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The cult of Sousa Martins: a contemporary devotion between Portugal and the Internet            

Date:28 November 2022
Author:Vincenzo Scamardella
Picture by Vincenzo Scamardella
Picture by Vincenzo Scamardella

How can we ask for a miracle without being able to move? What creative, ritual, and visual paths do devotees take? How do devotees structure their interactions with a supernatural entity outside the off-line worship spaces? 

My research proposes considering the religious manifestations of the off-line and on-line as complementary and independently significant. The starting point calls into question the classical anthropological approaches related to the study of spaces of worship as well as individual and collective religious materialities and practices. 

The case of the Portuguese cult of José Thomas de Sousa Martins, a positivist doctor born in Lisbon, who left his mark on Portuguese medicine and society in the 19th century, can shed light on these questions. His research about infectious diseases gave him relevance within the European scenario. By providing free care to the poor, his benevolent actions made him a major public figure, which is still popular in Portugal today. After contracting tuberculosis, he took his own life in 1897. In 1904, under the request of his fellow doctors, a memorial statue was erected in the city of Lisbon in the area of the city's main health centers. At the base of this statue, the first offerings found their place. These religious offerings consist mainly of marble plaques inscribed with words of thanks for a miracle received. These objects attest to devotion and faith in Sousa Martins, who had become a supernatural entity. These religious offerings are studied in this research because they exemplify the exchange of ritual practices and requests for miracles by devotees in relation to a supernatural entity (Sousa Martins). These offerings demonstrate a devotional relationship that is subjective, affective, and individual. By performing the rituals, devotees transform non-religious spaces into religious spaces. 

The scientific figure of Sousa Martins was combined with the figure of a supernatural healer. Practiced outside of any institutional framework, this cult is presented as trans-religious (summoning Catholic devotees, spiritualists, and members of the Umbanda communities) and transnational (through Portuguese-speaking spaces). My research demonstrates that these practices are a privileged observatory to understand the contemporary modalities regarding the quest for miracles; in all their plurality and between the off-line and the on-line

Off-line spaces, such as the one at the Sousa Martins' statue in Lisbon, show how votive action can transform non-religious spaces into favorable religious spaces. For instance, the cemetery where Sousa Martins is buried, and the museum in the village of Alhandra near Lisbon, are also great examples. One of the rooms of the museum in Alhandra is dedicated to Sousa Martins. Although the museum's policy proposes a non-religious reading of Sousa Martins, the daily practices of the devotees transform the museum into a religious space. This is evidenced by the museum's tour books that have become votive scripture books, where devotees ask and give thanks for miracles to Dr. Sousa Martins as a supernatural entity. The Alhandra cemetery, where Sousa Martins is buried, is visited by devotees on a daily basis, especially on pilgrimage days. This characteristic points to the trans-religious aspect of the cult. Nevertheless, in a public space that was not dedicated to worship, the quests for miracles take up the codes of do-ut-des relationships, such as spirit possession sessions and collective rituals conducted by people whose authority is designated by a "spiritual gift" which is recognized by the devotees.            

In addition to public spaces, domestic spaces are also used in the practices of this devotion. The religious faith in Sousa Martins also exists in everyday life and overcomes the usual modalities of miracle seeking (commonly considered as a form of solution to an exceptional crisis). These domestic practices shape the devotee's home, revealing spaces dedicated to religious materiality. Within the secrecy and intimacy of the domestic sphere, mediumistic sessions are held in which the spirit of light (Espirito de Luz) of Sousa Martins is summoned by devotees seeking supernatural help.

Finally, devotional practices also take place in on-line spaces, which contribute to devotees' expression of ritual and visual creativity. The study of rituals and religious manifestations among Facebook groups dedicated to Sousa Martins, whos is considered a "supernatural entity", highlights the plural nature of contemporary devotional modalities. Indeed, these groups show new forms of socialization and reflection on the "presence" of the supernatural entity.

By studying this phenomenon through the lens of visual and religious anthropology and in between the off-line and the on-line, I observed that images and votive writings materialize and fix devotional relationships. Ultimately, my research unpacks the aesthetic codes, the off-line/on-line relationship of the religious, and the contemporary modalities of rituals constructed and lived in a cult that thrives outside institutions. 

About the author

Vincenzo Scamardella

Anthropologist and Researcher

Aix-Marseille Université (IDEMEC);   
Casa de Velázquez (EHEHI)