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A Journey Into A complex Past
Carnaval is over. Holy Week and Easter are still some weeks away. This, in the Christian church is the season of Lent ( or La Cuaresma, as it is known in Spanish), the season that commemorates the forty days which by tradition, Jesus spent in the desert following his baptism in the Jordan. But preparations to mark Holy Week continue, and so on Friday evening we went to thepregón, the revealing of the image which will be used on all the printed material - posters, programmes, arm bands, and the like. It was also the occasion for the recently restored masks representing the twelve disciples, and which are worn during the Holy Week processions. I must admit that that was my main reason for attending. These papier-mâché masks date all the way back to the 17th century, and we are fortunate not only that they have survived in such good shape over the past four hundred years, but they survived at all chaos and church sackings that accompanied the early months of the Civil War; they are a rare survival and the village is rightly proud to have and to use them.
I have always found them impressive despite the accumulation of grime down the years and the yellowing of the varnish. I was apprehensive as to what restoration would have made of them. It has been a long, painstaking labour of love by a highly-regarded specialist restorer. Apparently, when first shown the maskshe was horrified, not by the external aspects, but by the inner surfaces. “How”, he apparently asked, “could people put their faces inside these masks!” Down the centuries it was not only the varnish which had aged and yellowed; the inner surface of each mask had become ever more heavily ingrained with the sweat and oils of the wearers. They were absolutely filthy, which I suppose says much about the devotion of those chosen to wear them each year.
The work is complete and it is a revelation. All the human detritus has been cleaned from inside, the old varnish and dirt of the outer surfaces removed, and miraculously given their construction material, they now look once again as they would have done when first crafted in the seventeenth century. It was well worth taking the trouble to be there for their unveiling. We were also treated to a saeta by a young woman of the village who is noted for her ability to sing cante hondo or deep song. The word ‘deep’ here refers to the depths of faith and feeling that infuse the saeta. In every day parlance a saeta is an arrow, and here it represents a song of deep sorrow and grief, aimed like an arrow at Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a message of empathy in her sufferings. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy ( the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford Dictionary) tells us that the word ‘flamenco’ refers to the region of Flanders and indicates a musical form which has migrated from there to Spain. Rubbish. Cante hondo is totally and utterly from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and the countries of the Maghreb, North Africa. In it you can hear Jewish and Arabic roots with not a hint of European; I detect a touch of politics in the official etymology.
The photograph is of this year's "cartel" for Holy Week.