Photo by David Murano
Setmana Santa, Easter
Good Friday as celebrated in Perpignan
I spent Semana Santa in Andalucía last year, and was very confused by some of the costumes and events I witnessed. What is the story behind Holy Week in Spain?
The elaborate spectacle of Spanish Holy Week is known the world over. For the seven days preceding Easter, many of the nation’s cities are transformed into a veritable fairground of religious devotion, the sight of which can be very moving for believers and very confusing for everyone else.
The week essentially consists of a series of processions, in which different religious groups or hermandades participate. They each leave from their own church and wind their way to the city’s cathedral and back again. Processions include between one and three pasos (floats), which are generally the size of a car and weigh just as much—up to several metric tonnes. Incredibly, they are carried on the shoulders and heads of a team of between 30 and 50 costaleros (members of some hermandades in Andalucía) for hours at a time—one Sevillian procession, La Macarena, clocks in at an astonishing 13.5 hours. Each paso, made like a wooden table and ornately decorated with velvet curtains, candles, precious metals and other rich materials, is topped with figures made of wood, wax and wire that depict (often rather gruesomely) scenes from the biblical story of Jesus’s death—a weeping Virgin holding her dead son, a bloodied Christ carrying his cross, etc—like three-dimensional religious paintings. The floats are accompanied by brass bands and sometimes by women in traditional black funeral clothes to mourn Jesus’s death, and surrounded by a great mass of nazarenos, or penitents.
One of the most definitive (and, for many, surprising) characteristics of the processions is the costume of the nazarenos. Its colour depends on the hermandad, but its shape is universal: a floor-skimming tunic, topped by a mask with only slits for the eyes that rises into a tall conical hood. It is, in short, identical garb to that worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The origins of this unfortunate similarity are unknown, but going by chronology it was the KKK who adopted the look from the nazarenos, and not the other way around.
Though Semana Santa is particularly intense and splashy in Andalucía, it is nonetheless celebrated nationwide—though in many areas, for example in Catalunya, on a far lesser scale. However, one place relatively close to Barcelona where you can see a serious Good Friday procession is just over the French border in Perpignan.