martes, 6 de julio de 2010

Memories of Alcalá 37: The Statue of the Virgin of the Saints

Spanish original and photos

The “Year of Grace” which the Bishop of Cádiz and Ceuta has granted to the Hermitage-Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Saints, motivated by the centenary of the canonical house of the Brotherhood [Hermandad] for our patroness, is timely. A series of events, and the presence of the statue of the Virgin in the town, presided over by the Emeritus Cardinal of Seville, Monseigneur Carlos Amigo, pronounce the start of grand celebrations in honour of Our Lady of the Saints. As a consequence, the statue of the Virgin will occupy a prominent place in all the events. This is therefore a good time to take a look at the history of the statue.

It is important to remember that for the people of Alcalá, the Sanctuary with the Virgin is the town's most prized possession. It unites all those of us who were born in Alcalá and all the devotees of the Virgin. Its devotional origins date back to the victory of the Christians over the Benimerines[1 at the River Salado, Tarifa on 30 October 1340. The victory put an end to the Muslim invasions and was the last act of the Reconquest during the 14th Century. The name of the sanctuary is “del Jardal”. On 12 December 1723, the discovery and origin of the image were recorded.

That image, which the people of Alcalá have venerated since time immemorial, is present in all the houses of Alcalá and in the hearts of all Alcalainos. It was looked after by our mothers. Since early childhood, we offered our devotion to the most holy Virgin of the Saints and imprinted her image on our souls, so it would remain with us all our lives. Icons of the Virgin appeared on the coat of arms on the old Town Hall, on official buildings, in bars, on the sides of houses, on children's medallions, and stamped in our books. It was a deep-rooted tradition passed through the generations.

Many people might wonder when this image first crossed the path of the historical trajectory of our town. History must be based on actual events and facts; although legends should not be spurned, because they are the traditions of the people, they must be treated with a certain discretion. In the memoirs of Alcalá life, data and documents have appeared which allow us to draw some conclusions about the statue of the Virgin, and the Romería [pilgrimage] which dates from the 16th century. According to the data held by the Brotherhood, the statue dates from long before 1507, because a testimony has been discovered in which its existence is mentioned. It has been studied by the Cádiz sculptor J,M,. Sánchez Peña, who is certain that the statue dates from the end of the Middle Ages, very similar to others of the same era. Therefore it must date back to the end of the 14th or beginning of the 15th century.

The most important documentary source which we have about Alcalá de los Gazules and the Sanctuary is that of Sánchez del Arco. The local authorities for Cádiz Province and the town of Alcalá republished it in 2001, with an introduction, editorial and annotations by our townsman Gabriel Almagro Montes de Oca. It is a monograph about Alcalá de los Gazules and was first published in 1893. It appears under the authorship of Eloy Sánchez del Arco, but it has since been clarified that the real author was Domingo Sánchez del Arco. In the chapter on the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Saints, it says “It is a beautiful church about four kilometres away from the town of Alcalá, where it has established parochial assistance, and is served by the third curate of [the parish of] St George. The origin of the foundation is unknown, but it is popularly regarded as a miracle, with the statue being the work of angels. The architecture of the church is simple and in good taste, formed by a single nave with a well-proportioned semicircular dome. The high altar is noteworthy, as is the area behind it where the statue is located on a portable platform made of silver, of considerable value and some merit. The walls of the church are lined with pictures and objects of silver, with which the faithful commemorate events that they regard as miraculous. On the twelfth of September, when the church celebrates the Sweet Name of Mary, there is a solemn feast for Our Lady of the Saints attended by large numbers of worshippers. Next to the church is a small group of houses where those who take the sulphurous baths of the Hedionda stay, and it is capable of accommodating some thirty families. In that place there are three more buildings.”

According to another Alcalá man, Fernando Toscano de Puelles, the statue of the Virgin is of unknown origin. One account says that it came from the local parish itself, but another more widespread and popular legend has it donated by two unknown travellers, supposedly also with special divine intervention in its manufacture, certainly before 1591 when the diocesian Synod prohibited statues in the so-called “candelero” style2.

From then on, large numbers of Alcalá girls were baptised with the name “Maria de los Santos”; the earliest surviving ex-votos appeared in the Sanctuary; and the hermitage had to be enlarged, by which time a document referred to it as “the Church of Our Lady of the Saints”. Fernando Toscano added that “the current construction of the hermitage is built on another earlier one, which has left its Romanesque traces on the church door. The gradual appearance of further modest constructions is evident, reflecting the growing esteem in the region of the cult of the Virgin of Alcalá. The Town Hall had a primitive version of her on its coat of arms and the people have always worshipped her as Mother and Queen even though official patronage was now awarded by the Holy See until the last [19th] century. The transformation of the last Marian shrine in the sanctuary should not be pushed aside. As a hypothesis, we might dare to place her almost at the boundaries of the Kingdom of Alfonso XI (13th Century). The Wise King came to Alcalá, awarded illustrious titles to the walled town, and demonstrated his Marian fervour ...”

Fernando Toscano himself describes to us the steps taken to achieve recognition of the Virgin of the Saints as Patroness. In practice, popular consensus had already claimed her patronage, as occurred during an epidemic of yellow fever, when the Council, by means of the Clergy, held a “Voto de Villa” [vow to Christ]. The title of the Virgin of the Saints as Patroness of Alcalá de los Gazules was already in existence in 1675, when Don Alonso de Villegas ordered the construction of the double silver platform. It was an unofficial patronage, however, because it still hadn't been endorsed by the church authorities with a solemn and public document.

Don Pedro Mariscal Recio, via the parish priest Don Manuel Barberá, investigated and discovered the municipal agreement of 27 September 1877, directed to the Bishop of Cádiz, “That we may celebrate and proclaim the Virgin of the Saints as Patroness of Alcalá de los Gazules, [signed] by the Constitutional Mayor Francisco de Paula Castro”. On a pastoral visit to Alcalá on 29 April 1877, Brother Felix Maria Arriete, Bishop of Cádiz and Algeciras, collected the petition and took it to His Holiness Pope Pius IX. Other names associated with the patronage were that of the Secretary of the Chamber, Dr Roa; Dr Castro, Archprelate, and Dr Jose Maria de Puelles y Centeno, Doctor of Medicine.

Another group of Alcalá men desired the Canonical Coronation3 of Our Lady of the Saints. Outstanding among them was the Clerical Administrator, Don Manuel Barberá, In the festivities of the Immaculate Conception in 1960, he asked for steps to be taken to enable Canonical Coronation of the Virgin, resulting in a commission from the Municipal Corporation, the Venerable Clergy and Catholic Action, addressed to the Bishop of the Diocese. In 1987 the Brotherhood asked the Vatican for the Coronation, alluding to the antiquity of the statue and its role in the patronage. In 1989 the Brotherhood, presided over by Don Francisco Dominguez Garcia, began the project of the Coronation. An integrated commission was created by Julio Toscano, Jaime Cordero, Juan Romero, Andrés Lozano, Jaime Guerra and Fernando Toscano. The Bishop, Dr Dorado, gave the project his blessing. Soon afterwards the commission was dissolved and the new local government, headed by Julio Toscano y Montes de Oca, relaunched the project with the participation of the newly appointed bishop Antonio Ceballos. The Town Council, for its part, made two concessions: the first, the award by the Mayor to our patroness the Most Holy Virgin of the Saints, paid for by popular subscription, of a rod as a suitable insignia for the office. The second was that of the town shield to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Saints by the three political groups involved in the local council in the period 1987-1991. In 1994 the Canonical Coronation of the statue of the Virgin finally took place, by the Bishop don Antonio Ceballos, with the approval and acclaim of all the people of Alcalá.

Translated by Claire Lloyd


1. A Berber dynasty originally from North Africa
2. A statue carved only from the waist up, supported on wooden “candlestick” concealed by the Virgin's dress.
3. Recognition of an image of the Virgin by the Vatican, expressed through a Papal Bull.

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