Every late Spring a small, sleepy village in the Doñana National Park comes alive as a million pairs of human and animal feet pound their way across ancient Andalucian footpaths and bridleways to pay homage to a small wooden statue found over 700 years ago.
A simplistic effigy of the Virgin Mary and child, just one metre tall, was found in the 13th century in a tree trunk by a hunter near the marshes of Almonte, Huelva. On the back of the wooden statue was sculpted “Nuestra Señora de los Remedios”, “Our Lady of Remedies”. The legend suggests that he tried to move it, but each time he tried he fell asleep and eventually was resigned to build a shrine around it. The figure quickly became the patron saint of nearby Almonte, and acquired a reputation for curing disease, infertility and psychiatric disorders.
Over the years it attracted ever growing numbers of pilgrims, who began to group themselves into brotherhoods known as confraternities and Hermandades.
Since 1758, the Virgin has been known as the Virgin de El Rocío, which translates to ‘Our Lady of the Dew’, and, with an attached structure in order to allow the wearing of clothing, the statue stands a little over 5 feet. It resides in the Hermitage of El Rocío and annually attracts up to 1 million people in pilgrimage over Pentecost. The most startling feature of the pilgrimage is that every Hermandad travels with a shrine dedicated to the Virgin mounted on a flower-bedecked wheeled carriage called a simpecado. This shrine is pulled by bullocks and leads the procession for the full journey. A number of penitents, wearing sprigs of rosemary and sometimes carrying staffs, cling to the simpecado. Behind this small group are the pilgrims, following on horse, on foot or some in 4 wheel vehicles.
The group portrayed here are members of the Hermandad de Triana and originate from the famed Triana district of Seville. Located on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, Triana has a vibrant flamenco, artistic and potters tradition, and is known for its large population of Romany people. Romany families lived in corrales, or community homes, often with an ornate fountain in the middle of a central square; unfortunately the majority have now been lost to urban redevelopment. Bizet’s Carmen, perhaps the most famous story to have been rendered in the Flamenco idiom, lived in a corrale as part of a Romany family in Triana and walked every day to work at the local cigarette factory where her tragic story unfolds. In times gone by the majority of pilgrims from Triana would have been Romany.
The beautiful Church of Santa Ana (Iglesia de Santa Ana), closely associated with the Romany population, is considered the Cathedral of Triana by local popular sentiment. It was the first Catholic church built in Seville after Muslim rule ended in the city in 1248. It is from the Church of Santa Ana that the pilgrimage commences at 7am on the Wednesday before Pentecost.
Pilgrims with associations to Triana now come from afar, typically dressed in Andalucian traditional clothing. Men wear broad-brimmed hats and traje corto (grey, brown or black trousers, often with Western-style leather chaps and boots), and women wear flamenco dresses. Crowds congregate at the church as dawn rises. Eventually, following prayers and great ceremony, the simpecado is wheeled out of the church, hitched up to the bullocks and begins to wind through Triana’s narrow streets. Celebration is everywhere; people cheering and clapping from houses, shops and from the street as the procession slowly makes its way out of the city on wide motorways temporarily closed to traffic before eventually transferring onto country lanes. Over the course of the next 4 days rivers are forded and difficult paths managed.
The Vado de Quema is a ford where virgin rocerians, in a celebration of their first pilgrimage, are baptised with water from the crossing. The Kings Road is an unswerving, seemingly endless road of sand and there is no shelter from the sun. It eventually leads, after a long day, to the Palacio del Rey, a welcome camp. Pilgrims always camp together in woodland clearances with tall cypress trees surrounding the entourage. Caravans, tents and sleeping bags form a protective circle around the simpecado whose ornate candles burn through the night. In the flickering candlelight flamenco, sevillana and partying lasts until the early hours.
There is an ancient rhythm and cadence which develops day-by-day until the final landmark is reached, the Puente del Ajolí, a little wooden bridge, which officially denotes arrival in el Rocio. Each Hermandad now strides towards their own purpose-built home for the following three days; large encampments with room enough for both people and animals with facades resembling the churches from which they originate.
Three days of worship, merriment and fiesta commences with a parade of all the simpecados on the Saturday and culminates late Sunday night where the Virgin statue, dressed in finery, is carried out of the Hermitage, presented to the crowds and carried in turn by each Hermandad around the village, visiting the building of each of the brotherhoods. This is the highlight of the entire journey; an opportunity to touch, hold and carry the Virgin de El Rocío.
On the Tuesday, the groups reassemble and reverse their journey. The pilgrimage, although essentially Marian, also draws on pagan associations which led Pope John Paul II after his visit in 1993 to denounce it as little more than a ‘picnic’. The widespread presence of alcohol and dancing, and reputedly romance resulting in a rash of rocerian babies 9 months later, suggests a bohemian, Chaucerian or even Boccaccio (from whom some of Chaucer’s tales originated) joie de vivre. Many of the symbols associated with the Virgin can also be found in myths and images of ancient goddesses which have been incorporated into the Christian canon by the Roman church. The ecological damage that 1 million people walking can do to the landscape also causes concern and each Hermandad contributes to a fund which ensures all rubbish is collected and damage repaired. It is a spiritual and ecological compromise.
Romeria del Rocio next occurs over the weekend of Sunday May 15th 2016.
The website for the Hermandad Rocio Triana
Words and photographs by Geoffrey Billett