Today Barcelona marks her patronal feast of La Mare de Deu de la Mercè – Our Lady of Mercy – under which title Our Lady was proclaimed patroness of the city by the municipal authorities in 1637, following her intervention in alleviating the plague. However her watching over Barcelona dates from at least the 13th century, when the Virgin appeared separately to St. Peter Nolasco, St. Raymond of Penyafort, and King James I, asking for the foundation of a religious order dedicated to helpnig Christians who had been captured by the Muslims and were being held in ransom or forcibly converted to Islam. This was the beginning of the Mercedarian Order whose mother church in Barcelona, now a Minor Basilica, houses the 14th century statue of the Madonna and Child representing Our Lady of Mercy.
Her protection of Barcelona was officially recognized by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1868, and even in these secular times her feast is a city-wide holiday. During the Franco regime, many of the local customs surrounding this feast day were suppressed from Madrid, as the dictator was intent on stamping out Catalan national identity. After his death, though it took a number of years to re-create all that had been nearly lost or forgotten, many of these traditions were, fortunately, brought back.
This is the statue of Our Lady of Mercy which is enshrined in the Basilica dedicated to her, along Barcelona’s harbor:
The Basilica housing the statute, which I have written about on my other blog, is a rather imposing, domed 18th century Baroque building which replaced the Gothic-Renaissance church that stood on the site between 1249 and 1764:
It is from this Basilica that the image of Our Lady of Mercy is taken down from her throne above the high altar:
and goes in procession through the streets of the old city – known as the Barri Gòtic or “Gothic Quarter”, the heart of Roman-Medieval Barcelona.
Because this is the city’s most important feast day, the week leading up to the official holiday is filled with special events, alongside which many unusual Catalan traditions are on display. One of these is the emergence of giant figures often representing Catalan historical figures such as kings and queens, heroes and heroines, and characters from folklore. Another group will represent various figures with giant heads, rather than giant bodies. Alongside these giant people and giant heads will appear giant animals from medieval bestiaries, including the bizarre Tarasca which I have written about previously, as well as lions, gryphons, unicorns, and so on. Each parish in the old city, as well as city hall and other municipal organizations, have their own figures, human or otherwise, and as different giants move about the tangled streets and squares they will run into each other and dance about, or engage in mock-combat:
Another tradition for the day is the construction of amazing human castles, by people known as Castellers, who can create towers several stories high:
The traditional folk dance of Catalonia, the sardana, is a complicated, circle dance that originated among Catalan fishermen, and is probably a descendant in form from the peasant dances of the Greek fishermen who colonized the Catalan coastline in ancient times. In squares, on church steps, and in parks all over the city, orchestras playing sardana tunes will set up, with passersby spontaneously stopping what they are doing, joining hands, and dancing together:
As night falls, it is time for the fire run, or correfoc, when the devils come out and try to steal souls; this also takes place on the night before the Feast of St. John the Baptist, but the Catalans can’t seem to get enough of being noisy and setting things on fire, so it occurs on this date as well. The wary will get away from them by leaping and running across the fireworks and firepit traps that the demons have laid for them: