12 Apr 2009

Semana Santa

I'd say Spain's pretty well known at an international level for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations, namely all the processions that take place in various towns and cities, mostly in the south, some better known (i.e. tourism hot spots) than others. For those who don't know what it's all about, here's a glimpse into one of the biggest religious events of the year.

Holy Week takes place between Palm Sunday and the Saturday before Easter Sunday. It's a time to commemorate Christ's entrance to Jerusalem, his final days of life, including the Last Supper (Holy Thursday) followed by the Passion (Holy Friday) and then the Resurrection (Easter Sunday, starting the new liturgical year). In many places in Spain at this time you can practically breathe the religious atmosphere in the air thanks to the various processions, particularly in Murcia (not for the sculptures by Salzillo) and Andalucía and most small towns.

So what's the big deal with these processions? What are they all about? Despite my mom's going on and on about them when I was growing up, I didn't quite "get it" until I moved to Spain over a decade ago and my second Easter here was invited by a friend at college to spend the holiday with her in her (very small) town Cieza (province of Murcia). And there it hit me. WOAH! It's like I said earlier, you can breathe in the religious atmosphere with the air. Every day during Holy Week (except for Saturday) several "cofradías" (devout Catholics who come together in a Church and devote themselves to the care of one -or more- representations of Christ, the Virgin or the Saints) come together as a brotherhood and take the religious images (Christ, Virgin or Saint(s)) out of the Church and walk around town with them. These statues are placed on "thrones" (or floats), richly decorated with cloths, candles, flowers etc, and are CARRIED by the "nazarenos" (penitents and other people who carry the thrones or walk in front of them during the procession, they typically wear tunics and some kind of head covering -either a hood and/or a cone-shaped hat which represents a rapprochement with Heaven). They are usually accompanied by either a full marching band or just drums, and are followed by the parish priest and other religious authorities as well as any of the faithful who care to join in. Sometimes it's just one group going out, others several come together from different churches, but all in a certain order that makes religious sense. Basically it's like seeing the Gospels come to life before your eyes! The statues tell you a story. So my guess is the origins of this tradition had a double function: to give the people the chance to show their respects for the Christ/Virgin/Saints, but also as an educational tool, helping people visualise a story they couldn't read for themselves (as not only most people couldn't read, but the bibles were all in Latin!).

Some processions are rather joyful, particularly on Easter Sunday - La Gloria - when frequently they have the images "dancing" by jiggling the thrones, having them bow down, or even running with them. Others are more solemn, most notably that of the Passion on Holy Thursday at (or around) midnight, when the statue taken out is that of Christ Crucified. This one is usually called "La Procesión del Silencio" and is done in the dark (all the lights are turned off in the town along the procession's path, street lights included, only illumination comes from the penitents' candles) and in complete silence, only accompanied by the beat of a solitary drum. This one gives me goosebumps every single time (have seen 3).
It's definitely an experience I'd recommend living through at least once, whether you are religious or not. Best in smaller towns and of course Sevilla. But for the latter you'd better be ready to find a spot along the route to watch them from early on... some people show up hours before because it gets very crowded!

I took these pictures during two processions on Holy Thursday in Callosa d'en Sarriá, a small town in the south of Alicante, next to the Murcia border. The processions are supposed to be "better" in the neighbouring town of Orihuela, but we went here as a trip down memory lane for my mom. She lived in Callosa for a couple of years as a kid and participated in several processions after her confirmation.
The first shots are from the procession of the "Virgen de la Macarena" while the later ones are from the "Procesión del Silencio" that took place an hour later, both leaving from the Iglesia de San Martín. You can see them better (bigger) if you click on them.


  1. I think your blog is very educational which is what I like. I'm going to follow you.
    Check out myy blog and tell me what you think

  2. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful time of year in Spain. I had the good fortune to be invited to my first Seder dinner with some Jewish friends this last Thursday. I learned so much. I think religious traditions are very unifying. I would love to see these processions.

  3. oh dear - my comments are going everywhere... I was just lamenting on how I didn't get to taste the religion so much (literally, got as far as torrijas) but it's different in a big place like Madrid. I love your photos though. I was once in rural Italy for Easter - it was amazing, like the Spanish villages I expect.

    I would love to say my hardcore PC skills are behind the photo borders, but they appear on their own. Maybe it's in settings - your boxes may be set on the same colour as your background perhaps?

  4. oooh! lots of lovely comments, thx for stopping by guys! Glad it was interesting!

    Lol, I've never spent Passover with a Jewish family, that sounds like quite an interesting experience!

    O, yeah as I said before, Madrid isn't the place for the "religous" side of Spain (or any of the big cities, even Alicante is borderline), but it does have so much to offer, can't have everything! ;o)
    Actually... you can have almost everything, Spain may be small but it's so diverse you can find pretty much anything you want throughout the country. I know people who've spent their whole lives just exploring the country during their holidays, and they say they aren't anywhere near finished!

    I've figured out that the photo frames are encoded within the layout we choose for the blog, and I should be able to change the option in the html code... if I ever figure out how to do that without screwing up something major! Will have to be a summer project...


Hey there! Yes you! The quiet one in the back... I'd love it if you hung out for a bit and shared your thoughts!

I might stop by your place with an answer, but I'm more likely to reply right here so click on "email follow up comments" if you'd like to see what I and others have to say and come continue the conversation! ;o)