Preferred Citation: Christian, William A., Jr. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.





VISIONS OF THE divine are as old as humanity. They have continued in the postindustrial age. You may read about them in tomorrow's newspaper. The visions at Ezkioga in 1931 reflect a phase in the history of Western society and in the place of Catholic divinities in that society. Their story is also universal and perennial: it is the story of people who claim to speak with the gods and try to tell what they heard and saw and it is the story of other people who try to stop them.

Spanish Catholics used to deal with the divine not only as individuals but also as members of groups. Legally, citizens owed devotion to the town's patron saints. Members of guilds or professions had additional obligations to other saints. Typically, the Virgin Mary in a specific local avatar was the protector of a community for general problems, and some of her shrines, like Guadalupe and Montserrat, drew devotion from vast areas. Other saints were specialists for particular problems. People understood apparitions as one of the many ways that Mary and other saints bestowed protection and requested devotion.


In fifteenth-century Spain the visionaries that people believed tended to be men and children. The divine beings they saw generally offered ways for towns to avoid epidemic disease and often called on towns to revive older, dormant chapels in the countryside. Some of the visions harked back to stereotypic scenarios of "miraculous" discoveries of relics and to legends of similar discoveries of images. Two centuries earlier, theologians had condemned as pagan some of the motifs in the visions—Mary clothed in white light on a tree, a nocturnal procession of a woman accompanied by the dead. By the second decade of the sixteenth century the Inquisition had stifled these visions in central Spain. Local and devotional, the visions were no threat to doctrine, but both the church and the monarchy were afraid of heretics and freelance prophets.[1]

Christian, "Santos a María" and Apparitions; Niccoli, Prophecy.

The Counter-Reformation served to focus devotion on Mary in the parish church rather than on specialist saints in dispersed chapels. A new set of lifelike images of Christ joined those of Mary as sources of help. In this period, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spanish Catholics found alternate miraculous events that did not threaten the church's control of revelation. In particular, towns turned to an ancient tradition of bleeding and sweating images. In these miracles without messages, everyone was a seer and the clergy controlled the meaning. Most of the three dozen or so Spanish cases of images that "came alive" in the Early Modern period were of Christ in some phase of the Passion. These events occurred particularly in years of crisis.[2]

Christian, Religiosidad local, 234-241, and "Francisco Martínez."

At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century bishops discouraged this kind of religiosity as superstitious.

Religious orders had their own images whose power was independent of place, like Our Lady of Mount Carmel. One such image, which the Jesuits in particular propagated, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, based on the visions of the nun Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (1647–1690) in Paray-le-Monial, northwest of Lyon. She said that Jesus, with his heart exposed, promised that he would reign throughout the world. Devotions like Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Sacred Heart came to have standardized images and the pope rewarded prayers to these devotions with indulgences. Communities often domesticated these general figures for local use, and some of these standard images became the focus of shrines in their own right, like Our Lady of Mount Carmel of Jerez and Paray-le-Monial itself. There was a constant tension between the Roman church, allied with religious orders, which stimulated devotions and holy figures that were inclusive and universal, and the local church, identified with nation, town, or village, which tended to fix a devotion and make it exclusive and local.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, when Catholicism was on the defensive, the Vatican came to realize that the church should play to its strength. In southern Europe that strength lay in localized religion. By "crowning" Marian shrine images, the papacy associated them with the universal church. Rome also endorsed a new series of proclamations of Marian images as patrons


of dioceses or provinces. And it regarded with increasing sympathy visions of Mary that led to the establishment of new shrines. For by the nineteenth century virtually every adult in the Western world knew that there were profoundly different ways to organize society and imagine what happened after death. The industrialization of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had separated large numbers of rural folk from local authority and belief and many migrants to cities had found alternatives to established religion in deism, spiritism, science, or the idea of progress.[3]

Cholvy and Hilaire, Histoire religieuse, 2:19-64, 347-349.

The continued strength of Catholicism in nineteenth-century France was an incentive for intellectuals to challenge the idea of the supernatural radically and intensively. As a result, French Catholics needed all the divine help they could get. Throughout the century they sought and received innumerable signs that God and, in particular, the Virgin Mary were with them. An efficient railway system and press ensured that regional devotions could reach national audiences. Secularization was a global problem, and the Vatican developed a global response to centralize and standardize devotion. France and Italy served as laboratories for devotional vaccines against moral diseases. Religious orders distributed these vaccines. Indeed, Our Lady of Lourdes became a new kind of general devotion, one with its origin in the laity. Replicas of the image entered parish churches worldwide.[4]

Taves, Household of Faith, 89-111; Larkin, "Devotional Revolution"; Lynch, "Church in Latin America."

Visions took place throughout the nineteenth century in France.[5]

For examples of visions see Delpal, Entre paroisse et commune; Commission, N-D de Dimanche; and Heigel, "Les Apparitions." See also Hamon, N-D de France, for Domjevin (Nancy) 1799-1803 (6:59), Scey (Besançon) 1803 (6:273-275), Saint-Cyprien (Périgueux) 1813 (4:137), Lescouët (St. Brieuc) 1821 (4:545), and Montoussé (Tarbes) 1848 (3: 450).

Three particular French visions set important precedents for the events that are the subject of this book: those of Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830, those of Mélanie Calvat and Maximin Giraud at La Salette in 1846, and those of Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858. The people of Spain knew about these episodes from pious accounts.

According to these accounts, the Daughters of Charity delayed admitting Catherine Labouré, age twenty-four, until she learned to read and write. She had numerous visions, but the first in the series that made her famous occurred in July 1830, after she had been a novice three months. A spirit boy about five years old woke her and led her to the main altar of the novitiate, where she found the Virgin Mary seated. Mary wept violently, told of great disasters that would befall France and all of Europe, and said that Catherine, the Daughters of Charity, and the Vincentian Fathers would have grace in abundance. This was only days before the revolution of 1830, during which crowds attacked many churches and religious houses. Four months later, in November, Catherine saw Mary emerge resplendent from a dark cloud in the church. The Virgin bore a halo of words: "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who come to you for help!" She held a small globe in her hands and lifted it up to heaven, where it disappeared. The Virgin then held out her hands and suddenly on each finger there were three rings covered with precious jewels giving off bright rays. Catherine saw the image revolve. On its back there was an M with a cross on top and below it the Sacred


Hearts of Jesus and Mary. She heard a voice say, "It is necessary to strike a medal that looks like this. All who wear it … will receive many favors, above all if they wear it around the neck." Mary insisted on the medals in successive appearances until finally Catherine's confessor, Jean Marie Aladel, ordered them made.

Labouré's visions were like those of other religious who received privileges for their orders. In this the Miraculous Medal was like the scapular of the Carmelites and the rosary of the Dominicans. The timing of Labouré's visions and the iconography—the Virgin had her foot on a serpent—pointed to the medal's assignment as a response to the devil and his works. Aladel emphasized the medal's efficacy for nonbelievers and Protestants as well as Catholics. The church publicized widely how the medal converted a Jew in Strasbourg in 1842. It worked apparently even if someone merely slipped it under a pillow. By 1842 people had bought 130,000 copies of Aladel's description of the visions and well over one hundred million medals.[6]

Aladel-Nieto, Sor Catalina, 62-63, 70-71, 93.

The pious accounts of the visions of La Salette were as follows: in 1846 in the French Alps near Grenoble, Mélanie and Maximin, fifteen and eleven years old, respectively, saw a lady in white. She warned of an imminent famine as a punishment from Christ and called for people not to work on Sundays and not to swear or eat meat on fast days. She also gave the children secrets. The waters there soon produced cures. And a military officer found a likeness of the face of Christ on a fragment of the rock on which the Virgin had sat. People began to go to the site in numbers. In 1851 the bishop of Grenoble decreed the visions worthy of belief and forbade any criticism of them. Subsequently, Mélanie released versions of her secret, which resembled medieval apocalyptic prophecies. The La Salette apparition was private. No one saw the children seeing the Virgin. And the seers did not claim to enter a trance state. In these ways too the La Salette visions were similar to medieval visions.[7]

Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary, 43.

The visions of fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes marked a change. In 1858 Bernadette saw the Virgin about three dozen times over five months in the presence of crowds that reached thousands in number. She went with a lighted candle and prayed the rosary in public. The Virgin told her, she said, to return for fifteen days. Eventually over fifty persons had visions in and around the same cave. Bernadette's abstracted state while having visions convinced a skeptical doctor and through him other town worthies.

Prior to these nineteenth-century French cases, visions by rural laypersons had addressed broader geopolitical issues only occasionally.[8]

Niccoli, Prophecy, 61-88.

Many people understood the visions at La Salette and Lourdes simply as signs to establish new shrines. But the secrets that Mélanie divulged addressed the division between Catholics and rationalists. And at Lourdes the Virgin reaffirmed the authority of the pope by confirming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Although many churchmen were reluctant to accept children as carriers of messages from God, the French visions put these doubts by and large to rest. The


crowds that converged on Lourdes by rail eventually made it one of the most popular shrines in Christendom. By the turn of the century the cures there became the great new argument not only for Bernadette's visions but for the Catholic religion and the supernatural in general. When in the First World War the bishop of Tarbes called on the Virgin to help France against Germany, even the Third Republic made peace with Lourdes.

How did these visions affect Iberia? In the nineteenth century Catholics in Spain, their church shorn and starved, needed a lift as much as those in France. Urban radicals and poor people afraid of cholera went on a rampage in the summer of 1835, killing seventy-eight male religious in Madrid and sacking religious houses throughout much of Spain. Liberal governments suppressed virtually all male religious orders and gradually sold off most church property. Spanish clerics began to look to the papacy for help and moral support. When the orders filtered back into Spain—first the female service orders, then the male ones—they brought new devotions from France and revived older general ones like the Sacred Heart of Jesus.[9]

Callahan, Church, Politics, 128-158, 161, 194, 212, 232-237; see esp. p. 235: "Scruples that led some eighteenth-century bishops to restrain cults were set aside in favor of an effort to spread them like seeds thrown upon the fields."

The Daughters of Charity entered Spain in increasing numbers after 1850. Vincentians published Jean Marie Aladel's book on Catherine Labouré in Spanish in 1885. By 1922 there were twelve thousand members of the Association of the Miraculous Medal in Spain, mainly children in schools run by the Daughters of Charity. In May 1930 the primate of Spain, Cardinal Pedro Segura, held a national conference in Madrid celebrating the centenary of the visions. Five bishops led a procession including three floats of Labouré seeing the Virgin.[10]

Pérez, Historia Mariana, 5:115.

Less than a year after the La Salette vision, people in Barcelona could buy pamphlets about it in Spanish and Catalan, and by 1860 they could buy manuals in Spanish for pilgrims. In 1883 Catholic militants in Barcelona formed the association of Our Lady of La Salette to combat both blasphemy and work on Sunday. They held dawn rosaries in the city streets. They eventually had to desist when crowds gathered to harass them and sing the Marseillaise. Spaniards who worried about the apocalypse knew Mélanie's prophecy. Eventually it intruded on the vision messages of Ezkioga.[11]

Pérez, Historia Mariana, 4:221-222, cites La Voz de María Santísima de la Saleta. For cult in Spain, see Christian, Moving Crucifixes, 10, 160 n. 5.

Lourdes became the spiritual touchstone of the times. There is no facet of the Ezkioga visions—the liturgy, the prayers, the new shrine, the chief promoters—that Lourdes did not influence. Lourdes was just across the Pyrenees. Devotion was intense in the Basque Country, Navarra, and Catalonia, all areas critical to this story. Prior to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the Basque Country and Catalonia each provided over 30 percent of Spain's pilgrims to Lourdes. There had always been close ties across the mountains, and Basque, Navarrese, and Catalan cultural zones straddled the frontier. Basques considered Bernadette one of theirs, and Basque nationalists held pilgrimages with a political slant.

Spanish pilgrims saw that Lourdes was revitalizing Catholicism in France and began to hope for a Lourdes in Spain.[12]

Christian, Moving Crucifixes, 6-16, 149-151.

In the first two decades of the twentieth


century Spanish visions that reached the press occurred mainly in the zone of devotion to Lourdes. In them people saw images of Christ move or agonize. This trend came to a climax at Limpias, a small town in Cantabria close to the Basque Country, precisely when World War I prevented travel to the shrine of Lourdes. In the period 1919–1926 the Christ in Agony at Limpias attracted over a quarter of a million pilgrims. The diocese of Santander modeled the Limpias pilgrimages on those of Lourdes. We can document at least forty-five pilgrimages and tens of thousands of pilgrims from the Basque Country and Navarra. About one in ten of the pilgrims saw the image move. The visions occurred in a period of high inflation, general strikes, and political turmoil. Some of those in power understood the visions as divine signs in favor of the nation. As at Limpias a year earlier, children and adults of a village in Navarra saw their crucifix move in 1920. These visions at Piedramillera lasted for more than a year, but the diocese took care to limit newspaper reports and people gradually stopped going there.

The visions at Limpias and Piedramillera were hybrids. Like the baroque miracles of the Early Modern period, they involved preexisting statues of Christ nd did not include explicit messages. But like the medieval visions and those of Catherine Labouré and the children of La Salette and Lourdes, they were subjective experiences. That is, the cruxifixes had no liquid on them and only some people saw them move. Spaniards appeared to be inching toward the full-fledged talking apparitions of the medieval past, which the French had already revived. The visions at Limpias and Piedramillera were important precedents for those of Ezkioga.[13]

Christian, Moving Crucifixes.

By July 1931 Spaniards, and Basques in particular, had just begun to hear about the visions at Fatima in Portugal. Led by Lucia Dos Santos, born in 1907, children in a hamlet to the north of Lisbon had several visions from 1916 on; the most famous were those on the thirteenth day of six successive months in 1917. The Fatima visions took place during an anticlerical republican regime and they became a reaffirmation of Catholicism. In 1927 a Dominican magazine in the Basque Country began to publish accounts of cures at Fatima, which the author considered "a permanent challenge to materialist and rationalist criticism." In 1930 the magazine described the visions after the bishop of Leire in Portugal declared them worthy of credit. But Fatima did not gain popularity in Spain until the 1940s, after Lucia revealed messages that gave the apparitions an explicitly anticommunist slant.[14]

Mateos, "Ntra. Sra. del Rosario de Fátima," 711. For Fatima, ten articles, most by Mateos or Vélez, in El Santísimo Rosario (Bergara), 1927-1931; Mensajero de Corazón de Jesús (Bilbao), 1928, pp. 181-183, and 1929, pp. 374-375; Jáuregi, Jaungoiko-zale, 1929 and 1931; and Rosas y Espinas, 15 April 1931. Stimulated by Ezkioga, there was a new spate of interest in Fatima in July 1931: see Efrén, GN, 15 July, and PV, 17 July; Aldabe, LC, 25 July; Arribiribiltzu, A, 26 July; and ED, 28 July.

The visions at Ezkioga were the first large-scale apparitions of the old talking but invisible type in Spain since the sixteenth century. But they included the innovations of Lourdes: there were many seers, the seers had their visions in public view, and most of the seers entered some kind of altered state. We will see how the social and political situation of Spain and the Basque Country encouraged Catholics to believe the seers.


The reader should know something about nationalism in Spain, the Basque Country, and Catalonia. The less authoritarian and more democratic the central government, the less Spain coheres. At present, in the new freedom after the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, in the Basque Country and Catalonia in particular, many people are careful to refer to Spain only as a state, not as a nation. When the majority of male voters brought in the Second Republic in April 1931, Spain was a mosaic of cultures that hundreds of years of royal rule had done little to homogenize. The regions with the strongest nationalist movements were those with the most international contacts: the Basques lived on both sides of the border with France and had a major trading partner in Great Britain; Catalonia, also on the border, traded with the Mediterranean countries and the Caribbean. These external contacts meant that some regional elites did not depend entirely on Madrid and resented its taxes, bureaucracy, and language. Eight years of centralized rule by General Miguel Primo de Rivera in the twenties had exacerbated these resentments. Even in regions with virtually no separatist sentiment in 1931, people had a strong sense that they were different culturally. The Navarrese, for instance, had a past that helped them maintain an identity distinct from that as Spaniards. Navarra was once an independent kingdom that spanned the Pyrenees. Those Navarrese who lived in a strip running across the north of the province spoke Basque, and in the distant past most of the region's inhabitants had been Basque-speaking. Most still had Basque family names and lived in towns with names of Basque origin.

As a mass phenomenon the apparitions at Ezkioga were a kind of dialogue between divinities and the anticlerical left—anarchists and socialists in the Basque coastal cities, socialist farmworkers in Navarra, republican railway officials and schoolteachers in rural areas, anticlerical poor in cities throughout Spain, and socialist and communist movements worldwide. In this aspect Ezkioga was similar to other modern apparitions. As over the years the enemy changed from Freemasons and liberals to communists, the messages seers conveyed changed to maintain the dialogue. But any analysis that reads the last two centuries of Marian visions as a clerical plot to thwart social progress is impoverished, as we shall see.[15]

I refer especially to Perry and Echeverría, Heel of Mary, despite its pleasing scope and detail, and de Sède, Fatima.

To be sure, visions are easy to manipulate for political purposes. But at Ezkioga people of all classes immediately put the seers to work for other practical and spiritual ends. Apparitions spark little interest without people's general hunger for access to the divine.

To ascribe visions to particular psychological needs—sexual drive, for example, or the search for parental affection—constitutes another kind of reduction. Of necessity observers base such theories on a very small and very skewed sample; the visionaries who become famous. It might well be that a given psychological profile simply makes seers more believable or more likely to persist in their visions. There will be visions as long as people believe in them, so to


understand visions we must study the believers. Thus one set of lessons we can draw from the visions at Ezkioga has to do with context.

Other lessons are less bound to time and place. In religions people interact with the gods and with one another. This study is in part a window on how new religious worlds come to be. All innovation has to struggle against an established order that attempts to absorb or suppress it. Visions are intrinsically subversive; they go over the head of human to divine superiors. In this sense Ezkioga is a microcosm of the excitement and crosscurrents of every schism and heresy.

Another larger theme is the way people formulate their hopes. At Ezkioga people did so in various ways. One was a collective process of trial and error by which local elites, the press, and the general public selected and rewarded certain vision messages. Here it almost seems appropriate to speak of a collective consciousness. Particular groups also induced messages with a desired content by their questions. These processes illustrate the wider question that underlies this work: how society structures perception.

I wrote this book with the advantage of the work of others. And when I had completed the manuscript I read the book by David Blackbourn about the visions that started in Marpingen in the Saarland in 1876 and the books by Paolo Apolito about the visions that started in 1985 at Oliveto Citra in Campania. The visions at Marpingen, like those at Ezkioga, took place in a hostile state and in a diocese without a bishop. The visions at Oliveto Citra have had even more seers than those of Ezkioga. Apolito was present almost from the start and was able to observe many of the processes that I reconstruct from interviews and documents.

Church sympathy for visions has waxed and waned. It waxed in the mid to late nineteenth century (the model was La Salette and then Lourdes), the mid-1930s (the model was Lourdes), the late 1940s (the models were Fatima and Lourdes), and the 1970s and 1980s (the models were Fatima and Medjugorje). The needs of the church periodically overcome its suspicion of lay revelation, and particular popes have been more sympathetic than others. But there also exists a cyclical dynamic of discouragement that emerges when visions threaten church authority or become commonplace.

Since I began this study, most of the official place-names in the Basque Country and Catalonia have changed. I use the official place-names as of mid-1994. Many of these for Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and northern Navarra are different, usually only slightly, from the official names in 1931, but they were already in use among Basque speakers and in Basque-language publications at that time. I have respected the old spellings in direct quotations. In part 5 of the appendix I list the Basque places in this book whose names have changed. For the sake of simplicity I have left Vitoria (instead of Vitoria-Gasteiz), Mondragón (Arrasate-Mondragón),


and San Sebastián (Donostia-San Sebastián) in their Spanish forms.

I do not address the question essential for many believers: were the apparitions "true"? As I told my friends among the Ezkioga believers and in the diocese, I must stick to human history. By upbringing and nationality I am an outsider ill-equipped to tell Basques, Spaniards, and Catholics what is sacred and what is profane. In any case, I am quite unwilling to try.



Preferred Citation: Christian, William A., Jr. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.