Semana Santa – Spanish Easter


Semana-SantaThroughout history Spaniards have been people of great faith and pride. For most countries, the days (and significance) of Holy Week has been whittled down to one day, Easter. However, in Spain this week has an entirely different essence and importance here in Spain, known as Semana Santa. It is celebrated throughout the country with great intensity. Semana Santa is the one time of the year when the Spanish love of colour, joy and noisy celebration is tempered with a touch of solemnity.

The Semana Santa festivities are a national celebration of passion and life, most towns and cities mark them with a week long festival of solemn religious acts and huge colourful processions to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lavish floats with life size statues of Jesus and Mary take to the incense filled streets accompanied by eerily dressed penitents and marching bands playing haunting melodies.

The solemn processions are followed by enthusiastic outpourings of joy and it is impossible not to be affected by it. Crowds anxiously await on the streets to catch a glimpse of these candlelit and flower covered floats carried upon the shoulders of men walking in synch side by side for as many as 5 hours. Nowhere is the grandiosity and the religious spirit of Semana Santa more perfectly captured than in Andalucia.

This time of year is deeply rooted in Spanish culture and is celebrated throughout Spain with great enthusiasm and pride. However, Andalucia and particularly Seville and Malaga have the most spectacular Semana Santa processions as well as the most attended. People come from all over the world to witness this marvel. Smaller pueblos such as Ronda (in Malaga) also have beautiful processions that are more intimate and just as impressive. The smaller scale of the town makes it much more accessible to visitors to be a part of the daily processions and to feel the unique significance of these events. Further North in such places as Barcelona, Semana Santa is celebrated with less religious fervour and may only have processions on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

To truly feel the essence of Holy Week, Andalucia is the place to be, a once in a life time experience.

The history of the present day traditions of Semana Santa originate from the medieval ‘Reconquista’ (re-conquest) of Southern Spain of the Moors by the Christian kings of the north. Hermandades (brotherhoods) were formed during the re-conquest to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefields and to bury the dead. The hermandades were first organised according to medieval membership of a professional guild and, by the 16th century, the tradition of processions to symbolise the journey of Christ to Calvary was firmly established.

Palm Sunday begins the traditional eight day celebration in honour of Christ’s Passion, each day progressing to a climax of grief and emerging to a triumphant end of joy on Easter. The most intense and meaningful days take place on the madrugada (midnight) of Maundy Thursday to Good Friday. In Seville and Malaga, approximately 50 processions pass through the streets during this week.

It is quite a sight to behold as the huge floats (tronos or pasos) carrying statues of Jesus and Virgin Mary leave the church carried on the shoulders of men walking rhythmically in synch to the haunting drum beats of the marching band. The float of Jesus always goes first with the Virgin Mary following close behind on a second float. Each day the elaborate floats with Jesus and Virgin Mary are taken out from a different church, each one depicting a specific scene from the passion.

The floats leave the church and slowly make their way through the crowded streets of devotees to the main town cathedral (tribuna) and then gracefully turn around and makes its way back to the parish church. The round trip journey of each procession ranges from 5 hours to 12 hours. The structure of the floats also adds to the intrigue and majesty of the event, they are truly immense in size and the weight of each is tremendous.

In Seville, typically you will see the largest and most elaborate floats of all the Semana Santa processions in Spain. These floats sit on a structure of large pillars which are visible to the public as are the shoulder bearers called Orguillelo (those carrying the Christ float) and the men carrying the Virgin Mary are called the Quadrillo. The largest of the floats require as many as 200 men to carry them. Imagine the difficulty of manoeuvring this through the streets, turning corners, stopping and starting again alongside 200 others who are literally side by side and front to back for hours at a time, wow!

The smaller floats are (a mere) 1,000 – 2,000 kilos and are carried by some 30-40 men. The smaller floats usually cover the underneath structure of the float with a long skirt of drapery under which the shoulder-bearers carry the float, unable to see the road ahead. These are called Costaleros. This group is led by one person in front and two behind which call out directions to the Costaleros.

When the procession starts each individual person is bearing the weight of 35-40 kilos, however after 4-5 hours walking on cobble stone streets (some participants choosing to do this journey barefoot), the weight increases to 50-55 kilos per person as exhaustion sets in. There are always extra people on standby to enter as people drop out to rest.

You may ask why men choose to do this year after year, the pain and suffering is clear and often misunderstood. Each person has their own reason to participate but in general, it is a way for the individual to get in touch again with their own spirituality and God. Aside from being a meaningful religious act, in Spain it is considered a great honour to participate in the Holy Week processions, a highly revered Spanish tradition.

The men carrying the floats belong to particular brotherhoods. It is the brotherhoods (Cofradias/Hermandad) that give Semana Santa celebrations their unique appeal. Each church parish has its own brotherhood. People usually join the brotherhood of their neighbourhood church or the membership is passed down from generation to generation, father to son. Thus, as a member you may choose to participate as a shoulder-bearer in the procession.

The Brotherhoods are responsible for organising the processions which include the floats and shoulder bearers. Also participating and adding a different sense of mystery and intensity to this event are the hooded penitents (also members of the brotherhoods) walking alongside the floats, called nazarenos or penitents. They wear full length robes in rich colours of royal blue and purple and pointed hats with veils which completely cover their face. The purpose of the veil is to provide privacy and anonymity to the penitent (can be men, women and children). These individuals have made special requests of God and wish to demonstrate to him through their participation their deep belief and need.

Women are also part of these brotherhoods, through the association of family (parents, husbands, etc). It is the women who care for and attend to the statues of Jesus and Virgin Mary in the Church throughout the year. They also have the responsibility of preparing and decorating the floats to take to the streets during Holy Week. For the obvious reason of the sheer weight of the floats, women traditionally have not been able to carry these huge floats. However, nowadays certain villages have made smaller floats to accommodate the women’s desire to participate in this meaningful ritual as the men do.

Imagine the dramatic scene of the beautifully adorned statue of the Virgin Mary lit with hundreds of candles leaving through huge wooden doors of the centuries old church, the silence of the crowd as they await her entrance into the street and the penitents in their forbidding robes and hats……. then, suddenly, the air is split by a human voice, singing a plaintive lament. This is a saeta, a tragic song commiserating with the suffering of the Virgin, a highly important traditional element in Spain’s Holy Week. With only a terse snare drum tapping time, the song is slow and mournful to begin with and then builds to a powerful climax. Not just anyone can sing at the processions, it is a prestigious honour bestowed upon singers proving their ability. True to the spirit of flamenco music, saetas must be improvised on the spot, and must not be supported by any musical instrument other than a drum. Often you will see (or only just hear) the saetas sung from a balcony of a house or church overlooking the procession.

Traditionally, the presence and participation of the Spanish gypsies in Andalucia during Semana Santa is in full force. This is a very significant and meaningful time for the gypsies. You will often hear them calling out “guapa!” to the float of Virgin Mary as they go up and touch the float, showing their devotion. They are famous for the intensity of emotion which they generate by their demonstration of devotion.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, make sure you don’t miss out on the spectacle and the religious passion of the processions. Each town and city has its own interpretation of what Semana Santa means, and each one is certain to be unforgettable.


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