Once again we are on the brink of the big fiesta of the Spanish year, Semana Santa (Holy Week). Officially, the week begins this coming Sunday, Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and ends with Domingo de la Resurección (Easter Sunday), although in many places, the observances will begin on Friday of this week, Viernes de Dolores. This is especially the case in any town or city whose Patron Virgin is Our Lady Of The Sorrows. Interestingly, although Nuestra Señora de los Dolores is the Patron Virgin, the day is not marked by any ceremonies.
Although Semana Santa is important throughout Spain and the Spanish-speaking world, the manner of its observance differs from one part of Spain to another. The most ostentatious manifestations with the greatest religiosity, are to be encountered in the southern part of Spain, Andalucia above all, but also the comunidades of Murcia, Valencia and Extremadura, and in a much more restrained manner in Madrid and Barcelona.
I find this variation interesting in the light of my recent reading of the history of Spain. It seems that the greatest fervour is to be found in those parts (Al-Andalus) where it was most important to display your Christian credentials following the defeat of the Nasrid kingdon of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella (Los Reyes Católicos) in 1492. The Moriscos were often in literal fear for their lives were it to be suspected that they had not after all jettisoned their Islamic faith completely; likewise the Jews, and Toledo is another city with spectacular celebrations.
Within Andalucia, two cities stand out, Sevilla and Málaga. The other provincial capitals all make much of Semana Santa, but nothing quite equals these two. Sevilla boasts 57 cofradías or brotherhoods, each one associated with a different manifestation of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, and each cofradía taking to the streets in massive, tortoise-slow processions, accompanying the pasos or tronos, heavy with flowers and candles, on which the statue of the object of their veneration is carried, frequent rest stops being needed along the way. At one or more of these stops a saeta is likely to be sung, especially to a statue of Mary. This is a mournful, flamenco lament, sung a capello in the harsh nasal tones of the cantaor or cantaora. In the muffled silence and the dark, this sound piercing the night air will raise the hairs on the back of your neck; I guarantee it.
The two main cofradías of Sevilla, both of which go in procession on the night of Viernes Santo, are Jesus del Gran Poder, which has more than two thousand members and La Virgen de la Macarena. The crowds lining the streets for these two processions are truly enormous, and treat La Macarena with the greatest respect. As a Spanish colleague of my wife’s once explained to her, “When La Macarena goes by even the atheists put their cigarettes out.”
Málaga has around 60 cofradías, who likewise take to the streets at their allotted time throughout the week, wending their way from their home base to the cathedral and back, an excursion that takes several hours. An individual paso (as they are called in Málaga) can weigh in excess of 5,000kg and requires up to 250 people to transport it. The hermanos (brothers) belong to one of two categories, the nazareños (who wear the penitent’s garb of black or purple robes and capirotes , the spiked, whole-head masks that conceals their identity from others, who follow behind the paso), and the costaleros (literally, sackmen) who physically carry the paso, and who derive some limited relief from the pain and discomfort of the task by placing a thick pillow on the shoulder that bears the wooden beam. Apparently, until the middle of the last century the costaleros were all drawn from the ranks of the dockers in the port of Málaga.
The big difference between Sevilla and Málaga is that whilst Sevilla communicates an air of deep religious feeling, the malagueños can never quite put aside their party mood, and so Málaga processions are marked by high degree of alegría, at least among the onlookers.