Welcome to the history page. This week we are going to take a look at one of
Spain's most popular holidays, 'La Fiesta del Carmen'. This religious feast
day is celebrated each summer in Mediterranean lands (especially Italy and Spain)
to honour the Virgin of Carmen, the protectress of fishermen and seafarers.
Naturally, because of her kinship with the sea, 'el Carmen' is celebrated in
several Pitiusan localities, most notably in the large harbours: La Sabina and
Es Pujols in Formentera; Ibiza Town, Sant Antoni and Es Cubells in Ibiza.
Indeed, most island churches, whether coastal or inland, contain an icon of
'Nuestra Señora del Carmen' as worshippers past and present put great stock
in her powers. It hasn't always been this way, however. 'El Carmen' is fundamentally
an imported cult, relatively recent in its arrival to the Pitiuses. Curiously,
her first port of call was Es Cubells, a tiny land's-end village where her benevolent
aura is thought to radiate more powerfully than at any other spot in the islands.
As usual, there is a fascinating story behind this piece of arcanum . . .
The Origins of Carmelite Worship in Ibiza
The widespread cult to Nuestra Señora del Carmen (roughly translated, 'Our
Lady of the Seas') came to Ibiza in the mid-19th century through the auspices
of a banished Carmelite friar. Throughout history, whenever an individual was
singled out for exile, it was generally because his or her influence on society
was so pervasive that it posed a threat to the powers-that-be. Such was the
case with Father Francesc Palau; one of Barcelona's leading intellectuals and
the founder of a successful parochial school.
Spain's new ruling faction was none too keen on the clergy - and none too sure
of its own political footing. The incoming military rulers had only just succeeded
in overthrowing the liberal monarchy of Isabel II and were trying to institute
a far-left progressive government. Any religious personage who might prove to
be a vocal and persuasive dissenter was quickly removed from the mainstream.
Palau was one of the first 'undesirables' to be sent away. The year was1854.
There was no longer a bishop on the island as the bishopric has been discontinued
in 1852; but there was a provost who welcomed the banished priest and showed
him around the island. The purpose of this courtesy tour was so that the friar
might choose where he wished to spend the years of his exile. Palau was particularly
taken with Es Cubells, a choice that could have been described as seeking 'exile
within exile'. If Ibiza was off the mainstream, Es Cubells was on the shores
Intellectual Starvation Turns to Spiritual Abundance
In the absence of any type of mental stimulation, this city-dwelling priest
soon developed a hitherto dormant facet of his personality: mysticism. Following
his new devotional bent, Palau would frequently remove himself to the tiny islet
of Es Vedrá, a speck of naked rock standing just off the south-west coast of
the island. Here, utterly isolated from human contact, he would fast and meditate
for periods of up to a month.
Eventually, with the help of Es Cubells' few inhabitants, Palau built a tiny
hermitage on the wooded cliffs overlooking the sea, and how no? dedicated it
to his beloved Virgen del Carmen. With his particular charismatic flair, the
friar soon founded a Carmelite Order at the hermitage. This order, incidentally,
still exists although it has been moved slightly up the coast and further inland
So fervent was Palau's devotion to the Virgen del Carmen that, during the three
years of his banishment, he travelled all over the island preaching her virtues
in every house of God. His preaching generated such an intensity of religious
sentiment that, by the latter part of the 19th century, waves of worshippers
began to make pilgrimages to far-flung Es Cubells in order to better adore their
Lady of the Sea.
In 1857 Palau's exile was lifted, and he returned to his home in Barcelona.
The friar's absence, however, did not diminish the fervour of his teachings
by one iota. By popular demand, an icon of 'el Carmen' was placed in almost
every island church, though, much to the consternation of the parish priests,
whole congregations continued to make the long trek to Palau's now crumbling
In the words of island historian Joan Marí Cardona, "The hermitage of
Es Cubells . . . was virtually abandoned and in a complete ruin, a fact which
did not stop the islanders from visiting it. This being the case, the rector
of Sant Josep, Monseñor Pallarés, determined to put an end to the pilgrimages,
assuring everyone that it was not worth struggling along such a rocky road as
the one that led to Es Cubells when the figure he had of 'el Carmen' was the
same or better than the one at the hermitage." But somehow, the magic of
Es Cubells drew worshippers like bees to a flower. Even to this day, you will
occasionally hear a distressed country wife say, "If my husband recovers
from this, I will go to Es Cubells."
Eventually, however, the pilgrim fad wore itself out. As the island's population
expanded, more and more families settled in Es Cubells, somehow drawing the
numinous place back into the mundane world. By the first third of the 20th century,
the growing village became embroiled in an ecclesiastic showdown of such dimensions
that the intervention of the Vatican was necessary for its resolution. Because
the memory of these events is still fresh in the minds of many Ibicencos, we
shall not delve too deeply into details.
The gist of the dispute was this: On the one hand, the friars of the deceased
Father Palau's order maintained that their hermitage should remain an independent
entity and should not be absorbed into the dioceses. The villagers, on the other
hand, wanted a parish church of their own since the nearest place to attend
Mass was in Sant Josep - a very long haul and uphill all the way.
In 1933, island bishop, Salvi Huix, sided with the villagers and granted parish
rights to Es Cubells. He posted an official decree of erection whereby the hermitage
would be enlarged into a community church. Edicts notwithstanding, Huix could
only manage an uneasy compromise with the friars: the villagers would be permitted
to use the hermitage temporarily and only until a parish church could be built
at another site.
No progress was made in the matter until eight years later a new bishop, Antoni
Cardona 'Frit', came into office. With the verve of a newcomer, Cardona, was
determined to push through with the episcopal decree of his predecessor, and
construction was begun on the church in 1941. Because of unceasing conflicts
with the friars, the edifice was not completed until 1959, eighteen years later.
Father Palau's chapel was incorporated into the nave of the church, while all
of the possessions within it were bequeathed to the Carmelite Mission by papal
Not to end on a turbulent note, the 'Fiesta del Carmen' is always a jolly affair
in whichever of the five island localities it is celebrated. Fisherman and seafarers
still ask for the virgin's protection, making this one of the most heartfelt
fiestas in the Pitiusan calendar. If you happen to be on one of the islands,
why not wander down to the nearest harbour and join in the fun!