Research of the Month

Are you looking for summaries of high-quality academic research that are relevant to classroom practice? For accounts of collaborations between teachers and researchers, or research projects undertaken by teachers? For ways to connect with Religion and Worldviews research? Our research of the month feature aims to refresh and develop your professional knowledge and to help you get up to date with what others are doing. Each month we will feature a new piece of research or choose one from our library to highlight.

We hope you will be able to use this monthly focus for personal professional development, as well as a source of reading group material for local or regional groups and hubs.

Our library stores concise reports of Religion and Worldview-relevant research from 2017 as well as links to historical policy documents.

July/August 2022

Religion and Worldviews in an Andalucian pueblo

Dr Kevin O’Grady

Castillo de Locubín is a traditional pueblo blanco (white village) in the Sierra Sur mountains of Jaén, Andalucía, Spain. In 2022 its population is around 4,500 and some 90% work in agriculture, these days not the subsistence culture of centuries past but mainly olive oil production for sale and export.

The village, usually referred to as Castillo or just El Pueblo, has a strong Catholic identity.  As we’ll remark, this is nevertheless not straightforward, neither historically nor in the contemporary sense. We’ll focus on the 2022 Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations and develop the discussion from there.

Semana Santa begins with Domingo de Ramos, an evocation of Palm Sunday that can’t strictly be called a procession since no sacred image is involved. Instead, villagers follow a child mounted on a donkey through the streets. As well as the story of the entry into Jerusalem, the event calls up Castillo’s agricultural past and present: until late into the last century most villagers (Castilleros) farmed with animals who lived in the upstairs parts of their houses, and, as you’ll see next, the palms are sometimes substituted by olive branches.

For other nearby towns, Domingo de Ramos begins a series of daily or nightly rituals that continue through the week, but not in Castillo’s case. Because most of its sacred images were destroyed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, their associated processions vanishing with them, Castillo’s Semana Santa doesn’t pick up again until midnight on Viernes Santo (Good Friday; that’s to say, 00.00 on Good Friday itself).

Castillo’s midnight Vía Crucis procession defies easy description. You could see it as blending austere mysticism, Biblical narrative, and street theatre (but more about that suggestion later). By torchlight, an image of Cristo del Perdón, Christ crucified, is processed through the streets to the sounds of a solitary drumbeat and chains rattling, with pauses to read each station of the cross.

Later in the morning of Viernes Santo come two processions that combine to create an encuentro(meeting) between Jesus and Mary. The image of Jesus is Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (usually shortened to Padre Jesús), that of Mary, La Virgen de los Dolores (the Virgin of Sorrows). These two images attract particularly strong devotion in Castillo, especially Padre Jesús: you could even compare loyalty to Castillo with loyalty to Padre Jesús. Again, more on that in due course, but a mention of the main Padre Jesús myth might help now. Around 1700, the image, an acknowledged masterpiece, was in transit through Castillo on its way to its intended home, the sculptor’s birthplace. The donkey providing the transport died, and this was taken as a sign from God that Padre Jesús should stay in Castillo for good; the Ermita (shrine, small church) in which he has since been housed was built on the spot. Padre Jesús is a depiction of Christ on Calvary at deepest resignation and despair; the encuentrore-creates his meeting with his mother.

On the night of Viernes Santo, a second pair of processions creates a second encuentro, this time between Santo Entierro (Christ taken down from the cross) and the Virgin of Sorrows.

That this encuentro is the climax of Castillo’s Semana Santa can seem strange, but only to outsiders. Theologically, the resurrection would be expected to take centre stage. But Castillo’s Cristo Resucitado (Christ resurrected), is a recent image that has not built up a devotion comparable to those of Padre Jesús or the Virgin of Sorrows, and the Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday) procession has been muted in the memories of most. This year attempts were made to create a fuller Domingo de Resurrección celebration, by creating an encuentro between Cristo Resucitado and La Virgen de la Cabeza. The image of La Virgen de la Cabeza commemorates an appearance of the Virgin Mary to a shepherd on the side of a head-shaped hill in nearby Andújar in the thirteenth century, so also attracts strong devotion in the locality. However, you might note in the next picture the smaller dimensions and simpler working of the images, as well as the reduced atmospheric intensity and, indeed, turnout.

In fact, theology stays in the background. There’s little discussion of the meaning of the rituals, questions about it surprise people, but that’s not to say there’s little meaning. It appears mediated more through the beauty of the images and the ritual choreography, music also playing an important role in ways that my photos can’t show. Visit to hear how traditional band and flamenco styles create different accents at different stages of Castillo’s Semana Santa.

Social media is an increasingly used resource, in various ways. Emigration from Castillo means a diaspora whose members engage with Semana Santa via Facebook, where one group is solely dedicated to its imagery. A post on another Facebook page, El Pueblo es Tranquillo, concerning the 2022 Vía Crucis procession generated an intense discussion by comment and reply. Did Castillo’s various images of Jesus refer to the same reality? For believers, yes: but on another view, as a symbol of popular local religiosity, Padre Jesús is a singular figure whom all can understand and respect. Similarly, Semana Santa is a mixture of elements with something for everyone, even if just as spectacle or affirmation of the community (atheists and agnostics can be found in Castillo, though not non-Christian faith; and aspects of the history of the Catholic Church in the village are painful).

Digging deeper and more speculatively, there’s evidence that considerable numbers of Castillerosare descended from the once-Muslim population. Aspects of its culture linger, some visibly, such as the Arab irrigation system, and the remains of the fort that tower above the plain it continues to water: if you’ve visited Granada, 37 miles south of Castillo, this may sound familiar. It’s known that Sufism was influential in medieval Andalucía. Look back at the photo of the Padre Jesús procession and the purple capirotes (pointed hats) worn by some participants. They’re known as symbols of penitence, and related to the Spanish Inquisition, as those arrested were made to wear them. This is probably enough explanation for present purposes, but a visit to the tomb of Rumi in Konya, Turkey made me wonder – his own tombstone hat sits on it, and they are worn by dervishes of his order as reminders of mortality. In Spain, they don’t appear on Easter Sunday.

In summary, religion in Castillo de Locubín should usefully be seen in a worldview perspective. It helps to:

  1. Look at the historical context.
  2. Consider local traditions. The version of ‘Catholicism’ might not be recognisable elsewhere.
  3. Hesitate to expect that only those identifying as Catholic join with thetraditions, or that the traditions only contain Catholic elements.
  4. Think about emerging forms of tradition, especially digital.
  5. Look for the lived elements. An over-emphasis on theology, or doctrine, may not be appropriate.
  6. Think about how these lived elements add up: the aesthetic, ritual, social and ethical dimensions all connect.

In other places or cases, it might not be these elements that figure most powerfully. And, of course, you may not be considering a majority Catholic situation. However, related to the points above, here are some general questions to consider, that apply whenever you approach localised religion in a worldview perspective, whether in planning teaching or in teaching.

  • How has local history, tradition or custom influenced what can be seen now?
  • Are these religious expressions distinctive to the locality, even if related to a wider tradition? In what ways?
  • How do people from outside the tradition but from within the locality relate to these expressions? And is there evidence of inclusion of elements from outside the main tradition?
  • How have social media or other digital resources developed the local religious expressions, or how people can participate in them?
  • What are the main lived elements of the local religious expressions? How, for example, do artistic, ritual, community, ethical or other elements figure, and how do they relate to one another?

A discussion between colleagues in a planning or INSET session might not cover all these questions, but even one or two of them would generate a good analysis. Similarly with classroom teaching: any of the questions provides a good enquiry basis.

You may be travelling this summer. I hope you have opportunities to experience and take photos of local celebrations, talk to people about their history and significance, and listen to stories about them. If you’re in Spain on the 15th of August, look out for celebrations of El Dia de la Virgen (the feast of the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven); we’ll close with a picture of Castillo’s 2017 Dia de la Virgen procession.

A note on methodology

I’ve been visiting Castillo de Locubín regularly since 2012 and lived there from 2015 to 2018. Though I’ve never thought of this in terms of a formal research project, several of my interactions with Castillo and its people have taken on research-like aspects. These include photography collection, participant observation during processions and other events, interviews with participants, reading, and discussions with researchers including local historians and a US-based anthropologist who completed a doctoral study on Castillo in the 1970s.

You may be interested in...

Previous research of the month

Catch up on them all here