Every year, during the last week of Lent, almost every town and city in Spain celebrates Semana Santa or Holy Week. Culminating on Easter Sunday, Semana Santa is from April 13-20 this year (2014), kicking off with Palm Sunday. It’s also one of the biggest celebrations in the country.
Catholic fraternities and brotherhoods (hermandades and cofradías) lead somber religious parades, or processions of pasos, with life-like wooden sculptures of events and scenes from The Passion or the grieving Virgin Mary.
The fraternities have origins in the Middle Ages, but many formed during the Baroque period, inspired by the Counterreformation. Others formed during the 20th and 21st centuries. Membership is open to any Catholic, but family tradition is an important element in becoming a hermano or brother.
Each procession has three pasos, two of which usually focuses on El Cristo (Christ and scenes from The Passion) and one on La Virgen (grieving Virgin Mary). A paso is a massive, ornate table made of intricately carved wood and precious metals. It stands about seven feet high, it’s legs covered by a velvet hem. El Cristo pasos are usually covered in gold and La Virgen ones in silver.
The brothers wear nazareno or penitential robes, which consists of a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak. The colors of the robes vary, depending on the procession. The nazareno were widely used in the medieval period for penitents, who could demonstrate their penance while still masking their identity.
Sevilla arguably hosts the most grand and elaborate Semana Santa in all of Spain. Although it is a religious holiday, and the pasos leave from churches, the week is full of celebration and frivolity. Bars are full, all day and night, with multiple generations of families. The patrons include everyone from young babies to grandparents, many of whom stay up until three and four in the morning.
Semana Santa 2003
When I lived in Spain in 2003, one of my priorities was to be part of as many festivals and holidays as possible. I was that dorky student in Spanish class who loved reading about each Spanish-speaking country’s special celebration or unique national treasure. I couldn’t wait to experience all of Spain’s vibrant celebrations, like Feria (Sevilla’s April Fair), The Running of the Bulls, and Semana Santa.
Even though I flew home to visit family over Easter, it was important for me to be in Sevilla for part of Semana Santa and to return in time for Feria de Abril (the next great Spanish festival I’ll write about!)