Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Semana Santa

It’s Semana Santa in Sevilla. Well, actually since it’s Holy Week all over the world that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But since Semana Santa Sevilla Style bears almost no resemblance to any other celebration that I’ve ever experienced of the week before the Son of God’s crucifixion and resurrection, this occasion warrants some explanation.

Since my primary concern is commentary on its significance, I’m going to allow another, more prolifically descriptive than I, to describe the spectacle:

The holiday, jubilant in Seville and Andalucía and solemn elsewhere in Spain, is practically defined by its stunning processions. Each of these processions typically boasts two intensely adorned floats, one of the Virgin and the other of a scene from Christ's Passion. Take in the lavish decoration of these incredible creations as they slowly pass before you accompanied by the music of coronets and drums; its hard to do without getting chills. Underneath each float, you'll just barely be able to make out rows and rows of feet. There are up to forty men, called costaleros, who haul the float on shoulders and control the swaying motion of the float. In fact, they practice so much and are so in sync with each other that the realistic figures on top look eerily as if they were walking along to the music.

Impossible to miss are the seemingly endless rows of nazarenos, or penitents, who walk along with the float.. You may even see many nazarenos walking barefoot, which is pretty impressive considering some of the processions last up to 14 hours! Oh and don't be thrown off by the resemblance between the pointy hoods and long robes of the nazarenos and those of the Ku Klux Klan; it's coincidental and completely unrelated.

Don't be surprised to see how nicely the people dress to watch the processions, especially during the second half of the week. Women often dress to the nines while many men brave the sun in full suits. Of course not everybody dresses up so much, but basically if you want to fit in watching the processions, just leave the t-shirt you wore to paint your garage behind.

And as for the history. . .

As with any cultural celebration, Spain's elaborate Semana Santa was for centuries a work-in-progress. The starting point for its extensive history is clearly the death of Christ, from which it takes its subject, however the celebration that we see today is the result of centuries of evolution.

A significant point in Semana Santa's history is 1521, when the Marqués de Tarifa returned to Spain from the Holy Land. After his journey, he institutionalized the Vía Crucis (Stations of the Cross) in Spain and from that moment on this holy event was celebrated with a procession. Over time, the observance of the Vía Crucis eventually broke up into the various scenes of the Passion, with the incorporation of portable crosses and altars. This would eventually lead to today's elaborate processions.

Check out any map of Semana Santa routes and you will see the Carrera Oficial, or official route, clearly marked. This original route, while it has evolved since 1604, continues to serve as the backbone for the present route. The final major step took place in the 17th century, when Seville's various cofradías (brotherhoods) began dividing and organizing themselves into what they are today.

So those are the basic facts. From Viernes de Dolores (the Friday before Palm Sunday, or Domingo de Ramos) until Domingo de Resurrección more than 60 hermandades (brotherhoods) walk the route from their churches to the Cathedral each carrying two pasos (kind of like floats). The first has life-sized statues of images of the story of Jesus during his last twenty-four hours on earth and the second is an elaborately decorated Virgin, usually surrounded by live flowers and grandiose candles. With as many as nine processions per day, each of which can have as many as 3,000 nazarenos (members of the brotherhood), three marching bands and two pasos constituting each the processions down the winding, narrow passages formerly known as streets until they were inundated by the crowds, it’s quite a spectacle.

For those of you to whom the comparison would be helpful, I suppose it bears a (very) loose resemblance to nine daily Alto Fair parades, each composed of a couple thousand church choir members sporting their robes and carrying three-foot tall candles. Replace the high school marching band with a one of adults (almost all men) who begin to practice the week after Semana Santa in preparation for next year. Exchange the Alto Reformed Church’s 150th anniversary float for the 400th anniversary of the Hermandad de los Panaderos (founded in 1601), which totes Paso de Misterio, a life-size scene of the soldiers arriving to the Garden of Gethsemane to capture Jesus. The Alto Parade is sorely lacking an adequate comparison to the Paso with the Virgin, but I suppose you could make something similar if you were to take the Homecoming Queen, dress her in lace and a ten-foot long velvet cape, surround her with bouquets of roses and three-foot tall candles, put a gold crown on her head and glue some plastic tears to her face.

Some aspects of the Alto Fair would fit right into Semana Santa with very little alteration. Parents walk along with their children to replenish the supply of candy which they retrieve from the fronts of their robes and hand out to children along the way. An inflatable jungle gym was added to a nearby plaza for those little ones who are more interested in jumping than standing and waiting. Concession stands offering palomitas (popcorn), algodón (cotton candy), almendras (almonds), churros (think deep-fried tubular funnel cakes), and gelato have sprouted up on corners which were formerly just a sidewalk.

It’s a perplexing combination of religious symbolism and commercialism, piety and consumerism. But why does that surprise and sadden me? Isn’t that just the way things go? Perhaps. But I remain unconvinced that they have to be that way. This is to be a week of preparation for the most important event in the history of forever—God’s death and coming back to life. For all the religious symbolism, it may as well be the Alto Fair for as much as it appears to mean to them. So why don’t I critique the Alto Fair? Because it doesn’t feign to be more than a simple celebration. Semana Santa is replete with religious symbolism.

And although it may appear that Sevilla is celebrating Jesus, my experience has confirmed the opposite. Last week I talked about it with two of the three the high school girls to whom I teach English weekly. The first is in an Hermandad and today (Martes Santo) will walk for the sixth year in the procession of Los Estudiantes. I asked her why she was in the procession, and she told me that she didn’t know. After some serious coaxing she explained that she participated because her older sister did so. That was it; there was no larger meaning than that. She told me that her procession carries the Cristo de la Buena Muerte. So, logically, I asked her why it was called Christ of the Good Death. And she didn’t know.

My soul wept.

So I explained to her that even though it was a horrible, painful death, we call it “good” because through Jesus’ death we can be reunited with our Heavenly Father, which is the most amazing thing ever. Before I was able to explain much more, she cut me off with a nod of the head that said “I know all of that already. Why are you boring me?” So I stopped. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it was because I didn’t want her to associate Jesus with force-fed “boring” stories any more than she already has.

In my conversation with my second student I asked her to explain why they carry Virgins in the processions. For the purpose of the discussion I granted that I recognized why people would want to honor Jesus in the processions, considering that he was God who came to the earth to save us. But I told her that I don’t understand why Mary is placed at the same level as Jesus, since she’s a human just like the rest of us. That led to a fairly intense discussion of Mariology. For the next ten minutes or so we sat at the kitchen table and skirted around the issues of Mary’s immaculateness, sinlessness, perpetual virginity, position as an intercessor before God and ability to answer prayers. The conversation culminated when we were discussing prayer and I asked her how she knew that Mary was able to answer prayers. Searching unsuccessfully for an analogy, her eyes lit up with a gleam of hope.

“You know, like you pray to the saints?”

“But I don’t pray to the saints. I only pray to Jesus, because he’s God.”

Confronted with yet another layer of differences, she exhaled in comical, exaggerated hopelessness and dropped her head onto her folded arms on the kitchen table. We laughed and moved onto another topic of conversation.

Last night when we walked out of El Corte Inglés (Sevilla’s department store) and stumbled upon another procession, one of my friends asked me if I liked Semana Santa. In anticipation of that question from my señora, I had decided to say that I wasn’t sure. I wanted to explain that although I liked the story of Jesus, I didn’t like the way that it was represented here because it was glorified and gilded in a way which made it seem distant from the historical event. I love the story of Jesus for what it means, not for the 17th century icons which represent it—as aesthetically pleasing as they may be.

Religious symbolism is beautiful because it means something. When that meaning is ignored, forgotten, or belittled the vacuum created by its absence cries out and physically pains my soul. My reaction was the same when we visited the Cathedral a few weeks ago. The beautiful 15th century vertical, luminous, spacious Gothic architecture of the third largest Cathedral in the world made me want to cry, because the building is empty. Empty of significance, of relevance, of worshippers proclaiming the victory of Jesus and explaining what it means for the broken and wounded world today. Empty of what matters most to God: us.

So I told my friend last night that I didn’t like Semana Santa. I’m not sure that it’s entirely true, but as of right now it’s my general sensation.

Why? Because I’m convinced that it’s not what God had in mind. He wants our hearts, not external finery. Because it reminds me of the Pharisees. Because yesterday I read about Jesus clearing out the temple and then I went and watched photographers taking pictures of statues of Jesus so that they could sell them and not because they cared about what he did for them. Because I’m afraid that Spaniards think that this is true religion. Because the people of God are to be known by their love and care for the poor rather than for spending money on silver, gold, and gaudiness. Because in some ways the people are so close to the truth, and in a million others they are incredibly far from it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


This clip is of Junko Hagiwara dancing while Jeromo Segura sings and Miguel Pérez plays the guitar on February 24 at a Miércoles a Compás Noches de Flamenco Emergente in the Centro de Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in the Monasterio de la Cartuja de Santa Maria de las Cuevas. When it comes to contemporary culture, Flamenco is as about as Andalucian as it gets. I accepted that I would never be able to dance this rhythmically fluid, seriously passionate dance before I even tried to learn it. So much for always trying new things. . . But I blame my inability to dance on my Dutch heritage. Somehow Klompen Dancing just didn´t cut it.

Monday, March 29, 2010


This clip is of our school´s visit to the mosque in Córdoba on February 5, in the forest of columns which fill the room where the Muslims gathered to pray. Construction of the mosque began by Abderramán I in the 8th century over the site where the church of San Vincente once stood. It was extended by Abderramán III (the first caliph of the Independent Emirate of Córdoba) in the 9th century. His son Alhakan II added the most luxurious part in the first-half of the 10th century, and the largest extension (of the poorest quality) is from Almanzor in the second-half of the 10th century. If you want to know more feel free to ask, and I can give you the 10 minute speel about the architecture which I had to write for an exam for art class.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Photographic Update

This week´s update is in photographic form, since I have finally uploaded photos of Sevilla, Córdoba, and Granada. We´re headed to Toledo on Thursday and Madrid on Friday evening, so I figured it was in the interest of my personal sanity (and your viewing pleasure) to upload these before I acquire more.

If you have a Facebook account you can easily find them there in 2 albums creatively named "Travels 2010" and "La Segunda Edición--Travels 2010." Or else, just use these links.