eight children perished; one more was recovered from the water but he had already drowned, and the rest turned up over the next few days near the spar of the river at Chipiona. For me it was touch and go between life and death for several days in the hospital at Sanlúcar, until the doctors discharged me.
When I recovered and went back to school, they called me Moses, “rescued from the waters”, and asked me how I had managed to escape from the waves. I replied that I did not know, but that I had made a plea to the Virgin of the Carmen. My My brother Gaspar asked an artist friend from Jerez to make a picture for the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Saints. In my child's mind I was confronted with a serious problem; how could I have been saved by the Virgin of the Saints when I had prayed to the Virgin of the Carmen? I was deeply worried by this and repeated it to myself over and over again. It was clear that they would both have to be present on the ex-voto. Later on I understood that these were simply references to the same personage, the Holy Virgin. Each town had its own name: the Virgin of Divine Inspiration, the Virgin of Peace, the Virgin of Mercy, the Virgin of the Rose Tree, the Virgin of the Saints …
The legend on the picture went something like this: “The boy, Juan Leiva Sánchez, who had been shipwrecked in the waters of Sanlúcar with nine other companions, appealed to the Virgin of the Carmen and his life was saved. His family wishes to give thanks for this miracle by placing this votive offering here in the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Saints in Alcalá.” As I recall, the ex-voto was made in the form of a parchment, but the damp and the insects ate away at it over the years until it was in such bad condition that the Brotherhood took it down with the intention of restoring it. I never saw it again; I suppose that sort of material has a limited life.
Some twenty or thirty years ago the Bank of Andalucia published a book about the ex-votos in the Sanctuaries of Andalucia, at the request of Manuel Romero Gómez, a civil servant from Alcalá. The main documentation for the book was supplied by the ex-votos of the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Saints in Alcalá. Manuel Romero died just over a year later in Seville. The mass for his soul was celebrated in the Sevillian monastery of the Carmelitas del Buen Suceso, officiated by the Provincial Father Rafael Leiva Sánchez. The funeral was attended by his wife Inés Sánchez and their three children, along with his sisters Francisca and Petra. His parents also lived in the Calle la Amiga and had an old-fashioned pork butcher's shop in Alcalá, adjacent to what was the cafe owned by Vicente Jiménez, brother of the three Jiménez sisters who lived in the Callejón Osorio.
Later, Francisco because the telephonist in the bodega González Byass, and Manuel and Trinidad moved to Jerez, where eventually they died. Today the family all live in Seville except Petra, who lives in Los Palacios. Memories and reminders of Alcalá accompany them wherever they are. And those same ex-votos are precisely that, reminders of the gratitude of so many people who lived through an extraordinary experience attributed to the Virgin of the Saints.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
Los montes de Alcalá en el libro de la Montería
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