Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 Semana Santa.

 

 


SEMANA SANTA

One's first experience of an Andalusian Easter procession can be bewildering. It is hard to find a logical thread in this complex web of images and sensations. Holy statues sway past you on their 'thrones' accompanied by sinisterly robed and hooded penitents. There are brass bands, long lines of candle-bearing faithful and various smartly-dressed figures of authority. The air will resound to a solemn drumbeat and smell of incense and flowers. There will be a less tangible sensation too, that of the grief inspired by the tragic story unfolding before our eyes.

This, of course, is the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, and of the effect of those events on his mother, the Virgin Mary. These two key figures are represented by statues that have acquired enormous devotion, especially in the brotherhoods or guilds that were formed to look after them, and whose members bear them so proudly through the streets for all to see and admire. Should rain prevent the processions from taking place, the sight of grown men in floods of tears provides striking witness to the depth of their devotion and the importance of the contact between the people and these images that the processions provide.

Each procession will have at its heart, therefore, two 'tronos', the platforms on which stand the figure of Christ or the Virgin Mother. Christ will be portrayed as undergoing some part of his terrible sufferings or Passion, and will go first. His Mother will follow, dressed in a spectacular robe, a crown upon her head, a canopy above it, and a mass of flowers and candles around her feet. On her face will be etched the sorrow that connects so profoundly with the Spanish spirit.

TronosThese platforms can be simply enormous, as anyone who has seen processions in Málaga will be able to testify. There, the richly ornamented floats, claimed by the Malagueños to be the most beautiful in Spain, can weigh literally tons and need more than two hundred men to carry them, an exhausting job but one that is proudly performed. These bearers are called 'costaleros' or 'portadores' and are usually members of the 'cofradía' or guild that is responsible for the statues. The bearers' pace, typically a slow side-to-side rocking motion, and their manoeuvres, to get round corners or under overhanging wires, for example, are controlled by the 'capataz', a sort of foreman. He acts as their guide and will also be responsible for deciding when to stop for a rest or to listen to a 'saeta', a lament sung unaccompanied from a balcony. The words can be almost impossible to decipher but there is no doubting their fervour and sincerity.

When the procession has to move on again, the 'capataz' will signal with three blows of a hammer on the front of the platform, two to alert the 'costaleros' to get ready, the third to tell them to lift the platform's crosspieces onto their shoulders. And off they will go again on their long, exhausting journey, preceeded and followed by a huge and eclectic gathering. There will be lines of 'nazarenos', hooded members of the guild whose look of humble anonymity acquired sinister overtones when copied by the Klu Klux Klan.

Their robes will often be maroon, the colour of penitence, and they will bear candles to light the way for their holy images. There will be bands, civil or military, with drums and cornets or other wind instruments playing the typical Semana Santa marches. There will be groups of children bearing crosses; they are the sons and daughters of guild members, being groomed for their future work for the 'cofradía'. Along the way you will see members of the 'cofradía' carrying various bits of official paraphernalia, such as the standards, the mace, or the book of statutes. Somebody will be wielding a censer, filling the air with the smell of incense. And there may be long lines of local women, dressed in black and bearing candles, some barefoot to fulfill a private vow.

Coordination between so many is the job of the 'mayordomos', penitents who patrol up and down their appointed section of the procession and who liase with each other to ensure the smooth progress of all concerned.
When the 'tronos' finally arrive back at their church after their long and arduous journey, the 'encierro' takes place, when the statues are shut away again in their usual home. Those bearing the Christ figure arrive first and wait for the Virgin to join them. When she does, there is a symbolic face-to-face meeting between the two, with the platforms swaying from side to side. Then, with one last great effort from the 'costaleros' they are raised on high as the national anthem is played and the onlookers applaud appreciatively as the procession disappears into the church.

Or not. Some of the Málaga 'tronos' are so enormous they don't actually fit through conventional church doors. The reason, or one of them, is said to date back to friction between the 'cofradías' and the priests because of the upset caused to the traditional celebration of Holy Week by all the preparations for the processions. Some of the 'cofradías' started to make these preparations outside the church, and that meant that the size of the platform was no longer governed by the limits of the church doors and could thus be much bigger. These great platforms are now kept in the brotherhoods' own premises, and the story reminds us that the relationship between the Church and the Semana Santa processions is not necessarily an entirely happy one. The parish priest may be present for the occasion, but his role will be a passive one for much of the time - the 'cofrades' run the show out in the street, not the Church, who apparently have mixed feelings about the way people see the statues of Christ and the Virgin as their direct line of communication to the Almighty and His Mother.

processionThe 'Andaluces' claim that this passion for Easter processions is a peculiarly local phenomenon, unmatched anywhere else. The people of Seville, never ones for hiding their light under a bushel, will tell anyone who cares to listen that their processions are the most important in the world. But anyone who has witnessed Holy Week outside Andalucía, in Cuenca, for example, or Lorca, will appreciate that depth of religious feeling at this key time in the Christian calendar, and its theatrical expression, are not exclusive to this area.

However, one of the strangest stories that can help to illustrate that religious feeling takes us back to Málaga and the year 1759, during the reign of Carlos III. At that time there was a plague epidemic devastating the city, and the prisoners in Málaga jail thought it might help matters to take the statue of Jesús Nazareno, known as 'El Rico', which was resident in a nearby convent, on a tour of the city. The authorities refused permission, but the prisoners were having none of it. They rebelled, escaped and duly carried El Rico around the city. They then returned him to his chapel and went back to their cells. It was found that none of the prisoners had gone missing, and the epidemic died out. The king was so impressed by the story that he granted a royal prerogative to the statue of El Rico to free one prisoner guilty of a 'delito de sangre', or blood crime, from Málaga jail each year. And so it continues to this day, on the Wednesday of Holy Week. In fact the decision is taken by the powers that be, but the person chosen can be seen, in black tunic and hood, accompanying the procession on the night of Holy Wednesday.

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