Easter procession in Spain – Semana Santa

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

In the public processions of the Holly Week one can find the core of the Andalusian spirit and much of the European Medieval history. It all comes down to a sincere devotion and expression of religious sentiment from the Spanish people, but the significances and historic roots are so diverse. Its origins are linked to a pilgrimage, and indeed it’s like traveling in time as well as geographically.

The imitation of Christ is the essence of Christian life, while the reliving of Biblical time is its flow, punctuated by the annual holidays, from Christmas to Easter. The suppression of secular time flow during holidays, and its replacement with liturgical time (incorporating holy events and myths) is best described by Mircea Eliade in his book The Myth of Eternal Return. For this regenerating process of suspending time to take place, art and ritual are indispensable.

Historic echoes
The question regarding the form in which this reliving of Biblical events should be represented was at the origin of the first breakup in Christianity, that continues to this day in the dispute between iconoclasts and defenders of icons. The iconoclasts were accusing the iconodules of making idols out of the painted images of Christ and Virgin Marry, and literally proceeded to smashing them. This conception was probably influenced by the heresy of Arius of Alexandria, who refused to accept the dogma of the Holy Trinity and especially the position of Christ as “one with the Father”. Probably this approach to Christianity was also the source of Islam, which in the beginning started as yet another Christian sect. Iconoclasm will reemerge in the Western Christian world with the advent of the Reformation, as a refusal of Catholic art and architecture.

On the other hand, the iconodules (or the iconophiles) were totally in love with their icons, which they regarded as sacred objects. They argued that Christ Himself was an Icon of God, a visible image, in a tangible matter, of the Unseen. Thus, they took the embodiment of Christ as an argument for the possibility that matter could receive the Holy Spirit and could be made to represent holiness. When they emerged as victorious in the wars with the iconoclasts, in the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church was instituted (843 AD). (That is before the great schism, the breakup with the Catholic Church in 1054, which is the formal separation.) However, though the Orthodox accepted the artistic representation of Biblical characters, they insisted that these representations remain symbolic. This way, the viewer was to make the effort of interpreting the image in his heart. To this day, Byzantine iconography refuses the realistic representation of volume when depicting the human body, while sculptures are almost absent from Orthodox churches. The road took by Western art after Renaissance couldn’t be more different than that.

Though less subtle, Islam had the quality of stating with clarity the dogma of the existence of a unique God. A simple powerful idea, that would smash the many gods of the Arab and Berber tribes, will fuel an unseen military expansion, both inside the Byzantine Empire, to the East, but also in almost entire Iberian Peninsula, to the West. The seven centuries of Moorish rule over Spain were beginning, and the military triumph was a consequence of that religious fervor. Most of Islam is iconoclast, only accepting calligraphic, geometric and floral decorations. It is very revealing that only in the Shiite minority (especially in Persia) can we see two things: the very rare depictions of Muhammad and also very dramatic, quite shocking reenactments of the sufferings of the son of Ali, in public displays of self-mutilation.

The time in which the Western Christian world experienced similar episodes of religious fanaticism was the time of crusades. The declared purpose of crusades was to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. But there was also a lot of Geo-political calculus involved, on the part of the Pope and of the European leaders. Jerusalem had been under the Muslims for over fours centuries, and no one in Rome seemed to mind, but a crusade was launched only a few decades after 1054, the breakup between Rome and Constantinople. It is true that some Byzantine emperors begged for help in the beginning, but they were ignored until their empire was weakened beyond the turning point. And the “help” provided by the Vatican came not in the shape of an army, but of an enormous mob, that happened to sack Constantinople and virtually destroy it, on its many assaults toward the East. It was very convenient for Papacy to have a reason to invade its rival, but also rid it of its monopoly over the symbolic places where Bible takes place. Without the frictions with the secular kings of Western Europe, this pretext would have probably been used prior to the end of XI century, the time of the first crusade.

In Spain, the crusades were intertwined with Reconquista, the eight centuries long battle of regaining the peninsula from the Moors. At first it was an ordinary territorial battle among kingdoms, but it too evolved into a religious war. The enemy was the same in the West and in the East, the massacres were terrible on both sides, living scars that survived to this day, especially in the Arab world.

In order to raise the unseen number of believers to a religious war, a massive act of propaganda must have been carried out. Indeed, the very term propaganda comes from a Catholic organization called Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Spreading Faith). As was later the case with Savonarola, in Florence, sometimes the Catholic sermons were a genuine expression of faith, but their outcome was uncontrollable, when masses were inflamed by rhetoric. The crusaders themselves were probably honest believers, most of the time, convinced that they were serving God, even in their violent acts. For those who took the road of crusade, that could take many years of one’s life, took part in the battles of Reconquista, or simply heard their stories, a new mentality emerged. A mentality full of heroic acts, demonization of the enemy and absolute devotion.

the costumes

In that climate some organizations were born. Some were military, and survive to this day, like the Knights Templar, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, but later became peaceful organizations. Others were from the beginning spiritual organizations. Such was the case with the Brotherhood of Silence in Seville, which is credited with organizing the first public Easter processions in the city. They go back to the beginning of the 14 century, created the costumes and even today they are one of the numerous brotherhoods that take care of the processions.

Processions like this, on a smaller scale have taken place in Jerusalem from the dawns of Christianity. There, many legends were added to the text of the Gospels and traditions were tied to different places on the famous Via Crucis, the road on which the passion of Christ took place, from the city to Golgotha. It is no doubt that the idea of reenacting the passion of Christ came after someone visited the Holy Lands, and it is probable that that took place during a crusade.

We know of at least one such person, the Marquis of Tarifa, which is credited of being the first pilgrim of his country, and who had an impact on Semana Santa in the 16 century. Don Fadrique Enriquez de Rivera replicated Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross from Jerusalem in Seville, where the largest procession of this type in Europe takes place.
The costumes are shocking to an unsuspecting eye, as they look so strikingly like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. The racist American organization is much recent (after the civil war) and has no connection with Catholicism. Though there is no evidence, it cannot be ruled out that the Americans copied the costumes for the anonymity they offered from processions that Spanish migrants took with them in the New World.

For the original creators of these costumes, they were far more significant. But to understand that, we need to go back to the times of crusades and Reconquista. Before actually engaging the enemy on the battle field, one meets the enemy in popular stories and legends. For Muslims and Christians, the other became “the infidel”. The Jews, sometimes siding with the Muslims, sometimes taking an ambiguous stand, were next on the target list. Centuries before political correctness came along, an reenactment of the crucifixion could not escape the ethnic background of the Biblical story, especially while it was in a disputed land. As Spaniards are descendants of the Romans, it’s not hard to guess that they would find a more convenient answer to the obsessive question “who crucified Jesus?”.

The garments of the Jewish priestly class, the Kohens, who were the only one allowed in the Temple and to conduct ritual sacrifices, were long white linen, with a turban or a pointed hat. They were also barefoot, as they were inside the holy land of the temple. The last high priest from descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, was killed by no other than Herod the Great, an the lineage was completely broken with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. So we know how those garments looked only from sketches, that vary widely. This is never mentioned in today’s tradition of the costumes, but it is not entirely absurd to suppose that they were meant to represent the generic “other”, a combination of Muslims and Jews, exempting the locals from assuming the role of persecutors in the Biblical drama. Moreover, in the episode of the crucifixion, the mob is a character in itself and painting it as the foreigner par excellence, would enhance the drama of the Victim.

The Middle Ages was also the time when the terrible institution of Spanish Inquisition emerged. The accused were paraded throughout the city in exactly the same clothes as those worn by the Nazarenos today. The name hints that they are indeed trying to impersonate the locals of Nazareth. The barefoot walk of those sentenced for witchcraft or heresy was the last humiliation, before they would meet the executioner, who also worn distinctive garments, that included a cloak and a black hood. For believers today it is a sign of ultimate penitence to wear the garments of those condemned to death in the past, and some even used to walk barefoot. Those who carry crosses have distinctive black clothes, with a hood that is not pointed up, but resembles more the hood of an executioner. In an age when witnessing a public execution, or risking one yourself, was a common memory, this imagery was definitely more powerful than it is today. And it was probably exploited by church leaders to touch the masses, especially in the colonies of the New World, much like the striking images of Gothic art were used as a familiar language to former barbaric tribes, after being Christianized.

In a way, this way of explaining the Evangelical story was as simplified as the iconoclast approach, when addressing an audience not prepared to grasp the symbolism of allegorical images. But only decades after Reconquista was over, in 1492, another enemy appeared for the Catholic church, this time from within: Martin Luther’s Reformation. The Protestants were emphasizing modesty and criticizing the excesses of the Papal church, proposing a balanced, more ethical life and concentrating on the text of the Bible instead of traditions. The church will respond to that challenge with even more excess. The grandiose cathedrals of Renaissance and the visual abundance of Baroque are both responses to Reformation, by the Catholic Church. Public sensitivity and emotional involvement were openly encouraged by the clerics. We recognize the layers of Baroque in the artfully worked garments worn by the statue of Virgin Marry and by the rest of the characters carried by the participants. The scenes presenting the trial of Jesus, the mourning by Marry and others are carried by members of various Christian brotherhoods, hidden under the platform. They are lead by a person who supervises and signals the pace and the stops.

The entire city takes part to these processions in the Semana Santa in very large crowds, applauding the allegorical chariots called pasos. Each brotherhood creates its own costumes, with some distinct colors and emblems. The recognized symbolism given today is that of penitence, taking part in the main story of the New Testament. For a Christian to fully understand the message of the Biblical story, he has to put himself in both the position of the One carrying the cross, and in that of the accusers, he has to accept his participation in the ongoing event of crucifying an innocent victim, in order to receive also the remission of sins brought by the resurrection. An interesting meaning given by participants today, who wear the costumes, is that the conical hat (capirote) represents modesty, but also a strive towards Heavens, in the same way suffering and sacrifice brings the Ascension. The vestment also resembles the dalmatic, the white long tunic worn by children that assist Catholic priests during ceremonies.

There are numerous processions taking place in this week, starting from the neighborhood of each brotherhood, towards the Cathedral of Seville. Some are more modest in scale, others are large enough to block that area of the city. Many are accompanied by fanfares and brass singers. Music is a real character to these procession, if not the most touching one. It’s a somber, and profound funeral music, that is specific to Andalusia, where even the smallest village has a bras orchestra. From time to time the trumpets break into a heart breaking solo, like a mourning cry of despair and melancholy, in which the entire soul of this torrid region seems to be poured. It’s the sound that accompanied military assaults, the triumph of thousands of bullfighters and the final fall of as many beasts in corrida.

During the civil war in Spain, the processions were also a polarizing force. The communists attacked the church, clerics were humiliated, sacred symbols destroyed, nuns were assaulted. In the cities that the revolutionaries seized, they tried to establish a secular regime, if not a virulent atheistic one. The fascists responded by stimulating public emotions and giving public processions new meanings and scale. Their parades were also replicas of these processions but for political purpose, much as the fascist units imitated the brotherhoods around a parish.

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