At the northern end of the market square in the centre of Mazarrón there is the imposing façade of the historic Iglesia de la Purísima. The church is 16th to 18th Century and it is well worth going inside. Like typical Spanish churches, the interior is richly decorated.
One of the most interesting and intriguing events associated with this church is the Miracle of the Virgin which occurred on 17th November 1585. This was a time when those who lived along this part of the Murcian coast, did so in constant fear of raids by Berber pirates looking for goods, people (either to ransom or be sold as slaves) and cattle. Note the coastal watchtowers from that era which frequent this part of the coast and which exercised a critical role in watching for the approach of pirate ships and in defending the local population. Even so, it is said that in May 1573 several ships were taken from Puerto de Mazarrón, and on 15th December of that year the Berber pirates took all those they found in the coastal caves.
However, it was in November 1585 that the momentous events occurred which have continued to be commemorated to the present day. It was at dawn on 17th November 1585, that a watchman raised the alarm over strange noises that he heard. When people headed toward the sea they saw seven ships sailing away. On return, they were able to follow the footprints of the pirates along the side of the Sierra de las Moreras virtually to the town itself. The pirates had left weapons and other belongings in their flight, including a flag. When they reached Mazarrón, they were astonished to find that up to about 500 pirates had apparently got to within a few metres of the town undetected and had, equally inexplicably, then fled, also undetected.
It is now that the story begins to get even more interesting! Also at dawn, the Sacristan in charge of the hospital building in Mazarrón visited the Iglesia de la Purisíma and noted that the oil lamp in the chapel of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción was out, as was normal. However, at midday his daughter visited the church and found the lamp lit. She told her mother, who was incredulous, but then they and others in the hospital heard a bang in the adjoining church. When they went to investigate, not only did they find the lamp lit, but it was also dripping a considerable amount of oil on to a plate. Other senior people were called and a priest opened the chapel door allowing all to see the continuous dripping of the oil on to the plate. Attention then passed to the statue of the Virgin which had small drops of water on the forehead and larger drops on the right cheek. A priest wiped the statue’s face, but the sweating continued. Other people continued to arrive and collected the oil as well as smearing themselves with it and the sweat from the statue. This all continued for one and a half hours and was taken as a sign that God had spared Mazarrón from the pirates, also leading to the Virgin becoming the town’s patron saint. The events of the day were recorded in sworn statements by nine of the individuals involved.
Perhaps not surprisingly, something of a legend has also grown up around the events of that day during the succeeding centuries. Thus, it has been said that the Virgin’s gown was wet and covered in sand grains, or that white lilies were noted growing in profusion shortly afterwards on the beach of El Castillar. None of this is to be found in the Nine Declarations. Likewise, approximately 150 years after the event, a Brother Gines created the story that fishermen took some of the oil from the lamp and, on one occasion, when threatened by a stormy sea, were able to calm the waves and obtained a bumper catch. A whole new meaning to “pouring oil on troubled waters” perhaps!
Today, these events are commemorated in the Fiestas del Milagro (the Fiestas of the Miracle). On the Sunday preceding 17th November, the patron saint is taken from Bolnuevo to Mazarrón and on the following Sunday, she is returned in a pilgrimage back to the Ermita in Bolnuevo. During the intervening week, celebrations include flower offerings to the Virgin, processions and religious activities. On the Sunday of the pilgrimage, there are parades of Moors and Christians commemorating the Moorish invasions of the coast which were thwarted by the miraculous intercession of the Virgin in the early morning of 17th November 1585. Open air activities, musical performances, food sampling of typical dishes, including sardines take place. Indeed, for many people the celebrations accompanying the return of the Virgin to Bolnuevo are popularly known as the Sardine Festival, for obvious reasons! The beach and seafront at Bolnuevo are usually packed in the early afternoon as people enjoy the sardines and wine, and more generally walk around.
It seems that this fiesta on the Sunday immediately following 17th November is becoming increasingly popular, with literally thousands of people stretching in a pilgrimage of several kilometres, accompanying the statue of the Virgin on her way from Mazarrón to Bolnuevo. Joining these celebrations is one way to gain a flavour of the importance of the Miracle in Mazarrón’s life. Another is simply to have a look at and inside the Iglesia de la Purísima, though do not ignore the nearby Castle of los Vélez and the Molinete watchtower, both of which are evocative of the time about which we are speaking. Inside the church are the usual side chapels with their statues and normally bright decorations. The main altar is very richly gilded and adorned with two pillars on either side of its centre where there is an open arch through which the main statue of the Virgin can be seen and behind which there is still further gilding. The painting is also impressive with its blue, white, ochre and brown themes. If you then look back down the church you will see the painted ceiling above the first floor balcony.
Earlier, we mentioned the Flag of the Miracle which was said to have been recovered after the pirates fled, terrified by the appearance of the Virgin, in 1585. Recent restorative work apparently confirmed that the flag’s age corresponds to the years around which the miracle is said to have taken place. The design and characters on the flag also correspond to the pirates’ origins. When we last visited the church (March 2013), the flag was displayed in one of the chapels, in a glass case and under subdued lighting. If it appears somewhat dowdy and unexciting, just remember the history with which it is associated.
Based upon extracts from the book “Exploring Murcia – Mazarrón” by Clive and Rosie Palmer, available from www.lulu.com, Best Wishes on Camposol, or contact email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s most recent book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is now available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes, or phone Patti on 968 433 978.