In about 2.3 seconds, I half expected the skies to crack open and pour out hosts of terrifying Old Testament angels, carrying 6-foot double-edged broadswords and reveling in the sounds of the trumpets as they dragged off people towards heaven and zapped others with crazy scary lightning and fire and stuff.
OK, maybe that was just my imagination, but it certainly was an epic scene:
The thunder of steady drums rumbled out a marching rhythm, growing louder and louder. Horns blasted an epic and ominous song, and I shook in anticipation along with the crowd lining the narrow street. The full moon shown down on hundreds of black-cloaked men carrying candles in a cloud of sweet incense.
It’s safe to say that while the Semana Santa of Seville, Spain falls on the week before Easter, it’s a little different than our Holy Week in the US.
Ever since I arrived in Seville for this semester abroad, everybody and their Spanish grandmother has been telling me how excited I should be to see Semana Santa. I mean, I love Holy Week as much as the next guy, but hey, what’s the big deal in Seville? From what I read and heard and experienced, here’s how it goes:
Semana Santa in Seville is a colossal religious/cultural/traditional event made up of processions throughout the streets of the city. There are 60 some cofradías, or religious fraternities, in Seville, and each one puts on a sort of penitent procession that walks über slow from its home parish to an official route in the center of the city, through the interior of the cathedral, and back to their home parish. Each one could last anywhere between 6 and 14 hours.
The procession goes like this:
First comes the la cruz de guía, a man holding a crucifix that leads the parade. After him come the nazarenos, the marching penitent members of the fraternity numbering anywhere between 400 and 2500 and carrying 3-foot candles incessantly dripping wax. The traditional cloaks and caps that they wear do resemble those of a certain North American extremist racist group, but they aren’t to be confused. Semana Santa has been around since the 16th century and it has nothing to do with the KKK.
After the nazarenos are the pasos, the enormous floats bearing religious images — one paso of Jesus’ Passion and one of the Virgin Mary — carried by the costaleros, who together support the two tons of weight on the base of their necks. The images themselves are sculpted, painted wood, crafted sometime in the past six centuries. Sevillanos really freakin’ love their pasos. Everyone’s got a favorite, and whether it’s la Macarena, el Cachorro, or el Gran Poder, it’s undeniably strange to hear someone talk about their favorite Cristo or Virgen. The last time I checked, there was only one Christ and one Virgin Mary, right? Anyway, after the pasos come some extra penitential penitents, who carry smallish crosses or walk barefoot. And that’s that, ya está.
Although Semana Santa is obviously a religious celebration, it has evolved to be quite a lot of things at once. Some nazarenos are out there to express their penitence in commemoration of Christ’s Passion, but some do it because it’s a centuries-old family tradition. Some spectators find their faith inspired by the beautiful images of the pasos, but others just love that living aspect of their Spanish cultural history. Yet others just like the spectacle and pass the time with a beer in hand. Even I can’t deny that I had a cervecita or two after seeing some pasos late into the night.
Nonetheless, after all the show, I was glad to find some things still familiar. I went to the Easter Vigil Mass in the university chapel, where we celebrated the Resurrection with a beautiful but simple liturgy complete with darkness, songs with guitar music, all eight readings, and a baptism (a rarity when the whole country is already baptized). Father Álvaro, the young and friendly priest, exuded joy and mercy as he always does, a genuine light in a country whose Church has a seriously dark past.
Semana Santa in Seville was truly something to be experienced. I loved the spectacle, the aesthetic, the drama, and the enormity of it all. The processions, whether accompanied with gaudy marching bands or silent in the candle-lit darkness of the madrugada, left a serious impression, even if it wasn’t a purely religious one. But after all was said and done, I was more than content there in that university chapel at the Easter Vigil Mass, to encounter the Risen Christ.