Sacred natural sites and popular religion in Spain

Sacred natural sites and popular religion in Spain

The Basilica of the Virgin of Covadonga in the municipality of Cangas de Onis in Asturias, northern Spain is a significant Marian shrine and situated at the Picos de Europa mountains.
The Basilica of the Virgin of Covadonga in the municipality of Cangas de Onis in Asturias, northern Spain is a significant Marian shrine and situated at the Picos de Europa mountains.

by Jaime Tatay Nieto SJ

Given the growing interest in customary institutions and types of protection that differ from those promoted via legal mechanisms, the significant number of Christian sacred sites and pilgrimage routes placed within or near protected areas, and the deep popular piety associated with Mary, a recent study focused on the religious and cultural practices underpinning devotions and pilgrimages to sacred natural sites in Spain.

Titled Popular Religion, Sacred Natural Sites, and “Marian Verdant Advocations” in Spain and published in the open access international journal Religions, the study provides examples of effectively managed community areas that have preserved valuable ecosystems, traditions, and beliefs for centuries.

Around the world, protected areas are established on existing or former sacred natural sites (or SNS).  Most of these sites preceded the establishment of protected areas, often by many centuries, sometimes by millennia. Scientists, managers, and conservation practitioners recognize that the sacredness of nature underpins the world’s first conservation areas, which often were sacred natural sites or sacred landscapes.

There is evidence across the world that territories managed by monastic communities over the centuries are more carefully preserved than the surrounding ones, and ancient religious themes and practices reinforce contemporary environmental discourses and initiatives.

Moreover, sacred plants and animals, through their spiritual meanings, played a role in the development of a sacred geography and in the maintenance of biocultural diversity, interpreted as the diversity of life on earth in both nature and culture.

The values, religious beliefs, and management practices of traditional peoples are increasingly considered important elements of effective community-based natural resource management.

Many sacred natural sites form a largely unrecognized shadow conservation network.  There is evidence that sacredness can be a powerful means of conservation when linked to customary institutions and a broadly respected belief system.  Interreligious advocacy campaigns are instrumental in the global efforts to preserve ecosystems, species, and a stable climate.  Partnerships between religious and conservation groups represent significant untapped potential, which can promote and sustain conservation efforts.

Despite the historical divide, some scholars have argued that there is a growing convergence of beliefs between faith groups and conservation practitioners.  However, in order to better articulate the interests of both communities, the latter has to understand and address the needs and aspirations of faith groups, whereas the former should recognize conservation priorities and rethink theologically their duties to the natural world.

In Spain, there are approximately 12,300 churches, shrines, sanctuaries, and pilgrimage sites: 1,200 (10%) are named after a Christological title, 4,300 (35%) after a Marian devotion, and 6,800 (55%) are related to many different saints. A significant share of the non-urban religious sites is located in natural preserves of high ecological value and played a prominent role in the sacred spatial planning of the Iberian landscape.

The study showed that there is a strong relationship between popular religion, Marian verdant titles, and nature conservation.  In fact, a relevant number of shrines, hermitages, monasteries, and pilgrimage routes in Spain are located within or near Natura 2000, a European network of protected core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, and some rare natural habitat types.

Furthermore, 420 Marian titles directly refer to plant species or vegetation types and many of the non-urban Marian sacred sites are placed in well-preserved natural areas. Some provide a human-related added value for most emblematic National Parks, like the sanctuaries of the Virgin of El Rocío at Doñana National Park in Andalusia and Our Lady of Covadonga at Picos de Europa National Park in Asturias.

With the growing interest in alternative conservation strategies and the geographical correlation between nature preserves and sacred natural sites, the study is a contemporary depiction of how religious devotions have made preservation possible in Spain and the role popular religion plays in connecting theological insights with particular elements of natural ecosystems in valuing, preserving, and sustaining Spanish biocultural heritage.

The authors of the study are Jaime Tatay Nieto SJ (Facultad de Teología, Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid) and Jaime Muñoz Igualada (Tragsatec, providing technical assistance to the Ministry for the Ecological Transition of the Spanish goveernment on biodiversity and the natural environment) and their full paper (PDF) can be downloaded here.  The study is part of a special issue of Religions titled Verdant: Knowing Plants, Planted Relations, Religion in Place.

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