Tuesday, March 29, 1994

Holy Week Celebration in Seville: Structure and Interpretation (A Traveller's Guide)


Multimedia lecture given at the Alfonso XIII Hotel, Seville, on 28th March 1994. Photography by Carlos Ortega

A presentation of the celebration of Holy Week in Seville can be approached from many different angles because this celebration is in itself complex and multifaceted. It is my intention to divide my introduction to the Holy Week in Seville in two parts. I will start by mentioning the facts, that is, describing the people who take place in the event and the icons displayed in the streets, and, after that, we will consider various interpretations of this representation which is at the same time religious and theatrical.


SLIDE 1 For many centuries, the Christian festival of Easter has been celebrated in Seville with a series of processions in the streets which are meant to act out different stages of the Via Crucis. This is done by taking out of the churches a number of long-venerated sculptures or figures of Jesus Christ, of his mother the Virgin Mary, and of some of the people who were directly or indirectly involved in the Crucifixion. These icons, which are normally on display at churches all year long, are set temporarily on large, wooden structures or floats which we call pasos
and which are carried in procession following a carefully-planned itinerary: they are carried from almost every district church in Seville to the Cathedral and then back to their temple. These pasos have been set up by local Christian associations known as hermandades. These hermandades, which have no official link with the Catholic Church as such, are made up of citizens residents in a given neighbourhood who meet regularly throughout the year. When Easter time comes, most of its members go out in procession accompanying these pasos. Before going any further, let's have a brief look at the different types of pasos so that you are able to identify them when you see them this afternoon.

SLIDE 2 Every procession usually consists of two or three pasos (sometimes just one). In the case an hermandad takes out three pasos, the first one is the so-called Paso de Misterio, which depicts a specific moment of the Via Crucis or the period around the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Theses scenes consist of a set of several wooden sculptures which, when displayed on the streets, give viewers the impression of being alive thanks to the way they are carried by the men underneath them.

SLIDE 3 The second paso, and one which is common to almost all hermandades is the Paso de Cristo which, as you can see in these slides, may represent either Jesus carrying his cross on his way to the Golgotha or

SLIDE 4 Jesus crucified. These sculptures of Jesus are usually installed over a little mound of red carnations or pale purple irises and they portray him either on the brink of death or already dead. Bear in mind that some of these figures that you will see in the streets of Seville this week were carved in the 17th century by some of the masters of the Barroque period, such as Juan de Mesa (who is the author of this crucifix from 1620) or Martínez Montañes and are sacred icons for the inhabitants of Seville.

SLIDE 5A The last paso in every procession is always the Paso de la Virgen (also called Paso de Palio). This paso is the most elaborate one and is structured around a silver canopy which encloses the statue of a crying Virgin, the mother of the dying son, who is richly dressed in velvet and silk, adorned with jewelery and embroidery and surrounded by candles and flowers: white or pink carnations, orange blossoms, gladiolus, etc. She is portrayed as showing deep grief for the death of her beloved son who has been unjustly assassinated or is about to be killed by his captors. In this context of pain and sorrow she is paradoxically depicted with luxurious splendour

SLIDE 5B because she is also imbued with the ultimate triumph of life over death. She is symbolically surrounded by an atmosphere of joyfulness and pagan sensuality: flowers, jewels, fire, incense, music and songs (the famous saetas, which some people sing at her from balconies). This is the way death is depicted in this Baroque ritual where, like in flamenco, sorrow and distress are expressed with joyful passion. And so, unlike the depiction of more rigid, austere, mournful virgins (as is the case in Castilian processions), the virgins in the Andalusian Holy Week are highly ornamented and clearly associated with the joyous arrival of Spring in the South. Although a still sculpture, she is carried by the costaleros in such a way as if she were dancing to the music played to her by the band.

SLIDE 6 But this is not only a splendid ritual of statues but also of real people, the human actors that take part in it. These are the real characters in this dramatization of the passion of Jesus of Nazareth. First of all, there are the nazarenos. The nazarenos (who take their name after the place of birth of Jesus and who can be either men or women) always march in front of a paso in a procession. They carry a heavy candle and they are dressed in a uniform which completely covers them as a sign of the rejection of vanity. Once they get dressed at home (sometimes in rigorous black, sometimes in colurful garments) and leave for their church in the afternoon, some nazarenos are required not to speak to anyone until the procession is over. This is part of the ritual of penance observed by some of the most traditional hermandades, mainly those located in the old centre of town.

SLIDE 7 Secondly, and always marching behind the paso of Christ, we will see the penitentes who, instead of carrying a large candle, carry one or several wooden crosses, thus commemorating Jesus' painful ascent to the Calvary. Both the nazarenos and the penitentes are meditating and doing penance. Some also go in procession to show their gratitude to their god or because they want to plead for God's mercy. As a further sign of sacrifice some nazarenos and most penitentes march barefoot.

SLIDE 8A The costaleros make up the third social group involved in the procession; they are groups of between 36 to 48 men who carry the weight of the paso on their shoulders. Some pasos may weigh up to 2,000 kilograms, so each costalero might have to hold an average of 50 kilograms for several hours.

SLIDE 8B While in the past the costaleros used to be appointed professionals, in modern times none of them do it for money any more, but out of devotion and social pride. They are so keen on it that they usually meet a few months in advance to rehearse late at night with heavy sacks of sand on top of bare pasos.

SLIDE 9 A band of musicians accompanies each paso. Placed behind them, they play music especially composed for the occasion. And here again a very important distinction has to be made, because bands play different music depending on whether they are marching together with  the Virgin or with the paso of Christ: they will play lively, joyful music to the Virgin, but music of mourning to the dead Christ. This way the symbolic opposition between life and death, which stems from the different disposition or arrangements of both pasos, is emphasized.

SLIDE 10 And last, but not least, the people in the streets. The celebration of Holy Week in Seville is, above all, a ritual of interaction between the people who attend the processions and those who directly participate in them, because both groups are equally relevant to the celebration. Large masses gather in the streets (locals have coined a term for this, la bulla, a huge crowd) and, if you are to enjoy the celebration to the full, you are advised to make a little effort and put up with some minor inconveniencies. And I can promise you that you will find it is worth it!  


SLIDE 11 As I pointed out at the beginning of my presentation, the celebration of Holy Week in Seville may be interpreted in many different ways (all of them equally valid), apart from the obvious commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus, which lies at the heart of the whole ritual.

But this ultimately romantic ritual also brings about a social phenomenon which is worth mentioning here:  an identification of the inhabitants of the city with their own town and their long-venerated icons which is renewed every year and which also gives them an opportunity to show their sense of community and tolerance. Furthermore, these seven days represent the best of occasions for sharing the artistic treasures of the city with visitors from all over the world (and here's where all of you come into the picture!).

This leads us directly into the universal quality of the Semana Santa in Seville, because, rather than being restricted to a portion of the population, it is open to all who are in Seville this week: that is, believers and non-believers, Catholics and non-Catholics, Sevillians and those from other parts of Spain, Spaniards and foreigners, conservatives and socialists, rich and poor. This truly democratic feature is what really accounts for the long-aclaimed universal nature of our Holy Week.

SLIDE 12 From looking at these slides that you have seen so far, you will easily understand that the city becomes at the same time an enormous temple and a stage for this Baroque dramatization, laying the ground for the magical coincidence of the contemplation of a paso passing by a beautiful spot in the city, a city which is, at this very same time, celebrating the sensual arrival of Spring in this southern latitude with the blooming of orange trees, the smell of incense, warm afternoons, the high moon up in the sky, and, above all, with a general feeling of joyous solemnity and well-being which pervades everyone. (This may sound like a contradiction in terms but it is not, for remember what I said before about how in this ritual death is commemorated through a celebration of life.)

SLIDE 13 To conclude this presentation, or any other about Holy Week in Seville, one has to allude necessarily to its intensely emotional nature, for what we can witness these days in the streets of Seville may also be interpreted as a modern metaphor of human suffering: the image of this archetypal mother crying for her dead son may also stand as a symbol for human loss, be it the loss of a son in the Bosnian battlefield, be it the loss of a son, a lover or a best friend at the hands of the Aids epidemic.

You must remember that no one is considered an outsider in this ritual because every single one of us may see his or her own grief reflected in these icons, as if we were looking in a mirror. By doing so, we may well think of those who suffer (as He suffered). In the same way as those who are tiredly marching in the procession or carrying the heavy pasos experience a catharsis of sorts which redeems them from a whole year of weaknesses, we, as indirect participants may also examine our own thoughts and feelings and share in this purifying catharsis, because in the end we are all fragile human beings in search of ourselves, and that's what this magnificent urban opera is all about. THANK YOU.