3. Accommodating Crisis: Exploring the Dynamics of Touch and Material Devotion in Alcala de los Gazules, Spain

Religion and Touch - Christina Welch

Amy Whitehead [+-]
Massey University
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Dr Amy Whitehead is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand with a background in the Study or Religions. She specialises in ritual, NRM’s, and the material and performance cultures of religions.
Gabriel Bayarri [+-]
Macquarie University and Complutense University of Madrid
Gabriel Bayarri is a Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and Sociology at two universities (Cotutelle agreement): the Macquarie University of Sydney, where he works as casual staff, and the Complutense University of Madrid, where he is an honorific collaborator. As a political anthropologist, his research focuses on the sociology of violence and the construction of rhetoric and identities of far-right political movements. During the last nine years, Gabriel has worked in the Latin American context, specifically in Brazil, where he has analysed post-colonial power structures. He currently collaborates as a research fellow in the following research groups: Centre for Research on Extremism (C-REX, Oslo University), Centre for Right-Wing Studies (CRWS, University of California, Berkeley), and the Centre for Research into Global Power, Inequality and Conflict (RGPIC, Macquarie University). Gabriel is currently developing approaches that investigate the correlation between material religion and broader socio-political processes.


Based on a small ethnographic study at the shrine of the Virgin of Alcala in Andalusia, Spain, this chapter begins with the assertion that ‘touch’ is not only an intrinsic part of religious devotion, but the principal facilitating medium through which the performances, expressions, and relationships with the Virgin, take place. Part I of the chapter uses the relational discourses of animism to critically explore the dynamics of and significance of touch, focussing primarily on day to day statue engagements, caretaking rituals including the gendered ways in which her statue-body is ritually touched, and the potentiality of her religious personhood. Here, categories of subject and object mix, merge, and ‘co-mingle’, giving way to the relational emergence of ontological possibilities aimed helping us reimagine the nature of religion, religious artefacts, creativity, and the significant roles of the senses in devotion. The second part of the chapter is carried out in light of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. It moves emphasis away from more highly ritualised and daily shrine activities and into the village of Alcala, and employs the use of an additional ethnographic (distance) study that sought the views and attitudes of villagers regarding the role of the Virgin in the personal management of the crisis. Findings suggest varying degrees of devotion to the Virgin as well as the view that the Virgin is a ‘everywhere’, and a protector of the people; but principally, they emphasise the significance of tactile and other engagements with home altars, plaques, rosaries, and other forms of Virgin-specific devotionals. On balance with the touch-encouraging performances that take place at the shrine, the addition of how the villagers are maintaining relationships with the Virgin in their homes allows for a deeper understanding of the significance of religious material cultures, the dynamics of temporal and physical relating, and how presence and touch are accommodated in a time of social, pandemic crisis.

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Whitehead, Amy; Bayarri, Gabriel. 3. Accommodating Crisis: Exploring the Dynamics of Touch and Material Devotion in Alcala de los Gazules, Spain. Religion and Touch. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Sep 2021. ISBN 9781800500334. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=42171. Date accessed: 15 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.42171. Sep 2021

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