Around the world, protected areas have been established on the sites of existing or former sacred natural sites (Verschuuren et al. 2008
). Most of these sites preceded the establishment of protected areas, often by many centuries, sometimes by millennia (Mallarach et al. 2014
). Scientists, managers, and conservation practitioners have recognized that the sacredness of nature underpins the world’s first conservation areas, which often were Sacred Natural Sites (SNS), or sacred landscapes (Frascaroli 2013
; Verschuuren and Brown 2018
). There is evidence across the world that territories managed by monastic communities over the centuries have been more carefully preserved than the surrounding ones (Mallarach et al. 2016
) and ancient religious themes and practices underpin contemporary environmental discourses and initiatives (Adler 2006
; Berry 2015
). Moreover, sacred plants and animals, through their spiritual meanings, have played a role in the development of a sacred geography and in the maintenance of “biocultural diversity” (Posey 1999
; Bhagwat and Rutte 2006
; Pungetti et al. 2012a
), interpreted as “the diversity of life on earth in both nature and culture” (Pungetti 2013
The values, religious beliefs, and management practices of traditional peoples are increasingly considered important elements of effective community-based natural resource management (Cox et al. 2014
; Ostrom 1990
). Many SNS form “a largely unrecognized shadow conservation network” (Dudley et al. 2008
). There is evidence that sacredness can be a powerful means of conservation when linked to customary institutions and a broadly respected belief system (Virtanen 2002
) and interreligious advocacy campaigns have been instrumental in the global efforts to preserve ecosystems, species, and a stable climate (Oviedo 2012
; Tatay and Devitt 2017
). Partnerships between religious and conservation groups represent “significant untapped potential” (McLeod and Palmer 2015
), which can promote and sustain conservation efforts. As some scholars have argued, despite the historical divide, there is a growing “convergence of beliefs” (Dudley and Higgins-Zogib 2012
) 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 (Batalla Gardella 2002
): 1200 (10%) are named after a Christological title, 4300 (35%) after a Marian devotion, and 6800 (55%) are related to many different saints. A significant share of the nonurban religious sites is located in natural preserves of high ecological value and has played a prominent role in the “sacred spatial planning” (Muñoz Jiménez 1997
) of the Iberian landscape. Given the growing interest in customary institutions and types of protection that differ from those promoted via legal mechanisms (Colding and Folke 2001
; Colding et al. 2003
; Bhagwat and Rutte 2006
; Swiderska 2011
), the significant number of Christian sacred sites and pilgrimage routes placed within or near Natura 2000 areas, and the deep popular piety associated with Mary, we focused our exploration on the religious and cultural practices underpinning Marian titles and pilgrimages to SNS in Spain as a preliminary mapping of the terrain, a way of providing examples of effectively managed community areas that have preserved valuable ecosystems, traditions, and beliefs for centuries. This study aims at breaking ground on a topic that had not been previously explored and expects to open new research possibilities.
It is necessary to specify that by “Marian verdant title” we mean a noncanonical, poetic or allegorical way of depicting Mary of Nazareth in popular religion using an arborescent or plant-related name. In an analogous manner, by “Marian verdant advocation” (from the Latin advocatio, pleading the cause of another) we mean a complementary botanical term that applies to Mary referring to a certain mystery, virtue, or attribute of her, to special moments in her life, to places linked to her presence or to the discovery of an image of her. Nuestra Señora del Espino (Our Lady of the Hawthorn), Virgen de la Encina (Virgin of the Holm Oak), Mare de Déu del Roser (Mother of God of the Rose), Nuestra Señora del Olivo (Our Lady of the Olive), and Virgen del Olmo (Virgin of the Helm) are some of the most popular Marian verdant advocations in Spain.
2. Marian Popular Devotions and The Religious Significance of Plants
According to Robert Harrison, within the Western cultural imagination trees and forests “remain the correlate of human transcendence.” They also evoke, however, a fear of “the disappearance of boundaries, without which the human abode loses its grounding” (Harrison 1992, p. 247
). This dual, ambiguous, and paradoxical meaning of forests—the complex experience of tremens
conveyed by the natural world—also permeates popular religion in Spain and is reflected in the rituals and devotional practices associated with rural Marian verdant advocations. In fact, most of these advocations trace their origin to a place in the forest or in a cave where a shepherd, a monk, or a child either found a hidden image of Mary or had a personal, fortuitous, transcendent encounter—an apparition of the Mother of God.
As Ronald David Lawler has noted, “the very nature of Catholic faith inclines the believer to consider private revelation a real possibility” (Lawler 1984, p. 103
). Since the first visions of Mary in the 4th century, there have been an estimated 21,000 Marian apparitions across the world (Warner  2016
), and despite secularization, their frequency has not diminished in the 20th century. Indeed, most Marian verdant advocations have emerged from popular devotions associated with mysterious private revelations. “Mary’s decision to appear at particular places at particular times is one of the things that most clearly establishes her as a distinct supernatural personality” (Carroll 1986, p. 224
). The figure of Mary mediates these numinous encounters in the wilderness between a humble, devout person and the divine. In these intimate, personal encounters, the transcendent–immanent line, as well as the human–nature divide, is often blurred. Many interpretations have been offered in the last decades, from the Freudian understanding of apparitions as hallucinations intended to gratify childhood experiences or traumas to a missing feminine aspect in Christian theology to a sign of a spiritual void (Horsfall 2000
; Carroll 1986
Despite secularization, Mary still has a status in Western society and Marian devotions play a prominent role in popular religion (Romero 1993
; Warner  2016
). Marian titles and advocations are also widely used. The role and significance of Mary in popular Catholicism, however, is a matter of intense academic debate. Warner  2016
has described five prototypical Marian images—virgin, queen, bride, intercessor, and mother—whereas Johann Roten
) identified six types of Marian popular imagery—naturalist, poetic, exotic, essentialist, abstract, and miraculous. According to Roten, miraculous images are “the oldest and most widespread form of popular Marian imagery. This type of image is closely linked to apparitions of the past, to famous sanctuaries and pilgrimages” (Roten 1994, p. 108
). This is certainly the case with most rural Marian advocations in Spain (Batalla Gardella 2002
). The mother image, the predominant type of Marian verdant title, mediates the presence of the Creator and acts as a type of theophany, an immanent presence of a life-giving force. Popular religion acknowledges a communal participatory role in the understanding and interpretation of the central beliefs of a particular faith. As Hilda Graef puts it: “In popular devotions, the believer is called to participate rather than be instructed” (Graef 2009, p. 427
). In Latin Christianity, the symbol of Mary as a life-giving mother, intercessor, and mediatrix (between a creator God or mother Goddess and humankind) plays a prominent role in many popular devotions (Romero 1993
). However, “Mary is not herself the source of life, but she leads or points to that source of life” (Roten 1994, p. 112
). Through these devotions, believers are transformed in the way they see, interact, and value the natural world. The many Spanish Marian arborescent titles are a reflection of the way the transformation works.
The tree of life metaphor, a component of the world tree motif, was common in Assyrian and Egyptian imagery and is also present in the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 2:9; Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4) and the New Testament (Rev. 2:7; 22:2). Adam and Eve are not only placed in a garden, they are set in a dialogical relationship with one tree that qualifies in two ways: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Both symbolic trees have a distinct function, the tree of knowledge as a test, and the tree of life as a reward for obedience (Mettinger 2007
The woman of the Apocalypse, later interpreted by the Christian church as Mary, the new Eve, does not appear in a paradisiacal Garden. However, at the very end, the final eschatological vision draws us back to the very beginning, the Genesis tree of life motif (Rev. 22:2). Popular religion may have found inspiration in this ancient religious motif often setting apparitions in a forest or in a garden, channeling the life-giving force of trees through the use of arborescent titles. It is also relevant to note the symbolic function of trees as an indestructible, living force and the evidence that, except for the pine trees, all Marian arborescent titles in Spain (including Pinus canariensis, a species that resists fire) refer to species capable of new growth, sprouting from the branches or the base of burnt or cut trunks. This may also explain the relative absence of conifers, most of which are not fire-prone.
The Modern Catalan advocation to the Mare de Déu del Roser (Mother of God of the Rose) deserves a special mention not only for its popularity, but also because of its theological meaning (Wilkins 1969
). As Sara Horsfall explains: “The visionaries encounter Mary, a being who converses with them. Many of the visionaries, and those who witness the visions, experience the environment as well. A frequent report is the smell of flowers of roses” (Horsfall 2000, p. 379
). The garden rose bush is the most common Marian verdant title in Spain, deriving its name from the Latin rosarium
(literally ‘rose garden’), which, “in fourteenth-century Europe had also come to signify a collection of devotional texts (‘roses’) offered in praise” (Mitchell 2009, p. 5
). At the end of the Middle Ages, “numerous allegorical works began to appear with titles like ‘Little Rose Garden,’ ‘Spiritual Flower Garden,’ or ‘Rose Garden of the Heart.’ When the garden has become the soul—or the soul a rose garden—the image of picking spiritual flowers from it to offer to the Virgin is a logical step. From there, it is only a small step to the concept of the rosary” (Winston-Allen 2005, p. 99
). Significantly, whereas the advocation to the Virgen del Rosario (Virgin of the Rosary) is widespread across Spain, only the Catalan-speaking regions have kept its floral resonance.
Thorny bushes, very common in the semi-arid Mediterranean biome, carry a strong Biblical resonance and have been interpreted in many cultures as symbols of spiritual transformation. When it comes to one of the central Marian advocations, the mater dolorosa
(sorrowful mother), it is inevitable to draw a theological parallel between the crucifixion scene and the tradition of the crown of thorns. We do not know for sure from which species of bush or tree the Roman soldiers tore twigs to elaborate the crown of thorns (cf. Mark 15:17; Matthew 27:29; John 19:2). Botanists and historians have identified a number of shrubs as potential candidates (Evans 2014, p. 138–39
): Palestine buckthorn (Rhamnus palaestinus
), Jerusalem thorn (Paliurus spina-Christi
), boxthorn (Lycium
spp.), common thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum
), Christ-thorn (Ziziphus spina-Christi
). Three of these species—Jerusalem thorn, boxthorn, and Christ-thorn—thrive in the Iberian Peninsula, though they are not very common. Similar shrubs and trees, however, are widespread. The reason why so many (37.4%) Marian apparitions in Spain have taken place on top, inside, or near a small thorny shrub (Rosa
spp., Crataegus monogyna
, Rubus ulmifolius
spp.) or tree with prickly foliage (Quercus ilex
) remains unclear, but their strong Biblical, Christological, and cultural associations seem a plausible explanation.
Another ancient Christian tradition, the eremitic-monastic, has related the seven virtues of cloistered life with the seven trees mentioned by Isaiah (Is. 41:18–9): fir or pine, cedar, hawthorn, myrtle, olive, box, and elm (Pungetti et al. 2012c
). Interestingly, five out of the seven—Pinus
—are well represented among the Spanish Marian verdant advocations. Furthermore, there is a significant overlap between the 20 sacred trees identified in the Celtic Ogham alphabet (Graves 1876
) and the verdant advocations analyzed here. The Celtic culture deeply shaped the Iberian Northwest before the arrival of the Romans and may have played a role in translating the ancient meaning of certain trees (Malus
) into Christian symbols via popular religion.
As Judith Crews has pointed out, “tree worship has for the most part disappeared from the modern world. However, the symbols that remain in language, lore and culture serve as reminders of the rich relationship between human thought and the forest world” (Crews 2003, p. 43
). Across the world, different forms of tree symbolism “embody different ways of relating to place and conservation practices” (von Hellermann 2016
). This seems to be the case in Spain too, where monasteries and rural sanctuaries have played a key role in articulating a “sacred landscape” (Cinquepalmi and Pungetti 2012
) or “sacred spatial planning” (Muñoz Jiménez 2010
). Moreover, “in the location of the Spanish rural sanctuaries, some clear geographical clichés converge (the mountain, the sickle, the river, the fountain, the island, the peninsula, the singular tree, the hanging stones, the forms of wind origin, etc.), as well as several historical circumstances such as primitive hermitages, castles of military orders, uninhabited areas, ancient ruins, dolmens and megaliths, cemeteries, place of birth of a saint, etc.” (Muñoz Jiménez 1997, p. 109
It is no coincidence that a significant number of highly popular Marian sanctuaries in Spain are located inside National Parks (NP) and other types of nature preserves within Natura 2000 (Table 1
). The sanctuaries of El Rocío (Doñana NP), Covadonga (Picos de Europa NP), Montserrat (Parc Natural de Montserrat) and Peña de Francia (Parque Natural de las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia) are some paradigmatic cases of Marian shrines placed in ecologically very valuable settings. In Southern Europe, as in many other regions of the world, “yesterday’s sacred grove is today a biosphere reserve, a natural heritage site or protected area” (Crews 2003, p. 43
The role of mainstream faiths in preserving SNS and the spiritual values of natural places has been acknowledged by academics (McLeod and Palmer 2015
), The World Bank (Palmer and Finlay 2003
), environmental think tanks (Gardner 2002
), and international conservation agencies (WWF-ARC 2005
). This is a relatively recent development that was not expected a few decades ago. For the most part, natural resource management and conservation strategies had been based on secular approaches rooted in the natural sciences (Oviedo 2012
). The secular tide, however, seems to be receding and a growing awareness of the links between conservation and spirituality, the recognition of the importance of partnership among all societal actors, and the evidence of complex social–ecological systems (Ostrom 2009
; Folke et al. 2016
) has led to the inclusion of religious actors in the sustainability debate (Wolf 2017
Rights-based policies and managerial approaches to preserve valuable ecosystems are not enough. In the international arena, “there has been a renewed interest in the role religions and Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) can play in fostering sustainability” (Tatay and Devitt 2017, p.123
). The growing interest in the role of SNS and popular religion in the context of environmental conservation can be seen as part of a wider effort striving to conserve biocultural diversity (Pungetti et al. 2012b
) and as a recognition of the importance to commit all societal actors. Existing local Marian verdant advocations are an excellent case study to analyze how traditional religious beliefs can underpin new conservation strategies and preserve biocultural diversity.
Engagement in sustainable ways of living is a key issue to the success of conservation and the survival of civilization as a whole. In this study, we have only focused on the analysis of Marian verdant advocations and other highly popular Marian sanctuaries within or near the Spanish Natura 2000. The limited scope of our research, however, may be a valuable starting point for further studies.
Despite the increasing secularization, the rapid depopulation of rural Spain over the second half of the 20th century, and the disconnect between urbanites and their surrounding landscape, there is a growing interest in spirituality witnessed in recent phenomena such as the revival of ancient pilgrimages (Pack 2010
) or the increased participation in traditional devotional practices. There is also a renewed interest in the sacred dimension of the nonhuman world that may help meet contemporary spiritual needs while contributing to articulate ethical arguments for nature conservation. Delving into the symbolic and sacramental realms can help to explain the connections between traditional value systems and contemporary practices. Lessons learned from the history of SNS may assist in improving the human–nature relationship.
Josep-Maria Mallarach et al. have argued that “the analysis of the criteria applied for the creation and maintenance of conserved areas by Christian monastic communities in diverse ecosystems throughout history is of interest for nature conservation and landscape management” (Mallarach et al. 2016, p. 74
). We affirm that this is not only true for monastic communities. A relationship of continuing dialogue between the custodians of religious sites and the managers of protected natural areas can clarify policy in the interest of promoting both the spiritual and cultural values associated with the landscape, and its conservation. If conservation needs to be grounded “in deeply held spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic values and ideas that will engage and inspire people to care for nature over the long term” (Bernbaum 2012, p. 83
), then it will be helpful to elicit the deep-seated meanings that sacred sites and religious symbols convey.
A recognition of the existence of many Marian verdant titles by which people have thought and interacted with nature for centuries in Spain has implications for conservation. Understanding how nature-based religious devotions, rituals, and symbols have shaped a particular sacred landscape can inform policies that build on existing local traditions, practices, knowledge, and institutions. As this paper has shown, identifying Marian verdant advocations not only helps to better understand the rich biocultural diversity of Spain, it can also situate these traditions in a particular socioenvironmental history.