As Easter approaches, I am reminded of a visit to some Spanish friends in Malaga a few years ago when I joined in that city’s celebrations for Semana Santa (Holy Week), an unforgettable event. My photographs are not good, a combination of flashing lights, reflections, and crowded balconies and pavements: I apologise in advance.
Strictly speaking, Semana Santa is a religious festival, but with the solemnity comes carousing and fun, bars open until the early hours and entire families, from grandparents to babes in arms staying up until two and three in the morning. The two main Spanish cities in which to witness this extraordinary event are Seville and Malaga.
During Holy Week from early afternoon until well after midnight, elaborate floats – huge statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ swaying dangerously atop them – weave through the streets and alleys, carried on the shoulders of men called submarinos, hidden by the float’s draperies. They are accompanied by Brotherhoods and Penitents carrying candles and incense burners behind which come musicians playing hymns that have faint hints of flamenco. Good Friday is the climax.
With its aroma of burning candles, the mournful trumpets, the menacing appearance of the penitents in their white robes and white pointed hats, towns and cities across the region are literally transformed.
My friends had booked a room in a hotel overlooking one of the streets down which the procession came. The reservation included food and wine which were replenished throughout the night (I told you there was fun as well) and the party continued well into the early hours of the morning.
A bell tolled to herald the approach of a wildly swaying float supporting a statue of the silver-crowned Virgin Mary with a dazzling blue velvet cloak richly embroidered in gold stretching some six metres behind her. Hundreds of wax candles surrounded the statue, illuminating the golden float, the somberly attired attendants, and the onlookers.
Among the Brotherhood members, whose honour it is to support and carry the floats which can weigh up to six tons, can often be found celebrities from the Spanish film and TV world, but they will be incognito, the submarinos who support the float from beneath a curtain which hides them from view. During my visit I was told that Antonio Banderas was one such submarino, as he is known to attend most years.
In the hotels that line the route, the partygoers rush to the balconies as the clanging of the bell and the dull thud of the drums announces the passing of the procession. On tiered seats in alleyways, streets and plazas, the rest of the onlookers wait patiently, as they have done for up to seven hours, children, round-eyed and excited by the occasion, grandmothers fingering their rosary beads.
Those participating, whether as devotees or spectators, are often visibly affected by the rhythms of the music, the swaying pace of the bearers, the wailing of the sacred saeta (not unlike flamenco) and the build-up of emotion brought about by the statues of tear-stained Christ and Madonna figures.
Again, the bell tolls, and on a golden float lit by the candles carried by penitents walking alongside it, is a life-size statue of Christ carrying his cross on the road to Calvary, light catching the lavish gold embroidery on his scarlet velvet robe and glittering from the silver cross he carried on his shoulder. The costeleros sway to the slow rhythmic beating of the drums and the wailing of a flamenco song. The real Christ was not dressed in velvet stitched with silver as he carried a plain wooden cross on the road to Calvary but such details can be ignored on this occasion when to dress the statue well is to honour Christ.
Behind comes the Nazarenos, followers dressed in white or black hooded robes that cover the entire body, the headpiece a pointed hood with space for the eyes only, the whole scene reminiscent of a Klu Klux Klan convention. It could feel sinister were it not for the party atmosphere among the watching people.
Goya could have done justice to the scene in front of me, a scene where art and religion merged into one theatrical event reflecting the culture and spirit of the Spanish people.
It was an experience like no other I’d ever had. I must admit also, that there was a frisson of excitement, akin to apprehension, in that the floats swayed alarmingly in the narrow streets and I was fearful that the candles would catch the trappings on the tronos or the costumes of the penitents or Nazarenos.
In villages, towns and cities all over Spain – especially in Andalucía – processions take place from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Religious beliefs are not needed for one to take part. To a visitor, it can be a fun-filled Fiesta or a week of reflection, but it will invariably be moving. The only thing to remember is to dress with respect, i.e. no tee shirts or shorts.
Seats should be booked early, either in a hotel with a view of the processions, or along the route of the procession.
SEMANA SANTA in 2018 Sunday, March 25th – Sunday, April 1st.
Malaga Tourist Office for further information: http://www.malagaturismo.com/en
Spanish Tourist Office in London http://www.spain.info/en_
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