Book: Religion and Touch
Chapter: 3. Accommodating Crisis: Exploring the Dynamics of Touch and Material Devotion in Alcalá de los Gazules
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.