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.