Holy Week in Seville

Discover the holy rituals of this ancient Spanish city


El Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday)
Today is the day I finally saw Seville’s Holy Week in action. I had spent 22 hours just traveling here, having gotten up at 4:45 a.m. yesterday on the other side of the Atlantic. Then, after a much-needed night’s sleep and a Palm Sunday Mass this morning, I stood in the streets of the city, ready to watch the festivities begin.

Seville’s celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week) is unique in Spain and in the world, so it’s not unusual for people to travel a  great distance, as I have, to take part in the events. The festivities consist of a series of some 50 parades or processions making their way across the city center in various twisting paths. The oldest still in action is El Silencio (The Silence), founded in 1340, but the festival likely was present in some form long before that.

It’s hard to appreciate all the sights and sounds of Semana Santa without understanding the processions, so I’ll explain. Each procession begins from a parish church or the headquarters of a religious brotherhood (hermandad) and winds its way to Seville’s great cathedral. The procession marches through one door, receives a blessing from the archbishop, and marches out a door on the other side to return home to its parish. Each procession consists of generally two floats, or pasos. Paso can refer either to the physical float or to the procession as a whole. The paso proper, or barco (boat), is about the size of a small truck and is equally heavy — up to several metric tons. Yet it is propelled entirely by manpower: With only the assistance of padding and braces, a team of 30 to 60 men known as costaleros carry the massive structure on their heads and shoulders.

When placed on the ground, as it is when the costaleros take a break from their arduous work, a paso resembles a huge, ornate table about seven feet high, with a velvet hem hiding both its legs and the costaleros from view. The pasos are made of wood, usually covered in precious metals, and are intricately worked and decorated. There are two kinds of barcos: El Cristo (Christ) and La Virgen (The Virgin). The pasos dedicated to El Cristo, which use figures of wood, wax, and wire to depict scenes from the Passion, are usually platforms covered in gold. The pasos dedicated to La Virgen, usually covered in silver, are like four-poster beds with canopies. They feature a wire and wax statue of Mary — usually weeping for her Son and sometimes holding Him in her arms — and sometimes a huge array of four-foot candles.

In procession, the barcos are preceded and followed by a great mass of nazarenos (“nazarenes”), each dressed in a medieval penitents’ robe and hood, or capirote. They bear an unfortunate similarity to those used by the Ku Klux Klan. (Though the exact source of the KKK’s regalia is unclear, it seems apparent that it was largely copied from this ancient capirote.) Nazarenos are mostly men, though there are women among them. The number of nazarenos can be considerable: The largest hermandad, La Macarena, has over 5,200!

If you are standing in one spot, watching a procession pass, it may take as little as 15 minutes or as long as nearly two hours to see all the participants go by. But the procession as a whole, on its path from parish church to cathedral and back, always lasts longer, with the two shortest processions being tied at four hours each. Others, such as La Macarena, clock in at an astonishing 13 and a half hours.

Today I saw all of this for the first time. One of the pasos I saw today was La Borriquita (The Little She-Donkey) depicting Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Many of the onlookers, including myself, hold small branches of the local olive tree, which were given out at the Palm Sunday Mass. This was used as a substitute for the palm leaf, which can make for large and unwieldy cargo during the all-day events. The olive branch can be tucked into the vest pocket of a suit, where it was seen accenting many a wardrobe for the rest of the day.

El Lunes Santo (Holy Monday)
Today I visited Seville Cathedral, the largest in the world (St. Peter’s in Rome is larger, but it is not a cathedral), then staked out a spot near the parish church of Santa Marta to watch a steady stream of black-garbed nazarenos enter the chapel for their preparations. Nazarenos are supposed to dress at home before proceeding on foot to their gathering place, so as to remain always covered and anonymous in public.

Some of the nazarenos wear drooping capirotes. These are a special kind of nazareno: the nazareno penitente. While traditionally all nazarenos are by definition penitents, the penitentes take it a step further. If a nazareno feels he needs to atone for something, he will wear a drooping capirote and carry a cross in the procession rather than a candle. If he feels his sins call for more than this, he may carry more crosses: two, three, or even four! I was able to catch the penitentes of Santa Marta (St. Martha) on the march. It is perhaps especially appropriate for the nazarenos of Santa Marta to dress in black and to have so many penitentes, because their paso depicts the transportation of Christ’s body to the tomb.

El Martes Santo (Holy Tuesday)
After days of threatening, the mighty rain clouds have finally unleashed their deluge. Los Estudiantes (The Students), the paso of the University of Seville’s chapel and generally considered one of the most beautiful of all pasos, wasn’t able to go out. This is a great shame, especially because in Seville’s Semana Santa, there is no way to reschedule a paso. But this is better than taking a risk on the weather: Some pasos are hundreds of years old, and all are fragile and vulnerable to rain. Early this afternoon, when the rain began, some were already on the march. The costaleros had to run at top speed with floats made of fragile wood and metal crushing down on their heads and rough and slippery cobblestones beneath their feet. All churches take in wayward pasos to shield them from the rain. At one point today there were four pasos taking shelter in one church!


El Miércoles Santo (Holy Wednesday)
Today I watched paso after paso until the wee hours of the morning. I’m truly exhausted, and I hope to sleep late tomorrow to save up energy for the all-night extravaganza called La Madrugada, the Dawn.

El Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday)

This is the day of leave-taking for Christ — the day of the Last Supper and of the betrayal of Judas. The people of Seville symbolize their mourning by wearing black funeral clothes. Some women wear the traditional Andalusian mantilla, a large comb and veil.

La Madrugada / El Viernes Santo (The Dawn / Good Friday)
La Madrugada (in Seville known as La Madrugá), beginning at midnight on Maundy Thursday and ending with dawn on Good Friday, is traditionally considered the most special night of Semana Santa in Seville. It is marked by some of the most ancient and important pasos of the city. The city fills to bursting with visitors; near the pasos it was almost impossible to move, sometimes for an hour or more.

The passing of El Silencio, the oldest and most atmospheric of all pasos, is observed in complete silence and near-total darkness, aside from candles. The city participates by turning off the streetlights on each street several minutes before the arrival of El Silencio. I was amazed by the spectacle: a crowd of thousands in almost complete silence, watching the ghostlike procession of 850 nazarenos. Nazarenos are always silent, but with the added silence of the audience and the darkness of the street, this became an uncanny experience.

I also saw one of the most special pasos, La Macarena. This is the title given to Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope) in Seville. La Macarena is the symbol of the neighborhood of the same name, and has a special following with its own unique tradition on La Madrugá. Occasionally, in an impromptu manner, an onlooker will shout out La Macarena’s name and hail her. The crowd responds thunderously with a ceremonial praising of Mary’s (La Macarena’s) beauty: “¡Guapa!”
As Good Friday dawns, I head for bed. Here in Seville, the key moment of Semana Santa has ended: Good Friday has come, and the redemption of humankind comes today.

El Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday)
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, but I leave for the United States today. This may seem strange to American sensibilities, but in Spain, Easter Sunday is the day of Semana Santa with the least observation. The focus of the week is the Madrugada, and once dawn breaks on Good Friday, the festival begins to wind down. Seven pasos go out on Good Friday, four today on Holy Saturday, and only one on Easter Sunday — the appropriately named La Resurrección. By that time, most visitors will have left, along with a sizable portion of the native population. A great number of the inhabitants of Seville spend Easter going to the beach on the Costa del Sol, or driving off to a second home in a small country town.

Last night, my final night in Spain, I saw a Spanish television program in honor of Semana Santa, featuring child guests with related skills. There was a tiny, 4-year-old costalero; a boy of about 7 who could imitate with his mouth the Spanish trumpets of a paso marching band; and an all-child marching band. But the coup de grâce was a girl of about 12 who sang the most heart-rending and wailingly passionate saeta — a devotional song, delivered solo and a cappella by a bystander as a paso goes by — imaginable. Her delivery was just like that of the adult saeta singers I’d seen: one arm raised in devotional supplication, the face contorted by grief and sorrow, the tone harsh and wild.

Watching these children, I was amazed by how fully they had already learned to live Semana Santa, making an ancient tradition live once again in a cycle that has gone on for a thousand years or more. I mentioned this to my Spanish friend Isidorio, who was watching the show with me. His response sums up the overall simplicity and harmony of this most elaborate of Holy Week processions better than I ever could have:

“La tradición continúa.” The tradition continues.

Click here to watch videos from Daniel Dykes’ trip to Seville


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