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When we think of places of Catholic devotion, we likely imagine grand steeples, neatly lined pews, and glowing stained glass. But, in the Vall d’en Bas region of Catalonia, there is an icon that resides in a much smaller home: the Virgin of Les Olletes—The Little Pots.
Originally, this iteration of the Virgin Mary lived in a small round hole, the size of a little pot, along a rocky cliff wall below the Puigsacalm mountain. Despite her humble surroundings, she awakens true devotion. While many today doubt the need for faith, the Virgin of Les Olletes continues to move and touch people—both from the nearby village of St. Privat and beyond.
“This Virgin of Les Olletes has been very successful, because many people came from outside and far to see her!” says Joanet of Can Branques.
“They may be believers or not, but when people have a problem, they go to Les Olletes,” explains Benet del Mas La Codina. “I know a lot of people who have lived here in the village and even after leaving, they return to Les Olletes to hang out with the Virgin for a while.”
Maybe, as Benet points out, people only approach the Virgin looking for a reason to go on a hike and clear their heads. But the truth is that in Catalonia, the hermitages, chapels, and shrines inherited from the Middle Ages—like this one for Les Olletes—have survived because they allow people to ask for help and express gratitude beyond what is ritually sanctioned in a typical Sunday service.
“I remember that whatever happened, my father and my mother said, ‘This will be solved by Les Olletes,’ ‘Let us pray to Les Olletes,’ or ‘We must pilgrimage to Les Olletes,’” Ton Casamitjana recalls.
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Despite her power, people in the Vall d’en Bas generally agree: Les Olletes is not an attractive location. In fact, the second sextet of the Goigs, or Joy Poems dedicated to the Virgin, Christ, and the Saints, published in 1950, states the following:
“In a short time one thing is certain, to be honest,
in the high places of Bas, your Image is discovered,
finding it withdrawn, in such a rugged place.”
So what brought her to such a remarkably inhospitable place?
According to Father Narcís Camós, who published his study of virgins in Catalonia in 1657, Les Olletes was found in her little hole in the cliff at the beginning of the previous century. This means that around the year 1500 Les Olletes would have started attracting pilgrims, devotees seeking to cure their livestock—as evidenced by the donations that nearly overflowed in the hole when Camós visited.
In the same Goigs poem, we learn that Les Olletes can heal livestock and bring rain during drought or sun during rain, among other meteorological matters. She is also praised for having healing powers over people, with the ability to cure “lameness and contractions, fevers and breakage.” The last anecdote of this poem is sung by Joanet: “Help us, Virgin Mary, in the village of St. Privat and since you were there, do not deny us so clearly in favor.” It demonstrates a powerful tie between the Virgin and the place.
From historical accounts, it seems that the popularity of the Virgin of Les Olletes is inversely proportional to that of the nearest religious establishments on the mountain, serving the town of St. Privat: the Priory de St. Corneli and St. Magdalena of the Mount. That is, when there is a lot of activity in the priory, Les Olletes seems to not exist or is not important enough to be mentioned in the documents, whereas when the priory goes into crisis, then Les Olletes becomes relevant.
After the earthquakes of 1428, which shook Old Catalonia from Montserrat to the Pyrenees, historian Joan Pagès i Pons reported that the priory was abandoned. In a notice dated 1442, Bishop Bernat de Pau requested alms for the repair and reconstruction of the priory of St. Corneli. The bishop did not reach his goal, however, and by 1500 Les Olletes began to attract the faithful.
After a period of operation, the priory became inactive again in 1835. The reason for this second abandonment is unclear, but by 1855 tides of devotees were sated by Les Olletes. Reverend Esteve Plana, rector of St. Privat, decided to widen the grotto for Les Olletes to accommodate her visitors, but the Third Carlist War slowed down the work. It was not until 1895 that Reverend Joan Costa collected sufficient funds to finish drilling the rock, making it sixteen feet high, twenty-six feet deep, and thirteen feet wide.
On August 4 of the same year, the Virgin of Les Olletes was taken in a procession from the small hole in the shape of a pot to the grotto. A great mass was celebrated, where the Reverend Monsignor Joan Jordà, a missionary from Banyoles, preached.
Beyond Les Olletes, the number of churches and especially the diversity of centers they depended on meant that the Vall d’en Bas was part of a complex network of religious and political interests. In the year 898, the church of St. Roman of Joanetes belonged to St. Joan de les Abadesses, a powerful monastery located in the north of the valley. St. John of the Balbs and St. Ximplí belonged to a community located to the east of it, St. Maria of Besalú. St. Quintin and the priory of St. Corneli and St. Magdalena of the Mount also looked east but were dependent on the community of St. Genís of Besalú. Finally, St. Pere de Falgars depended on the Bishopric of Vic, southwest of the valley. However, in order to engage and retain the faithful, Les Olletes has, above all, its topographic uniqueness: she lives under a cliff, in the shade, inside the rock.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), religious images were often burned. Because Les Olletes is made of alabaster, she could not be burned, but she could have been broken. In what locals call a miracle, one man, Cinto Casamitjana, was able to save her.
“You know that Franco killed Republicans and that the Republicans killed chaplains, right?” Joanet of Can Branques begins to explain. “Well, I do not know if it was true, but the secretary of St. Privat once explained to me, he said: ‘They came to burn the Virgin of Olletes. I went to save her, but I found the door closed. I could not enter, so I knelt and prayed to Our Father. Then, the door opened!’ He took the Virgin and hid it underneath the spring of Paul’s Mill. Now—and I do remember this—when the war finished, they went to find her with an orchestra. Whether the miracle is true? I do not know. It is very hard to know if it is a miracle.”
Ton, Joanet’s nephew, tells a slightly different version of the story.
“In theory, my grandfather’s prayer brought about the miracle,” he says. “The story goes that Grandfather begged the Virgin to open the lock, but the lock remained closed. Then, in frustration, he said, ‘Because you don’t want to open the lock, I’ll have to let you be destroyed.’ And, in that moment, the lock opened. It must have been a very good blow, but, well, my mother did not explain anything about a blow. She explained it as a secret and a miracle.”
That is why many people of St. Privat consider the image of Les Olletes as the most precious object in town. In fact, the townspeople, at some point, ordered nine copies of Les Olletes, which they put inside “chapels”—wooden boxes that can be closed like a suitcase. These chapels are used to carry the religious images into and between people’s homes.
“The image visits all the houses of the village,” Carme of Can Soques explains. “We house it every month. Sometimes we host her every half month. I used to get it every week.”
“This was the urban formula,” explains Joan Arimany, who studies the phenomenon of itinerant chapels of the nearby county of Osona. “For those houses that did not have altars, this was the perfect solution. An itinerant image appears and disappears. It only occupies space when it is there. But above all, it creates a social network.”
The system of itinerant chapels allows humble homes to host a copy of Les Olletes for a day or two or a week, although nowadays it is more often a month because there aren’t as many neighbors waiting to receive her. When it is time for her to move on, the doors of the chapel are closed, and it is carried to the next caretaker in line. In the heyday of this tradition, nine neighbors, each from a different neighborhood, closed the chapel they had been hosting and carried it to the next in line every day of the month. These 270 monthly trips (or 3,240 annual moves) generated an enduring social bond by connecting each neighbor to the next through the co-responsibility of hosting Les Olletes.
“I remember taking her home and putting her in the best and warmest place in the house,” Ton reminisces. “We opened the chapel, lighted it, and, darn, she was an important presence in the house.”
Once a year, all copies of Les Olletes went to the church to absorb the spirit of the original. Of course, the town found a celebratory way to deliver the copies.
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“The procession began from the neighborhood below,” explains the Assumpció Ginabreda. “The Virgin Marys were carried while the rosary was said. Little by little, those of the Pocafarina neighborhood joined us, then those passing on the street also joined. We walked with torches, and we lit them slowly. When all the Mothers of God stood in the plaza, a special mass was called over loudspeakers. This was done, but it has not been done for many years.”
However, not everyone remembers the chapels with the same nostalgia. Josep Maria Ginabreda says that devotion was only used to raise money. “Because there is the Olletes Chapel, these itinerant chapels were a way of collecting. In the box below the Virgin, people would give pennies or change for the church’s finances.”
Everyone says that this itinerant tradition is coming to an end—some say it more happily than others. But in the neighboring village of Hostalets, one image was recently lost. There, they take turns hosting one of four Holy Families.
“In the town’s WhatsApp group, the grandmas, who monitor where the Family is daily, informed that a chapel was lost,” Maria del Mar says. “‘Alas, we’re looking for her. She’s lost!’”
“It seems the chapel was buried underneath a pile of clothes. Those people had a hard time admitting they had it, because they thought, ‘Alas! They will be so upset at us!’ Now it’s back in circulation.”
As a result of the accident in Hostalets, newly arrived residents showed an interest in the tradition. They too wanted to be included in the itinerary and house the Holy Family. So while most of the evidence points to the fact that there is no time for mass and little faith, in the Vall d’en Bas it seems that people are still interested in hosting a holy image, like the one of Les Olletes.
Of one thing, there is little doubt: from her cave under a cliff, Les Olletes gazes down upon St. Privat and taps into the power of landscape to attract local and distant devotees anchoring their most vital hopes.
Meritxell Martín i Pardo is the lead researcher of the SomVallBas project and research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She has a degree in philosophy from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia.