“What ever it is, they’re coming in droves.”
An American tourist turns to her husband, street map in hand, and her point-and-shoot camera aimed at the Basílica Pontifica de San Miguel, in Madrid. She looks around and tries to piece things together. The crowd has begun to gather around a tall, moderately adorned church building with a pretty façade, pensive figures carved out of the stone look down, and everything is topped with a cross and two ancient, oxidized bells. For her, the novelty of the deliberate fanciness of European churches has not worn off. She snaps a couple more shots. Now, it seems they have stumbled upon something that wasn’t mentioned in the “Getting Oriented” section of Fodor’s Spain. The reaction is automatic. They scurry away in fear of the collecting Catholics.
It is, in fact, difficult to miss the events of Semana Santa in Spain, even as a visitor. Throughout the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere in Europe, Holy Week is anticipated and promoted with posters and marketing through the standard media. And it is highlighted by slow-moving procesiones that celebrate the events leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection, as described in the New Testament. Icons, statues and figures depicting scenes of death, torture, holiness, loss, redemption and miracles are displayed for all to see in a parade-packed week. And, typical of modern societies, many people end up using traditions based on religious fervor as an excuse to party. Madrid is no exception. On Good Friday the city center, Puerta del Sol, is a scene of claustrophobic anxiety; it is filled with tired families, bizarre groups of adolescents wearing themed costumes, confused tourists, and frustrated old ladies elbowing their way through the crowd with the countenance of bitter entitlement. Many people are drunk, and some carry portable chairs with them in hopes of finding their own personal miracle of a good vantage point. Surrounding restaurants and bars are full.
The procesiones are, simply, the deliberate display of the icons and statues that usually reside quietly inside various churches and holy places. They are taken out, placed on elaborate floats supported by crouched men, adorned with flowers, candles and incense, and marched around in planned circles throughout the city center. They capture, at the least, the absolute simplicity of a parade, on display in the most public of places: the street. There are a few policemen diverting traffic away with portable fences, and people line the sidewalks simply to watch (in varied states of emotion) the excruciatingly slow-moving procession. The crowds can get thick, but seem to remain civil. There are squirmy children holding palm branches and bunched bay leaves, unable to see a thing in the sea of packed-in adults, there are the over-serious elderly people for whom these processions hold more importance and instill inexplicable awe. There are also giggling teenagers and the bored unemployed, enjoying the gathering of people as if it were a Lady Gaga concert. There are TV news crews with pretty reporters mingling and asking questions and getting the scoop from witnesses at the scene (and perhaps in a sign of the changing times, I notice most of the tracked-down witnesses are foreigners, answering questions in front of TVE and Antena 3 cameras in English about what they think of all of this).
The processions are usually led by a group of men called penitents, or nazarenos, who cover themselves in elaborate robes, attire that ironically is meant to divert attention away from themselves. The most striking part of the costume is the capirote, or pointed hood with eye holes poked out. Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan wear the same hoods, and through the American cultural lens, the reaction is immediate and obvious. It would be an error, though, to associate the KKK with the men in these processions, mostly because the dress of the nazarenos pre-dates southern bigots by many generations. It is more likely that a few white supremacists stole the look in order to hide their identities as they rode around burning crosses and hating people. The nazarenos walk in anonymity in a ritual of ridding their sin through public demonstration. The ritual lends itself more to symbolism, though, than actual self-punishment, as in the entire Semana Santa itself. Some walk barefoot. Others may wear chains around their ankles, which bring to mind something like velcro handcuffs, but with more shock appeal and connotations of imprisonment. The Bible is chock full of symbols, and many of them are dusted off and brought to life here in the streets of Madrid: the palm leaves like the ones that Jesus held on his return to Bethlehem, olive branches, countless sculptures, roses, ornate staffs, purple, white and red fabrics, crowns of thorns, silver coins, bread and wine, ashes, nails, whips, vinegar, fire (candles), water, and crosses.
Consistent with the Catholic notion and propensity to purge sin through pain and suffering, the paso serves as a modern instrument to showcase man’s desire to be forgiven. The men underneath who support the ostentatious, 1-ton float are the costeleros, and they walk intentionally slow, occasionally backwards a few steps, and sometimes even hop in unison. For the chosen few of the various brotherhoods that carry the float, they consider the job an honor. Many simply enjoy the camaraderie and teamwork involved with participating.
It seems that the success of these processions relies almost solely on tradition, and the majority of people appear to be gathering simply for the purpose of gathering, and less because the Catholic Church demands it of them. And there is a sense, albeit somewhat obscured during Semana Santa, that these demonstrations are becoming an obligatory ritual without the weight and strict enforcement of the Roman Catholic Church and its norms of Christian decency. Spain loves a good party. There are many Spaniards who are well-versed on the details but still feel that the processions are a spectacle that carries with it less relevance with each passing year. But it must be said that there are also some Spaniards who weep when the icon of the Virgin Mary passes by them, because of their fervent belief that she is only source of understanding and hope in these dark and hopeless days.
On the first day of the week, el Domingo de Ramos, the wind rips through the narrow alley ways of Madrid neighborhood La Latina, and the robes of the nazarenos flutter and shine. There are several men with austere faces who stand and observe, with obvious expressions of entitlement, like security guards, and wait at the center of the action. I hear three sharp cracks against the wood of the paso, like knocks on a door. And the crowd gathered at the doors of the church falls silent. Thus the week begins.
Of course, it can be argued that the place of religion in general is changing in Spain. In years past, particularly during the dictatorship, the Roman Catholic Church had a tight grasp on most of the goings on in Spanish society. The guidelines and norms forced upon people have lessened with time, and many Madrileños seem to accept the revelry of Semana Santa simply as an enduring tradition of Spanish culture. Still, attitudes about the religious piety and adoration on display vary greatly.
Sometimes perspective can be precipitated through extremes. As a woman cries with an outstretched hand toward a statue of the also weeping Virgin Mary passing by her balcony window, a friend of mine, sipping on his glass of Ribera, is dismissive.
“Well, the Catholics definitely know how to make a good candle,” he says. “But they’re just crying because the party’s over and they have to go back to work tomorrow.”