Two sides—laborers and the middle-class rulers of the city—fought over control of the streets of Barcelona in 1902, in a struggle that partly concerned the symbols by which the city would be represented. One set of civic symbols—those engendered by the laboring class—showed courageous people fighting against their oppressors, as in the painting by Casas. Another set of civic symbols, rooted in Catholic imagery and traditional folk culture, had already emerged in
Barcelona before the 1902 celebration of the Virgin of Mercy, but they achieved new currency because of the festival. The fact that church rites were associated with the pageant and that religious art was acclaimed for its aesthetic merit established that religious imagery could transcend the purposes for which it was crafted and speak for universalist values. Although the church thus lost some control over the meaning of religious figures, it gained by having that imagery seep into the city's consciousness of art and aesthetics as a whole.
By promoting the Virgin of Mercy as a secular symbol of Barcelona, the city portrayed her as a representative of all citizens, whatever their social rank. As the workers increasingly organized themselves in their own resistance societies, their own neighborhoods, and their own leisure activities, the danger of Barcelona's being divided effectively into two cities—one controlled by the city government, the other by the anarcho-syndicalists—increased. The Virgin of Mercy celebration was in part an attempt to mute the fury that underlay relations between the rulers and the laboring class. The rulers incorporated their own symbols—from military reviews to nationalist songs—into the festival and treated it as a manifestation of solidarity and continuity. Workers and artisans, meanwhile, in street decorations and in floats, demonstrated that they could contend for power even on turf occupied by the church and the city government. They proved that they could compete with the pageant organizers to establish their own meaning for the Virgin of Mercy and her celebration.
Picasso and the artists of the Circle of Saint Martin were secondary players in the 1902 battle over the meaning of civic symbols. Russinyol upheld art for art's sake and yet applauded Catalan nationalist clerics who protected religious art. Picasso seems to have enjoyed and appreciated the folk figures of the gegants and the talent that went into constructing the floats. However, he and Nonell could also shame the middle classes of Barcelona by highlighting the poverty the government hoped to mask with its festivals. All the same, even though they recognized social differences, the two artists neutralized their potential political impact by making laborers appear pathetic. Certainly neither man was driven to make common cause with workers who attempted to help themselves through their unions and the general strike. Casas, the society painter, perhaps because of his personal commitment to painting what he saw, was the only contemporary artist who captured the mounting antagonism between the government and the anarcho-syndicalists.