It began in Seville the Saturday before Semana Santa, or Holy Week. On the evening that my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I took our newly arrived Wanderland Writers group to a welcome dinner through the winding streets of the old city, we passed a local church en route. There, for the first time, we encountered members of a local parish, or a brotherhood, wearing their characteristic headgear that could be described as “desert Bedouin” waiting to follow—or carry—an enormous “float” consisting of a statue sacred to that church ( a “paso”) and mounted on an elaborate carriage.
From their home churches, floats are typically paraded through the streets on a prescribed route, including circling or entering the cathedral before returning to their home churches sanctified. In the case of this, our first procession in Andalusia, the statue was of a Jesus on the cross, so realistic one of our writers thought it was a real human and feared the throngs surrounding him meant to do harm.
To announce the coming procession, floats are frequently preceded by gold and silver staffs, banners and incense burners from the church, carried by officials, and followed by very lively bands heavy on drums and horns. Most disconcertingly for North Americans unaccustomed to Spanish Catholicism, often a phalanx of the marchers wearing robes, with covered faces and pointed hoods, march in front of the floats.
These are meant to be penitents, using the hood and mask as a mark of humility and anonymity, but the costumes are identical to those of the Ku Klux Klan, which adopted them (there is no relationship between them, I have often been assured) and may be green, blue, black as well as the familiar white.
Before our several days in Seville finished, we had seen many of these processions, as well as the inside of dozens of churches lit with candles, packed with worshippers, and celebrating special masses. To some of the faithful, these rituals of Holy Week, reminders of the suffering of Christ and the promise of redemption to come, are so powerful that they emerge from church weeping. At the same time, in perfect summation of the wonderfully contradictory nature of Spaniards, Semana Santa seems to be an enormous and often joyful party.
As my husband and I left Seville and crossed Adalusia, we found the same spirit everywhere: streets crowded, bars, restaurants and “tabernas” packed, families, young people, older couples, children—most dressed in their finery—staying up late on chilly nights to applaud the processions, follow in the streets, then celebrate with food and drink.
While “early-bird” Americans might be ready to fold their tents at 9:30, the Spaniards, including babies in strollers and well-behaved tots folded in their parents’ arms, were just getting started.
Although Seville, once a powerhouse of trade and wealth following the voyages of Columbus, is known for its displays of gold and silver—and its lavish processions during Semana Santa, as we left Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Seville behind, we found much the same fervor everywhere.
In Cordoba, the original Visigoth church was taken over by the conquering Moors in the 8th C., and eventually turned into the remarkable Mosque, or Mezquita, by successive reigning Caliphs through the 10th C. The site, at the center of the most prosperous, tolerant and cultivated city in Europe, was so awe-inspiring, that after Christian Reconquest in the 13th C., the new monarchs left it alone, and new Christian church structures were simply fit inside. Cordoba’s Cathedral with gothic, Renaissance and baroque features is contained within the cascades of Islamic arches and design. Indeed, 16th C. Emperor Charles V, having given permission to rip out the center of the mosque to build the altar area and choir, is reputed to have said to the architects, “You have destroyed something that was unique to the world.”
Even knowing the Mezquita/Cathedral’s storied history (it is now a World Heritage Site), it was still jaw-dropping to see throngs of worshippers gather in front to greet hooded penitents and the intricate floats—including one of a Virgin Mary in an elaborate white gown, gold crown and long purple robe— that emerged into a holy Christian night from the perfect Moorish arch over the Cathedral’s front door.
Surely, we imagined, away from these ancient and important cities, the celebrations would be on a smaller scale. So, as we entered the beautiful, small Renaissance town of Ubeda (which, along with its sister town Baeza is also a World Heritage Site) we were in no way prepared for what would greet us. Maunday Thursday, as the day is named on church calendars, is a national holiday throughout Spain and meant to recall the night of Christ’s Last Supper. If rolling floats with Jesus suffering, his betraying companions, and his weeping mother were now our familiars, so were impassible streets, crowds of elegantly dressed citizens, and the pounding of passionate drums, the wail of horns. Little Ubeda was in every way the equal of its more famous Andalusian cousins. In fact, it added something new (at least to us).
Following the processions of floats, musicians, hooded penitents, came a formation of exquisitely dressed women wearing black from head to toe, their coiffed heads topped with combs and mantillas. Like widows, these women in black meant to invoke mourning for Jesus.
Grenada, the luscious “Pomegranate” and last stronghold of the Moors so coveted by Queen Isabella that she finally conquered it in 1492, followed. It was our last stop in Andalusia, and, we thought, we had seen what Semana Santa had to offer. That did not take into account our garage right on the parade route being “closed for religion” for 24 hours at a stretch—nor what Good Friday had in store. We had learned from our travels that Seville, while blessed with huge quantities of gold and silver from the treasure of America, did not hold a monopoly. All the towns and cities of the region seemed to have plenty to display. It seemed to us that this display of wealth, which formed kind of foundation for many of the “pasos” must have a symbolic meaning—perhaps of balancing the messages of suffering with those of the Church’s strength.
But as the Good Friday processions rounded the corner where we were staying in Granada, we witnessed a different balance: a bedrock of gold work so dazzling we could hardly see the body of Jesus hanging on his cross. Only his nailed feet were visible beneath a cloud of incense; the gold dazzles in our sight still.