La Mercè, patron saint of Barcelona
The legend goes that on the night of 24 September 1218, the Virgin appeared simultaneously to King Jaume I, Saint Pere Nolasc and Saint Ramón de Penyafort. She asked all three to create an order of monks dedicated to saving Christians imprisoned by the Saracens. It was the time of the wars of religion.
Centuries later in 1687, Barcelona suffered a plague of locusts, and placed itself in the hands of the Virgin of La Mercè. Once the plague had been overcome, the Council of the City named her patron saint of Barcelona. The Pope did not ratify this decision until two centuries later, however, in 1868.
The origins of the Annual Festival
After Pope Pius IX declared the Virgin of La Mercè the patron saint of the city, Barcelona began to celebrate a festival in the month of September. It was Francesc de Paula Rius i Taulet who turned out to be the driving force behind the first La Mercè festival, during his stint as City Councillor before becoming Mayor; the festival became a civic event in 1871 and included popular celebrations intended for the city’s residents.
La Mercè really took off in 1871, when under the impulse of Francesc Cambó, the festival became the model the those that are currently held all over Catalonia. However, the history of La Mercè would suffer many high and low points that extended throughout the Civil War and the years of Franco.
The Festival today
With the arrival of democracy, La Mercè became a truly popular celebration thanks to the participation of organisations from all over the city. Today it is a festival held in a large number of public places with a programme centred on Mediterranean culture. In less than a week Barcelona brings together a huge programme of events which forces you to choose between them: street arts, street processions, concerts, traditional dances...
The most traditional activities of the Mercè Festival are, in fact, a compendium of popular culture from all over Catalonia. There is the Gironese Sardana, the human castles and devils from the Camp of Tarragona, dances that still survive today all over the Catalan lands. But the great Barcelona speciality is its street parades, originating from the spectacular processions which took place centuries ago for the celebration of Corpus Christi. They are some of the oldest street spectacles that still exist today. Now, as ever, the organisation of the street parades relies on groups representing popular culture working side by side with the street artists. Their joint task means that we can keep alive the festive and theatrical spirit that these events have always had.