July 16th is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, known in Spain as the festival of the Virgen del Carmen. On this day, in towns along the coast, the image of this Virgin is carried in procession through the streets and often taken into the sea or , watched by hundreds of people on the seafront promenades, the beaches or from brightly decorated fishing boats close to the shore.
Devotion to the Virgen del Carmen is very deep-seated in Malaga province. She is the patron of sailors and fishermen, hence her popularity in coastal regions, but some inland churches also house a statue of this Virgin; the faithful pray to her all year round, but especially so at this time of year. Pictures and images of her can also be found in private homes, hospitals and fish stalls in local markets.
Visitors enjoy the festivities on 16 July each year, but may not know much about the history behind them. Here are some facts that shed more light on the origins of this summer tradition.
1. A religious order whose origins lie in Israel
The origins of the devotion to the Virgen del Carmen lie with a group of hermits in the 12th century who, inspired by the prophet Elias, went into retreat on Mount Carmel, which was considered the garden of Israel. In fact, ‘karmel’ means ‘garden’. They built a chapel among their cells, and dedicated it to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This movement was the origin of the Carmelite religious orders.
2. Why does the festival take place on 16 July?
According to Carmelite tradition, on 16 July 1251 Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to Saint Simon Stock, an English prior general of the Order, and gave him his habit and the Brown Scapular, which are now the principal vestments of Carmelite worship.
3. Origens of devotion in Malaga
The origins of devotion to the Virgen del Carmen in Malaga date back to the time when the Carmelite convents were founded there after the reform by St Teresa de Jesús. In 1584 the San Andrés convent was founded; that has now become the main church in the Perchel district of the city. The Carmelite monks had to move out in 1835 because of Mendizábal’s ecclesiastical confiscations and didn’t return to the city until the 1940s.
After overcoming some challenging problems, they took over what is now the church of Stella Maris, in the Alameda Principal. Nowadays the church, which is dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen, is run by Claretian priests.
In 1585, a year after the first Carmelite monastery was founded in Malaga, a community of Discalced Carmelites was founded by San Juan de la Cruz. This monastery is still open, and is situated in El Molinillo district.
4. Patron saint of sailors
In Spain in the Middle Ages the name ‘María’ was thought to mean ‘star of the sea’, from the Latin ‘stella maris’. From that time onwards the Carmelites have acclaimed this Virgin as the ‘Flower of Carmel’ and ‘Star of the Sea’. This was due to a prayer which is attributed to St Simon Stock:
“O beautiful Flower of Carmel, most fruitful vine, Splendour of Heaven, holy and singular, who brought forth the Son of God, still ever remaining a Pure Virgin, assist me in this necessity. O Star of the Sea, help and protect me!”
In the 18th century, when the Virgen del Carmen festival was already very popular in Spain, an admiral from Mallorca, Antonio Barceló Pont de la Terra, who was born in 1716 and died in 1797, encouraged the sailors for whom he was responsible to pray to this Virgin. It was then that the Spanish navy changed its patron saint from San Telmo to the Virgen del Carmen. Fishermen also adopted her as their patron saint.
5. Devotion linked with death
The devotion to the Virgen del Carmen is also associated with the moment of death. In Carmelite tradition, when she appeared to St Simon Stock, the Virgin gave him the scapular which has been the emblem of the Carmelite order ever since, and told him that anyone who died wearing it would not go to hell and their soul would be saved.
For this reason, in November each year religious services are held to pray for the souls of people who have died, and are dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen.
6. Underwater grotto
One of the most unusual aspects of devotion to the Virgen del Carmen in Malaga is the image which is kept all year round in an underwater grotto off La Malagueta beach. An association of divers was set up in 1998 to look after the figure.
The first time this Virgen del Carmen was taken to the grotto was on 8 December 1981, following a promise made by a submariner whose life had been in danger due to an accident at work. The image, made in bronze from the propellors of old ships, is taken from the sea
on the Sunday after 16 July each year for a Mass at the San Gabriel church. In the evening a procession takes place along the seafront, meeting up with the image of the Virgen del Carmen from Perchel, before the figure is returned to her shrine under the sea at La Malagueta.
7. Numerous images in Malaga city
There are numerous images of the Virgen del Carmen in the city of Malaga alone. In addition to the one in the Perchel district which was canonically crowned in 2004, and the one kept in the underwater grotto, which are mentioned above, there are others in Huelin, El Palo, Pedregalejo, Olías, Stella Maris, Colonia de Santa Inés and Campanillas, another one at San Pio X (Virreina) and one in the Santos Mártires church which is not taken out in procession, but for whom a ‘kissing of the hands’ is organised.
8. Passionist version
There is also a Passionist version of this Virgin in Malaga, called Nuestra Señora del Carmen Doloroso, to whom the Corpus Christi church in Pedregalejo is dedicated.
9. Patron of different towns
The Virgen del Carmen is also the patron saint of different towns within the diocese of Malaga, especially along the coast. Although there has been great devotion to her for a long time, her official designation as patron saint is relatively recent. In the case of Marbella, she was proclaimed as such by the present bishop, Jesús Catalá, in 2012.
Estepona celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Virgen del Carmen being its patron saint last year; the image was canonically crowned by bishop Antonio Dorado in 2005. She is also considered a patron saint of Torremolinos, where there is an image of her in a church in La Carihuela district, and she is also popular in Fuengirola, where she is taken out in procession, and in Torre del Mar, in Vélez-Málaga.
10. Devotion in inland towns
Although there is widespread devotion to the Virgen del Carmen along the coastline, which is to be expected as she is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, this is also the case in several towns and villages inland.
One example is Montecorto near Ronda, where a festival is held in her honour every year.
In Antequera the Virgen del Carmen is carried in procession from the church of the same name, whose architecture is one of the finest examples of Andalusian Baroque.