experience of an Andalusian Easter procession can be bewildering.
It is hard to find a logical thread in this complex web of images
and sensations. Holy statues sway past you on their 'thrones' accompanied
by sinisterly robed and hooded penitents. There are brass bands,
long lines of candle-bearing faithful and various smartly-dressed
figures of authority. The air will resound to a solemn drumbeat
and smell of incense and flowers. There will be a less tangible
sensation too, that of the grief inspired by the tragic story unfolding
before our eyes.
of course, is the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion
and Resurrection of Christ, and of the effect of those events on
his mother, the Virgin Mary. These two key figures are represented
by statues that have acquired enormous devotion, especially in the
brotherhoods or guilds that were formed to look after them, and
whose members bear them so proudly through the streets for all to
see and admire. Should rain prevent the processions from taking
place, the sight of grown men in floods of tears provides striking
witness to the depth of their devotion and the importance of the
contact between the people and these images that the processions
will have at its heart, therefore, two 'tronos', the platforms on
which stand the figure of Christ or the Virgin Mother. Christ will
be portrayed as undergoing some part of his terrible sufferings
or Passion, and will go first. His Mother will follow, dressed in
a spectacular robe, a crown upon her head, a canopy above it, and
a mass of flowers and candles around her feet. On her face will
be etched the sorrow that connects so profoundly with the Spanish
platforms can be simply enormous, as anyone who has seen processions
in Málaga will be able to testify. There, the richly ornamented
floats, claimed by the Malagueños to be the most beautiful
in Spain, can weigh literally tons and need more than two hundred
men to carry them, an exhausting job but one that is proudly performed.
These bearers are called 'costaleros' or 'portadores' and are usually
members of the 'cofradía' or guild that is responsible for
the statues. The bearers' pace, typically a slow side-to-side rocking
motion, and their manoeuvres, to get round corners or under overhanging
wires, for example, are controlled by the 'capataz', a sort of foreman.
He acts as their guide and will also be responsible for deciding
when to stop for a rest or to listen to a 'saeta', a lament sung
unaccompanied from a balcony. The words can be almost impossible
to decipher but there is no doubting their fervour and sincerity.
When the procession
has to move on again, the 'capataz' will signal with three blows
of a hammer on the front of the platform, two to alert the 'costaleros'
to get ready, the third to tell them to lift the platform's crosspieces
onto their shoulders. And off they will go again on their long,
exhausting journey, preceeded and followed by a huge and eclectic
gathering. There will be lines of 'nazarenos', hooded members of
the guild whose look of humble anonymity acquired sinister overtones
when copied by the Klu Klux Klan.
robes will often be maroon, the colour of penitence, and they will
bear candles to light the way for their holy images. There will
be bands, civil or military, with drums and cornets or other wind
instruments playing the typical Semana Santa marches. There will
be groups of children bearing crosses; they are the sons and daughters
of guild members, being groomed for their future work for the 'cofradía'.
Along the way you will see members of the 'cofradía' carrying
various bits of official paraphernalia, such as the standards, the
mace, or the book of statutes. Somebody
will be wielding a censer, filling the air with the smell of incense.
And there may be long lines of local women, dressed in black and
bearing candles, some barefoot to fulfill a private vow.
between so many is the job of the 'mayordomos', penitents who patrol
up and down their appointed section of the procession and who liase
with each other to ensure the smooth progress of all concerned.
When the 'tronos' finally arrive back at their church after their
long and arduous journey, the 'encierro' takes place, when the statues
are shut away again in their usual home. Those bearing the Christ
figure arrive first and wait for the Virgin to join them. When she
does, there is a symbolic face-to-face meeting between the two,
with the platforms swaying from side to side. Then, with one last
great effort from the 'costaleros' they are raised on high as the
national anthem is played and the onlookers applaud appreciatively
as the procession disappears into the church.
Or not. Some
of the Málaga 'tronos' are so enormous they don't actually
fit through conventional church doors. The reason, or one of them,
is said to date back to friction between the 'cofradías'
and the priests because of the upset caused to the traditional celebration
of Holy Week by all the preparations for the processions. Some of
the 'cofradías' started to make these preparations outside
the church, and that meant that the size of the platform was no
longer governed by the limits of the church doors and could thus
be much bigger. These great platforms are now kept in the brotherhoods'
own premises, and the story reminds us that the relationship between
the Church and the Semana Santa processions is not necessarily an
entirely happy one. The parish priest may be present for the occasion,
but his role will be a passive one for much of the time - the 'cofrades'
run the show out in the street, not the Church, who apparently have
mixed feelings about the way people see the statues of Christ and
the Virgin as their direct line of communication to the Almighty
and His Mother.
'Andaluces' claim that this passion for Easter processions is a
peculiarly local phenomenon, unmatched anywhere else. The people
of Seville, never ones for hiding their light under a bushel, will
tell anyone who cares to listen that their processions are the most
important in the world. But anyone who has witnessed Holy Week outside
Andalucía, in Cuenca, for example, or Lorca, will appreciate
that depth of religious feeling at this key time in the Christian
calendar, and its theatrical expression, are not exclusive to this
of the strangest stories that can help to illustrate that religious
feeling takes us back to Málaga and the year 1759, during
the reign of Carlos III. At that time there was a plague epidemic
devastating the city, and the prisoners in Málaga jail thought
it might help matters to take the statue of Jesús Nazareno,
known as 'El Rico', which was resident in a nearby convent, on a
tour of the city. The authorities refused permission, but the prisoners
were having none of it. They rebelled, escaped and duly carried
El Rico around the city. They then returned him to his chapel and
went back to their cells. It was found that none of the prisoners
had gone missing, and the epidemic died out. The king was so impressed
by the story that he granted a royal prerogative to the statue of
El Rico to free one prisoner guilty of a 'delito de sangre', or
blood crime, from Málaga jail each year. And so it continues
to this day, on the Wednesday of Holy Week. In fact the decision
is taken by the powers that be, but the person chosen can be seen,
in black tunic and hood, accompanying the procession on the night
of Holy Wednesday.
You can listen to the episode below