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Homage from Catalonia

Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ

by William A. Christian Jr.
University of California Press, 544 pp., $39.95

On June 29, 1931, two children saw, on the hillside of Ezkioga, a village in the Basque provinces of northeastern Spain, a vision of the Virgin Mary. By the end of 1931, an estimated one million people had come to Ezkioga to listen to the accounts of the two children, and those of about one hundred other “seers,” some of them young adults from the Ezkioga region, who had also had visions of the Virgin as well as of other saints.

William A. Christian’s dense and superbly researched book gives a sensitive and sympathetic account of what happened at Ezkioga. He divides the people concerned with the visions into three categories: the “seers,” or visionaries, themselves; the promoters, specialists in manifestations of the supernatural who organized, protected, and publicized the seers; and, finally, the believers, whose lives were altered both by what they saw and by the messages they received from the seers. All combined in a concerted effort to convince a skeptical world that the visions were true and that heavenly beings—the Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus, a variety of saints—were appearing in the hills of northern Spain in order to convey messages from above to the world below.

Visionaries with privileged access to the supernatural are to be found in most religions. Moses saw the burning bush; the New York farm boy Joseph Smith came upon angelic personages who revealed to him two gold plates on which were inscribed the book of revelation of the Mormon Church. Visionaries abound in Catholic countries, while Protestantism is a religion of self-help, each person having his own direct access to God, and few making use of intermediaries.

Visionaries have been an enduring feature of Spanish religiosity, and they have been accepted as agents of grace in direct contact with the divine. But for the Catholic Church the privileged intermediary is the priest administering the sacraments. Visionaries are potential rivals who threaten the monopoly of the universal Church. Rural visionaries at their local shrines have flourished in Spain and inspired intense devotion. But they are amateur theologians, and without guidance from the Church hierarchy they may slide into error. They must be controlled, domesticated, institutionalized. Without official backing they wither away. This was to be the tragic fate of the Ezkioga seers.


Most of the Ezkioga visions occurred at night. This led journalists to dismiss them as a pagan survival of the “cult of the moon of the ancient Vascones,” the original inhabitants of the Basque provinces before the Roman conquest. Christian rightly rejects this as nonsense. But the events at Ezkioga have to be seen against the background of the Catholic Church’s response to the threats being posed by modernism and liberalism.

The principal frontal attack on the Church had been made by the French Revolution. By the 1830s, the liberal groups that became increasingly powerful in Spain early in the century were imitating the practices of the Revolution, stripping the Church of the rural and urban property which provided most of its income: monasteries were turned into barracks, sold to speculators, or allowed to fall into ruins. For Spanish liberals, an intolerant, ideologically retrograde, and politically reactionary Church was the enemy of progress. But to Spanish Catholics, homegrown Jacobins were bringing to Spain the horrors of the French Revolution. Later in the century, the Catholic polymath Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo (1850-1912) claimed that the body of Spain had been poisoned by eighteenth-century French philo-sophes, whom he saw as heirs of Lutheran heretics. For him Spain, “hammer of heretics, the sword of the Pope, the cradle of St. Ignatius,” was Catholic or it was nothing.

The Spanish liberals came from the towns, islands of impiety in a sea of rural piety. The great demographic change that accompanied industrialization undermined religious observance throughout Western Europe as a rural exodus brought a flood of country dwellers to the factories of the towns.1 Uprooted from their villages, they found themselves in parishes of thousands of worshipers and served by a single priest. The Church became more and more irrelevant to their lives, as they became drawn to the anticlericalism of Republican demagogues, and to socialists, whom Marx had taught that religion was the opium of the people and who presented the alternative of an austere proletarian morality.

The defection of the towns from the official Church explains the support of the official Church for rural visionaries and their local shrines, which, in other times, might have been suspect as incompatible with the mission of a universal religion. The Church saw unlettered rustics, with their simple piety, as providing the bedrock of an endangered faith. In 1858, the fourteen-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in southwestern France; by 1900 the miraculous cures of Lourdes had become “the great new argument” not only for Bernadette’s visions but for the supernatural in general, just as half a century later the visions of peasant children at Fatima in Portugal were, according to their Dominican promoter, “a permanent challenge to materialist and rationalist criticism.”

With the official blessing of the Vatican, Lourdes flourished, attracting pilgrims by the thousands—six million in the centenary year of 1958. Without modern transport, neither Lourdes nor Ezkioga could have become a mass phenomenon. Emile Zola, in his novel Lourdes, described how trainloads of pilgrims were organized to bring urban France to Lourdes. In 1931 pilgrims came to Ezkioga by the busload or were taken there in the cars of believers.

Spanish Catholics, who saw how Lourdes had revitalized piety in France, hoped for a Lourdes in Spain. Indeed, without the model of Lourdes, the Ezkioga visions would not have taken the form they did, as when believers discovering a spring expected, in vain, the miraculous cures of Bernadette’s grotto. The first promoter of the Ezkioga visions, the local priest Antonio Amundarain, had previously organized pilgrimages to Lourdes. Accepting the visions of the Ezkioga children as genuine, he made them the basis for a center for pilgrimages patterned after Lourdes.

Amundarain was typical of many Ezkioga enthusiasts. His biographer writes that he was “as credulous as he was pious,” and that he was fascinated by mystical experiences. He had earlier founded a lay institute to preserve women from the corruption of urban society, manifest in the “close dancing” and the bathing dresses at the neighboring tourist resort of San Sebastián. His institute, he said, would organize an army of virgins against “irreligion, libertinism, and immorality.” And some of the seers he encouraged told him that he could count on the protection of the Virgin. This divine endorsement of a favorite project was typical of what Christian calls “tailor-made messages”: believers were frequently told what they wanted to hear.

Amundarain was typical in another respect. Believing that civil society should be infused with Catholic values confirming the reign of Christ the King on earth, he stood on the far right of the religious and political spectrum. The religious revival in Spain of the later nineteenth century had been patronized by conservatives as a force that would shore up the social order. Its characteristic “promoters,” to use Christian’s term, were upper-middle-class beatas, devout women committed to good works and charitable enterprises for the poor, and the owners of businesses who supported the Catholic confessional unions. These had been organized by Father Vicent, a prominent priest who advocated a right-wing interpretation of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which contained a plea for a Christian solution to the conflicts of industrial society, including free trade unions and a just wage. Vicent’s “social Catholicism” meant to offer an alternative to Marxist socialism, which the encyclical condemned. For him “the poor man can suffer while he believes in Christ.” To Pablo Iglesias (1850-1925), founder of the Spanish Socialist Party, Vicent was “a zealous servant of the bourgeoisie.”


The revival of Catholic piety that inspired what Christian calls “an open season in visionaries” does not, however, explain why visions appeared in the Basque country and found enthusiastic support in Catalonia, or why they began in the early summer of 1931.

In the Basque country and in Navarre, an intense religious life sustained the moral and social universe of a close-knit community of small family farms. In dramatic contrast to the religious desert of Andalusia, which was served by few priests and where the great latifundia were worked by gangs of day laborers,2 virtually every Basque rural household had a relative who was a priest or a member of a religious order. In the Basque countryside, the liberals’ offensive of the 1830s against Don Carlos—the reactionary, pro-Catholic claimant to the throne then held by Isabella II—was seen as more than a sacrilege; it was an attack on society itself. Basque farmers and their sons had flocked from the hills to join the Carlist armies in a crusade against the impiety of the cities of the plain on which Isabella relied for support. The Carlist wars, which Don Carlos and his successors carried on sporadically until the 1870s, were still a living memory in 1931.

Bilbao, the capital of Vizcaya, was seen as a modern Sodom. Heavy industry in Spain was concentrated around Bilbao, where the flood of non-Basque immigrants to the iron mines, the blast furnaces, and the metallurgical industries led to intensified national feeling and contributed to the emergence of Basque nationalism. To the late-nineteenth-century prophet-founder of the Basque national movement, Sabino de Arana, whose portrait still hangs in the offices of the modern Basque Nationalist Party, non-Basque-speaking immigrants would pollute the racial purity of the Basques and destroy their cultural identity preserved in the Basque language. These could only be safeguarded in a new independent Basque-speaking nation, which Sabino called Eukadi—his conception of a state that would comprise the French and Spanish Basque provinces and Navarre. “Let Eukadi so restore its language to the point of exiling Spanish and French from its dominions,” he wrote. “Let it purify the race. Let it recover its old religious fervor.”

The connection between Basque nationalism and rural piety was strong. Most of the Ezkioga seers were Basque speakers. Engracio de Aranzadi, a prominent ideologue of Basque nationalism who promoted the Ezkioga visions, asked, “May it not be that heaven seeks to comfort the spirit of Basques loyal to the faith of the race?” To the Basque nationalist press the apparitions showed that “God has great good will toward the Basque people.” A prominent male seer, “Patxi” Goicoechea, was a Basque nationalist; he had visions of saints appearing in the green, red, and white colors of the Basque flag.

That the most ardent believers in, and promoters of, Ezkioga came from Catalonia should occasion no surprise. Carlists had found recruits in the mountains of Catalonia. While radical Basque nationalists envisaged their own separate state, the more moderate Catalan regionalists demanded home rule for the patria of Catalans, a professedly organic community whose cultural heritage was threatened by the “artificial,” centralized Spanish state run by Madrid politicians. Regionalism was, in its origins, Catholic and conservative, and remained so up to the 1920s. To Bishop Josep Torras i Bagès (1846-1916), regionalism would be a vehicle to preserve the religious spirit and social patterns, enshrined in the piety of the rural family, threatened by the urban civilization of sensual man.

  1. 1

    For the Church historian Owen Chadwick, this demographic shift was more responsible for the general decline of religious observance than the influence of free thinkers who discredited the Bible, and of Darwinists, who affected only a literary minority. (John McManners, editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 343-344.)

  2. 2

    For the religious geography of Spain see Frances Lannon, Privilege, Persecution and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 10-20. There is a close correlation between small farms and religious observance and the number of priests per capita. In the Basque country the concentration of priests and members of the religious orders is staggering. Zeanuri, with 2,500 inhabitants, was the birthplace of fifty-three living priests, 106 male members of religious orders, and 109 nuns. (Christian, p. 218.) Attendance at mass in the Basque country often reached 90 percent. In some of the large Andalusian rural parishes it fell to three percent for women with no men at all. Scarcely surprisingly, the landless laborers found a surrogate religion in anarchist millenarianism preached by the “men of ideas,” while the urban immigrants to Barcelona joined the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT.

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