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.

To Torras i Bagès, nostalgia for a vanishing rural past was to be understood as a protest against an industrial revolution that had made Barcelona and its textile industries “the Manchester of Spain.” By 1919, industrialization had brought to Catalonia a violent and bitter social war of strikes and gang warfare between employers and workers. Memories were still strong of the Tragic Week of 1909, one of the fiercest outbursts of anticlericalism that Spain had ever seen, during which Barcelona workers burned down the churches and convents of the rich. Employers hoped that, by converting the members of a godless proletariat, the Church would define their place in a divinely ordered hierarchical society in which employers exercised Christian charity and workers fulfilled their Christian obligations. This paternalistic brand of social Catholicism, organized by the Marquis of Comillas, a millionaire shipping magnate who backed the confessional trade unions organized by Father Vicent, was rejected by the Catalan proletariat. The Catholic Church had become the church of the employers and the rich, an alliance that disgusted—the word is not too strong—George Orwell and Gerald Brenan.3

The Catalan believers who went to Ezkioga came largely from Terrassa, where the conflict between workers and employers was particularly violent.4 The leading organizer of expeditions to Ezkioga was Rafael García Cascón, a local wool merchant who had married into a family of textile moguls. García Cascón shared with the bishop of Barcelona a taste for the miraculous. The accounts of the appearance of saints at Ezkioga were, to him, a vindication of Catalonia’s home-grown visionaries.

Among these visionaries was Magdalena Aulina (b. 1897) from the Catalan coastal resort of Banyoles. In her trances, which sometimes occurred at dinners with her admirers, she received messages from Gemma Galgani, a girl from Lucca who had died in 1903 after a life of intense mystical experiences. Aulina had organized retreats and social centers for working-class girls, a typical enterprise of “social Catholicism” in which she was supported by Catalan industrialists and lawyers. She encouraged García Cascón’s expeditions to Ezkioga.

The Catalans had their favorite seers there, including the nine-year-old Benita Aguirre and the blacksmith José Garmendia, who persuaded García Cascón that the Virgin had given him a message to deliver to an important figure in the region. He was taken to see the president of the autonomous region of Catalonia, Francesc Macià, who, it seems, supported the building of a chapel at Ezkioga.

The seers quickly incorporated into what William Christian calls their “visual repertoire” not only messages from Gemma, but also the well-known visions of Madre Rafols, an Aragonese nun born in the late eighteenth century whose cult was favored by the bishop of Barcelona. Some of the seers assured García Cascón that Catalan pilgrims to Ezkioga would go straight to heaven without going through purgatory. For García Cascón, the defense of a conservative social order and strong feelings of local patriotism were fused in intense personal religious experience.


The events of the spring and early summer of 1931 form the immediate background to the Ezkioga visions. Catholics were reacting to what they saw as a coming catastrophe, the de-catholicizing of Spain by a persecuting state.

When Spain became a republic, and King Alfonso left for exile in Rome in April 1931, most of the Republican politicians were critical of the Church, including Manuel Azaña, who was chosen as president of the government after making a powerful speech on religious matters during the parliamentary debates on the draft constitution, which barred priests from civic functions. Azaña wished to convert Spain into a modern, secular, non-confessional state, in which the Catholic Church would enjoy no special privileges.5 To conservative Catholics, “a neutral state” was “an idiot state,” and an intolerant and privileged church was part of a divine order, the sign of the identity of Spain as a nation, the bulwark of society. Their sense of outrage and persecution found justification in the intemperate anti-Catholic speeches delivered by radical anticlerical politicians during the constitutional debates and in measures such as the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain and laws prohibiting members of religious orders from teaching in secondary schools.

The removal of crucifixes from schools by the government of the Republic was a symbolic act that appalled the pious; so did the prohibition by civil governors and Republican municipalities of religious processions and the ringing of bells. In May 1931, from Madrid to Andalusia, numerous convents and churches were burned down by pro-Republican activists in an outburst of what the philosopher Ortega y Gasset called a reversion to the anticlerical fetishism of Mediterranean democracy. The provisional Republican government did little to stop it.

It was in this cataclysmic atmosphere that the seers of Ezkioga flourished. Unsophisticated peasant boys and girls could not manufacture political propaganda; but their appeals to their audiences to repent if Spain was not to be overwhelmed in an imminent catastrophe, which their visions graphically described, had a contemporary message. Carmen Medina y Garvey, a sherry heiress and the daughter of a marquis, made use of some of the seers for her own political purposes. She patronized the male seer “Patxi,” who revealed that the Virgin called for the overthrow of the Republic. When the children had visions of bloody swords wielded by Saint Michael, they were interpreted as promising a civil war in defense of religion.

All the patrons and prominent believers were on the right—some, like Antonio Amundarain, on the extreme right. For Amundarain, however, William Christian convincingly argues, politics was a “distant second to religion” and the saving of souls. But by 1931, throughout Spain, religion and politics had become inseparable.


The Ezkioga visions were a summons to repentance and renewed devotion in the tradition of Spanish mysticism. They gave detailed descriptions of the Virgin’s clothes and of the elaborate settings in which she appeared. The images they evoked, Christian writes, resembled “choreographed sequences from the films of Busby Berkeley or Esther Williams.” They were part of the standard repertory of visionaries, familiar to virtually all Spanish believers.

Most of the seers were young women and children from poor families who had grown up in the atmosphere of exaggerated sexual puritanism that was characteristic in Spain. Women were held responsible by the Church for a generalized moral decline. Special emphasis was put on indecent dress, short sleeves in particular. “You women,” wrote Father Bartolomé de Andueza, “have worshiped fashion, you are the cause of the travail that our Nation now laments…for the removal of crucifixes, for the horrible sacrileges that this poor Spanish nation has endured.” Women, therefore, must suffer as proxies for the sins of the world; and some did so by acting out, in their visions at Ezkioga, the agonies of Christ on the cross. This expiatory ethic, Christian demonstrates, was also widespread among contemporary German and Italian mystics.

Boys were considered as especially endowed with visionary powers. Whereas in non-Catholic societies boys fantasized about becoming engine drivers, airline pilots, and cowboys, Spanish boys played at being priests. The pious brother of the great conservative statesman Antonio Maura (1853-1925) as a child “played with altars.” Such practices were common in middle-class families. B. Perez Galdos in his novel Miau describes children “playing with the child Jesus, their parents providing little chalices so that children can play at mass.”6 On the raised wooden stage that had been built at Ezkioga, boys could act out these childhood fantasies before large audiences.

The social order was turned upside down by the seers. Children gave orders to their parents—one boy visionary instructed his father and mother to eat grass, which they did—women to their menfolk, servant girls to their employers. Peasant visionaries were taken up and flattered by the rural and urban elite, invited to their houses and to meals in hotels, and taken on trips in cars. The strict social hierarchy of rural Spain was temporarily suspended. Believers and visionaries, William Christian writes, were “having a wonderful time, creating pockets of social space, full of goodwill and humanity.”

The seers relished their sudden fame. They were featured in the national and local press, constantly photographed (providing Christian with fascinating illustrations of the seers in trance states), and filmed as well. The seers had visions regularly at ten o’clock at night, but the seer Evarista Galdos, Christian tells us, obligingly rescheduled her visions to mid-afternoon so that there would be enough light.

Publicity was arranged by the seers’ impresarios, and Christian has done marvelous detective work in reconstructing their activities. Specialists in the supernatural, they are a decidedly eccentric collection of enthusiasts. The divorced Frenchman Raymond de Rigné visited Lourdes hoping that the Virgin would bless his union with his secretary. Having failed at Lourdes, he came to Ezkioga, where the seer Ramona Olazábal (see illustration on page 56) provided him with the necessary moral passport to heaven. He took hundreds of photographs and wrote a book on the seers, appealing to the Virgin to find him a publisher. Father Bruguera, a priest troublesome to his superiors in Valencia, like Rigné a failed writer, and the author of a vast output of philosophical and theological musings, came to Ezkioga in November 1931 when attendance had dropped off. Believers had been hoping for a miracle to renew devotion. This appeared to have been vouchsafed when Ramona came out of a trance with bleeding hands; but it soon appeared that her stigmata were self-inflicted with a razor blade.

After this fiasco, Bruguera became the obsessional defender and director of a failing enterprise, sorting out fake seers by testing their endurance of pain by burning their fingers. Some of the seers he accepted persuaded Burguera to write a “big book” about Ezkioga. They needed him as their link with the outside, literate world, and in their turn gave him inspirational advice to calm his own tortured spirit.


By November 1931, however, the outside world had turned against Ezkioga. Without the official blessing of the Church granted to Lourdes and Fatima, the visionaries could not survive. This blessing was denied. In late June 1932, with the approval of the diocesan authorities, the Jesuit José Antonio Laburu gave lectures on the “mental contagion” of the Ezkioga visions, denying their supernatural nature. Some of the visions were absurdly childish, including one of the devil making faces at the child seer Benita through a bus window; another seer saw someone in purgatory who was actually alive. Clearly many of the visions were a response to the enormous emotional pressure believers put on the seers, who could not resist the publicity and flattery to which they were subjected.

In August 1932, the Republican civil Governor of Guipúzcoa clamped down on the visionaries, “who with the pretext of the alleged apparitions are undertaking a political campaign.” Father Burguera was briefly imprisoned and several adult seers were sent for a few days to a mental institution. Such measures could be dismissed as official persecution. But in September, Bishop Múgica of Vitoria forbade the seers to go to the site of the visions. The universal church had disowned the rural visionaries.

The Civil War of 1936-1939, conceived as a crusade to save Christian civilization, saw an intense religious revival in the Nationalist zone. But the Ezkioga visionaries and believers could find no place in a religious atmosphere that stressed the importance of the Catholic Church to the unity of Spain, or in a regime that executed Basque priests as separatists. The visionaries were denounced by Father Tusquets, the most violent of Franco’s clerical propagandists, as allies of Basque and Catalan separatists, no better than Freemasons and liberals. In 1941, Franco’s government cracked down on the pathetic remnants of the cult of Ezkioga on the grounds that “meetings take place in which mysticism is mixed with politics…. Basque nationalism is at the root of all these meetings.” Some seers were imprisoned and others were exiled; none could appear as visionaries in public.

In his final chapters Christian examines the central question posed by his book: Why had thousands of believers accepted the visions as manifestations of the supernatural? To the non-believer, religious experience must be observed from the outside: the stained-glass windows of Chartres, seen from the street, are a meaningless blank; only the believers inside the cathedral see the stories they depict. To the skeptic, the crowds at Ezkioga appear as victims of mass hallucination; in some cases, moreover, the seers repeated the detailed claims of earlier visionaries. The Ezkioga visions of a destroyed Paris and a Marseilles swallowed up by the sea, for example, had first cropped up half a century before at the French town of La Salette, where a peasant boy and girl had seen a vision of the Virgin. But, as Christian shows, the visions often contained messages tailored to what particular people wanted to hear, and to specific social and political anxieties.

It is precisely this relevance to immediate reality that validated the visions for the believing audience, whether peasants seeking help with the problems of everyday life or the enemies of the Republic who were seeking prophesies that would spell out its violent destruction. But to William Christian, visionaries also respond to a deeper universal human need, a need summed up in the question of what happens after death. He points out that it is not only professing Christians who seek to satisfy this need. Before the First World War, when Christianity itself was being increasingly questioned, spiritualism had a spectacular vogue, attracting the serious attention of distinguished scientists like the physicist Oliver Lodge and prominent writers like Conan Doyle. To Catholics, the need to know the fate of souls in purgatory, or that of their loved ones who have died without receiving last unction, is a special anxiety. A seer assured a believer that his son, killed in a railway accident, was sitting by the Virgin in heaven. The partition between heaven and earth had been broken down.

“Apparitions,” Christian writes, “spark little interest without people’s general hunger for access to the divine.” One does not need to hunger for access to the divine in order to find Visionaries a profoundly moving book. Once the visions had been condemned by the Church, Ezkioga became the scene of a personal tragedy for the seers and those who believed in them. Several sincere believers continued their devotions in private, sustained by the few remaining seers, like Benita, who continued to prefer direct contact with God and the Virgin to the ministrations of priests; for others the entire episode was embarrassing and best forgotten. We only know about the success stories of Lourdes and Fatima. Selective memory has removed Ezkioga from Church history. William Christian restores it to its proper place in the history of popular religion.

This Issue

November 28, 1996