A few years ago I received an honorary degree from the University of Alicante, in Spain’s Valencia province. At the end of my visit, my host, presenting me with a lavishly illustrated book in Catalan entitled La Festa o Misteri d’Elx, urged me to return someday in mid-August to the nearby town of Elche (or Elx, in the Catalan spelling) to witness the elaborate religious drama of the book’s title, which has been performed annually since the fifteenth century and may have roots even earlier.1 This event—recognized by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”—is, like the Oberammergau passion play in Bavaria, one of the few living relics of collective celebrations that were once widespread in medieval Europe.
These celebrations, known as mystery or miracle plays, did not have a single set form, but they shared a focus on sacred themes drawn from the Bible and from the legends that had gradually accumulated around biblical stories. They have left very few living traces: mystery plays were actively suppressed in the sixteenth century, both by Protestant authorities who felt they were indelibly stained with Catholicism and by Counter-Reformation Catholic authorities who were anxious, after the Reformation, to exercise more doctrinal control over popular religious enthusiasm. The survival of the Misteri d’Elx, more or less intact, is something of a miracle (more prosaically, its continuance required a papal dispensation, granted in the seventeenth century by Pope Urban VIII).
I returned to Spain last summer to see it for myself. With a population of more than a quarter of a million, Elche is not notably quaint. The surrounding highways are lined with shoe factories. The brutalist architecture of the 1950s and 1960s has left its telltale footprint up to the edge of the historic center. Some remarkable finds from the nearby ruins of ancient Iberian settlements are displayed in the fine archaeological museum housed in an old fortress, but the greatest of these finds, a haunting fourth-century BCE stone bust known as the Lady of Elche, was taken away to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. Elche’s most beautiful physical feature is an enormous grove of date palms, a legacy of the Moorish inhabitants who were driven out in 1238 by Jaume I of Aragon.
It is the annual performance of the mystery play that makes Elche unique. Performed over the course of two days, the Misteri d’Elx is a celebration of the Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the belief that the immaculate mother of God passed from earthly life without suffering, her corpse miraculously spared the decay that befalls all other mortals, and that her body as well…
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