Penance, Piety (and Party!) of the Passion of Christ
Once the whiff of pagan smoke from the Fallas Festival has cleared and the feathers and sequins of Carnival have been hosed down the drains, Spain once again throws itself into party mode with renewed fervour. The religious holiday of Easter is observed in a week-long celebration of a 500-year-old tradition that began as a way for the illiterate masses to understand the story of Easter.
Spain, not known to shy away from the dramatic, transforms the pain and penance of the Passion of Christ into the spectacle of colour, music and ceremony that this country does so well. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is by far, their biggest cultural observance. Bigger than Christmas, bigger than football. It puts our egg hunts to shame.
While the essence of Semana Santa is basically the same throughout Spain, each region celebrates it differently, reflecting the unique cultural traditions and customs of each area.
Easter in Andalucia
The southern region of Andalucia is well-known for its extravagant and pious interpretations of the Passion of Christ. Seville, Granada and Malaga are just a few of the cities that attract tourists from all around the world looking to get swept up in the emotional atmosphere of it all. The scent of the orange blossoms, incense, burning candles, and fried sweet pastries emanating from the bakeries hangs in the air. As do the mournful tones of a saeta - the flamenco-style lament sung from an open window.
The Tamboradas of the northern regions
Further north, Semana Santa takes on a different vibe. The austerity of the processions is reinforced by the rhythmic beat of the drums and the melancholic notes of the bugles. Several provinces have taken the drums to a whole new level. The ‘tambores’ and ‘bombos’, (the bombo being the larger of the drums), are played in ‘tamboradas’ (drum parades) continuously for hours during Holy Week, particularly the midnight of Maundy Thursday.
Classified as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO, these drum parades are intended to provoke intense emotion, recalling the cataclysmic sound of heaven and earth opening up at the moment of Christ’s death. The simultaneous reverberation of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of drums echoing around the walls in the cities are spine-tingling, or headache inducing, depending on your frame of mind.
The endless beating causes wounds on the hands, producing bloodstains on the drums. While some drummers prefer to wear protective gloves, others choose not to, as a form of penance. And penance plays a significant part in the processions during Semana Santa.
The penitent Nazarenes and their pointy hats
The penitents, or Nazarenes, are made up of dozens of brotherhoods, or cofradias, dressed in robes, capes and a pointed hat and mask known as a capirote. These conical hoods may give visiting North Americans a severe case of the heebie jeebies, but the tradition dates back to the time of the Inquisition. Those under trial for blasphemy or other crimes were forced to wear a paper capirote with their bad deeds written on them as a form of public humiliation. Later, it became a way for penitents to remain anonymous as they sought forgiveness for their sins. When the Inquisition ended, the tradition continued and now only the brotherhoods of penance are permitted to wear them during the processions.
The significance of the coloured robes
The robes and capirotes come in a variety of colours, usually black, white, red, green, blue or purple. Each colour represents an element of the Passion of Christ. Black is a symbol of grief and mourning; white is purity, light and resurrection. The red robes signify the blood spilt by Jesus; blue, the Immaculate Conception. Green is the hope and expectation of the Virgin, and purple, probably the most prominent, especially in Aragon, represents the colour of royalty for the cape Jesus was given when ridiculed as the King of Jews.
The floats and their images
The penitents, sometimes carrying wooden crosses, sometimes shackled or barefoot, accompany the massive floats carrying life-sized images of Jesus or Mary. The floats, or pasos (small floats) or tronos (large “throne” floats), are carved wooden platforms adorned with flowers, candelabras, and other decorations and can weigh up to 5000 kg. Many of the floats embellished in bronze, silver and gold leaf, date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and can stir up powerful sentiments from the observing public.
The significance of the images
The cofradias or brotherhoods each honour a particular depiction of Christ or a sorrowful Mary during this story of penitence and sacrifice. These depictions take the form of sculptural life-size images that are paraded throughout the streets on the hundreds of floats. Each float represents a scene that corresponds to the event that occurred each day during the final week of Lent before Easter Sunday, such as: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus in a crown of thorns being flogged, Jesus stumbling with his cross behind a Roman soldier on horseback, Jesus on the cross, or the Virgin in the Lamentation of Christ. And of course, Jesus’ resurrection.
The Sunday before Easter marks the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. People lay down or wave palm leaves as a sign of victory and faithful devotion. The donkey is a symbol of peace compared to a horse ridden by a conqueror.
Monday is connected to the Cursing of the Fig Tree from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The fig tree represents Israel and the cursing is directed towards the Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus predicts his own death on Tuesday. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus claims he will be crucified in Jerusalem. He will suffer from the chief priests and elders and be subsequently killed on the cross.
Wednesday is the day Judas plots his betrayal against Jesus with the chief priests.
Maundy Thursday holds more significance in the Catholic Church than in other churches as it is the day the Holy Communion is established. During the Passover feast, now known as the Last Supper, Jesus promises eternal life for those who partake in the eucharistic bread and wine, as symbols of his body and blood.
Maundy=from Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or command. This refers to the command Jesus gave his disciples during the Last Supper. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
Jesus is arrested by Roman soldiers and taken to the House of Annas. Pontius Pilate questions him, has him whipped, then released. But the Jewish elders are intent on seeing him crucified for his claim to be God’s son. Jesus is forced to carry his cross to the hill of Golgotha where he is nailed up for six hours. From noon to 3pm a darkness falls over the land, a quake shakes the earth and tombs break open.
Saturday is rather an uneventful day as Jesus lies in his tomb. Being the Sabbath, there was not a lot his followers could do until the evening. Saturday is the time for quiet reflection and preparing for the resurrection.
Christ is said to have risen on the Sunday, and according to which Gospel you read, his resurrection is first witnessed by Mary Magdalen, Peter and the rest of his disciples, or his followers.
The rest is history.
The costaleros, or float bearers.
The costaleros are the float bearers who spend weeks leading up to Easter preparing for this most important job. There are over 60 church brotherhoods just in Seville alone and each paso float weighs around 1000kg, carried by 30 to 50 costaleros.
The coordination of their steps is essential for its success. One wrong step can quickly turn to disaster, especially for the tightly packed public who have nowhere to move. The wax dripping from the long candles onto the cobbled streets can cause slippage, and there has been a fair share of accidents over the centuries. Nothing makes you feel closer to the afterlife better than a full-size Jesus made of solid wood bearing down on you.
The processions in Seville and Malaga are generally more elaborate and often the costaleros are hidden beneath curtains making the floats seem like they....exactly that….float. Their steps create a perfect rhythm as the massive float sways in time to the beat of the drums.
The processions begin at the individual parish churches, passing slowly through the streets to the cathedral (in the case of Seville) and back to the parishes. Depending on the city, this journey can take up to 14 hours which requires a few shift changes between the costaleros.
Catholicism in Spain Today
The wonderful thing about fiestas, especially in Spain, is you don’t have to be Catholic, or religious at all to enjoy the pure spectacle of them.
If you visit the many large churches and cathedrals around the country, you’ll notice that they are largely empty affairs.
In a country that boasts a long history of religiosity and Catholic tradition, Spain has become increasingly secular in the last 30 years. The churches are predominantly filled by the elderly who are not likely to be replaced once they’ve gone.
But every spring, towns and villages across the nation delve deep into their Catholic identity to rediscover a spirituality which is often lacking during the rest of the year.
While Catholicism may be ingrained in the country’s history, with three quarters of the population professing to be Catholic, a 2021 survey found that out of this group of believers, 35% never attended church and just 13% almost every Sunday or holiday. Only 4% admitted attending church several times a week. A 2018 survey found a mere 21% identified as highly religious with Spain coming in 16th out of 34 European countries, below Italy, Ireland, Poland, and Greece, with Romania the most religious at 55%.
The statistics seem to show that identifying as Catholic doesn’t always translate as being religious. For much of Spain, the Catholic tradition runs thickly through its veins and the fiestas are the heartbeats that keep it pumping. So even as the click of tourists’ cameras replace the murmur of prayer in so many of the churches, the iconography and rituals of this incredible festival show no signs of disappearing any time soon.
All photos are by the author taken in the city of Soria. Compared to the processions in other parts of the country, Soria's Semana Santa is a modest affair. Many of the floats are moved on wheels while others are carried by the float bearers.
For a stunning portrayal of Semana Santa in Andalucia, including the massive floats carried by the costaleros, check out THIS VIDEO.