Pilgrimage and emotion in early-modern Spain

Thomas Devaney

Near the end of his Panegirico historial de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza de Sierra Morena (1677), Manuel Salcedo Olid vividly evoked the emotional impact of the annual romería (or pilgrimage) to this Marian shrine, which was situated in the mountains near Andújar. The culminating moment of the pilgrimage—the revealing of the effigy of the Virgin to the people—was accompanied, Olid claimed, by a dramatic transformation in visual perception. The crowd, which had been engaged in a variety of amusements, froze in place. Everyone stopped to look. According to Olid, the moment was so intense because they didn’t see an effigy at all, but Mary herself. The statue, he wrote, acted as a “clear window” or a “simple mirror” through which “truly it seems to us as if God Our Father, in honour of the glory of his Holy Mother, has shown us some special, internal vision that is not describable.” And so Olid and others could “almost persuade ourselves that we see the Sacred Person of the Queen of the Angels herself, from head to toe, with no change at all to the perfection of her admirable face.” Olid presented all this as a miracle, in which God had directed worshippers’ eyes to the place “where the heart always looks.” In response, the worshippers abandoned themselves to an ephemeral unleashing of passion.

Although some scholars have dismissed this account as merely an attempt to entice pilgrims, I aim to contextualize Olid’s text within the broader purview of pilgrimage and miracle stories involving sight and to use his perspective to rethink our understanding of late-medieval and Renaissance ideas about the role of emotion in vision and “visions.”

But I hope to not only explore what Olid’s comments can tell us about seventeenth-century Spaniards talked about religious emotion, but also what he reveals about how they experienced those feelings. Much of the meaning and utility of pilgrimage lay, as Olid showed, in its emotional resonances. I suggest that pilgrims consciously cultivated those emotions, in part through learned strategies of looking. And I examine those strategies through the concept of “practice” (practice both as Michel de Certeau described the tactics through which individuals navigate mass culture and Monique Scheer’s notion of emotion as embodied, habituated practice). In a broader sense, then, this paper is an attempt to better understand the early modern affective gaze.