I remember a holiday once to Seville with my family when I was younger, which must have been in about late March time. During our wanderings around that gorgeous city, we came across a patisserie with a window full of cakes and biscuits; all covered in different coloured icing, but all in the shape of the same thing – robed figures with tall pointed hoods. Completely ignorant as to what this could mean, we joked all day about what on Earth they could be. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I saw these same biscuits in the Pastelería section of my local supermarket and took some home to my host mother, that I finally found out what they were. She found my incredulity when I showed them to her rather amusing – not a surprise considering how ubiquitous and normal they are here – and proceeded to tell me all about the strange delights of Semana Santa.
The family explained to me that these sweet things depict Nazarenos, members of religious groups (usually clubs for socialising and charity based around a local church) who parade through the streets in the Holy Week preceding Easter, atoning for their sins. The pointed hat – called a Capirote – is thought to come from medieval clowns, who would wear them to appear stupid or amusing; hence they became a sign of humility and self-deprecation. The Capirote also covers the face, with small slits for eyes, so in previous times those genuinely doing penance could hide their identity. Googling these figures didn’t turn up much information, but gave the impression of a solemn ceremony performed only by devout Catholic men; I also couldn’t help but associate the identity-hiding masks, with their tiny eyeholes, with something sinister.
But when I finally got to see them, on Monday of this year’s Semana Santa in the city of Málaga, their velvet and satinet robes glowing in the late sunshine, I was pleasantly surprised by what I encountered. Far from something exclusive and serious, the atmosphere was celebratory and joyous; the streets were full of Spanish families and tourists alike, watching the processions and listening to the marching bands. Through the slits in their masks I saw teenagers’ glasses awkwardly placed beneath, and the occasional flash of bright blue eyeliner – my host father told me that actually women had taken part in the processions secretly for centuries, but now anyone could join the religious groups. Toddlers were dressed in their own adorable miniature versions of the traditional Nazareno dress, hanging onto the older ones’ hands, and hoards of women with endless amounts of black lace falling from the combs in their hair – the traditional mantilla and peinata – stalked along the roads, carrying silver-headed staffs engraved with the city’s symbol. Children weaved through the lines of the procession, playing a game in which they collected molten wax on balls of silver foil, dripped from an obliging Nazareno’s candle. Tiny stalls battling for space amongst all the people sold Limones Cascarúos – which are a type of lemon grown here, sweeter and larger than normal ones, eaten whole and sprinkled with salt – and mysterious pale green sticks (my host father mimed chewing on them over the noise of the crowd so I assume they’re edible, whatever they are).
The main focus of the processions is the ‘tronos’ (called ‘pasos’ outside the area around Málaga), which are floats that carry statues of religious figures and scenes from the Easter story. The first of these I saw was on Sunday in my town San Pedro de Alcántara. Above the heads of the crowd I could see the painted figure of Jesus on a donkey, surrounded by palm leaves and bright flowers. Being so used to floats at British carnivals supported by cars or vans, I didn’t really notice the box on which the display stood. It drew closer and stopped in front of me; a man then stepped up to the float, and clanged twice with a large knocker on its front. A hand appeared in the carved wooden grating, and then retreated swiftly as a great lurch upwards revealed a line of black-slippered feet beneath the trono. On seeing my face aghast and bewildered, the host family explained that all floats in Semana Santa are carried through the streets by teams of men. Here they were enclosed underneath, with the weight resting around their neck and the top of their backs, after the style of the processions in Cádiz.
The floats I saw the next day in Málaga, however, were carried by means of long poles which lines of men lifted with one shoulder. Compared to the simple painted wooden statue and array of plants used for San Pedro’s Palm Sunday procession, they were also much more ornately decorated; festooned with gold and silver reliefs on their sides, and with plush embroidered hangings sheltering over the various Virgin Marys as they were paraded through the crowds. The statues themselves were beautifully realised – their delicate-featured faces somehow always managed to stand out against the rich adornment around them. They wore wistful, pained expressions, as if weighed down by the long velvet cloaks that stretched out behind them, glittering in the light from the sea of candles placed all around. I also particularly loved the way the tronos moved – the almost-perfect synchronisation of the men’s steps as they carried them through the city made them sway gently from side to side, flickering the candle flames and (on someone in utter awe of her first experience of Semana Santa) having an almost hypnotic effect.
San Pedro (not to be outdone of course) offered her own vision of loveliness in the form of a night-time procession later in the week. This was a more sombre affair, as there was no musical accompaniment, and the throng of Sampedrileños waited in silence for the trono to appear from the church steps. In the darkness the candlelight made the Virgin Mary’s painted face glow, and the silver carvings sparkle dimly – a beautiful sight.
As a non-Catholic I was surprised by how affecting I found the whole experience of the Holy Week – the dedication of the people involved and the sheer craftsmanship on display, as well as the community spirit, were wonderful to see. And it seems that many Spaniards feel the same. Talking to my family, I learned that among much of their generation, in which Catholic fervour is dwindling, these events are more about preserving tradition and culture than religious feeling. This week is one of celebration and family gatherings, hailing the start of the beautiful summer weather – and as great an excuse as any to meet with loved ones, and to eat, drink and be merry.