Probably no one does Holy Week with more pomp and ceremony than the city of Seville, in southern Spain. This 450-year-old tradition is very much alive and well, and not just among the religiously devout.
Holy week has come to symbolize Spanish identity
On many of Seville's narrow, winding streets during the week before Easter Sunday, long lines of caped figures can be seen, walking two by two, over the city's cobblestones, wearing tall, conical hats and cloth draped over their faces, only allowing their eyes to be seen.
Silently, they advance at an almost funereal stride, carrying one-and-half-meter tall candles or silver-topped staffs, making their way toward Seville's main cathedral, sometimes accompanied by musicians and drummers, and always one or two large floats featuring life-like figures from the Bible, such as Jesus on the cross or the Virgin Mary.
It is a scene that dates from the Middle Ages and is full of traditional Catholic pomp and ceremony, but which is flourishing in 21st century Seville and other parts of Spain. Holy Week, or Semana Santa as it is known here, has come to express not only religious devotion, but also to symbolize the very identity and culture of many Spanish, even those who are more secularly minded.
On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which falls one week before Easter Sunday, there is a lot of activity at the Church of San Julian in a working-class neighborhood of Seville's old town. Emilio Jose Balbuena Arriola is trying to get things organized between calls on his cell phone.
The trip to the cathedral and back can take up to 12 hours
He is the first secretary of one of the 60 religious brotherhoods, or hermandades, which will participate in Holy Week celebrations this year and hold processions which snake their way from the home church to the cathedral and then back again. The journey can take up to 12 hours.
His group, whose full name is La Real e Ilustre Hermandad Sacramental de la Inmaculada Concepcion y Primitiva, Franciscana y Cisterciense Cofradia de Nazarenos de la Piedad de Nuestra Senora, Santisimo Cristo de la Buena Muerte, Santa Maria Magdalena y Maria Santisima de la Hiniesta Dolorosa y Gloriosa Coronada, but which locals just call La Hinesta, has its origins in brotherhoods founded in the 15th and 16th century.
Today, however, he is trying to make sure tomorrow's procession goes smoothly. He will have 1,176 nazarenos or penitentes, those people in the caps and hoods, in the procession along with 30 burly men who will carry the large floats, called pasos, of Jesus and the Virgin on their backs.
"Holy week is above all a religious festival. We remember the Passion - the death and resurrection of the Lord," he told Deutsche Welle. "Originally it had a didactic function to teach the people who were not educated about the different parts of the scriptures."
"Today it still serves that role in a way," he added. "It's like a visual complement to what they've read in the Bible."
In the past, the processions also put the stress most heavily on penitence, and many of the hooded figures would whip themselves with lashes as they marched along the streets. While that happens in some smaller Spanish towns even today, in Seville, the especially devote generally walk the route barefoot or carry large wooden crosses.
The next day, Palm Sunday, is when Holy Week really gets going, and outside San Julian, a large crowd has gathered in the heat and bright sunlight to watch the procession begin. It feels more like a street festival then a religious observance as people drink beer, teenagers hang out in groups and families and neighbors meet and greet, laugh and argue.
But then a uniformed band approaches the church and people quiet down. Suddenly, with a burst from a trumpet, a float carrying a sculpture of the Virgin Mary emerges from the church's doors and the crowd breaks into applause.
The floats’ arrival and departure are among the high points of the processions
Once the paso is entirely outside the church, it stops, and from a facing balcony, a woman sings a passionate flamenco-style lament.
Then, it begins its arduous journey toward the cathedral, followed by a long line of nazarenos, dressed in white tunics and blue hoods.
At the cathedral, the float and penitents make their way through a crush of onlookers, one of whom is 66-year-old Carmen Cortes de la Pena, who along with her husband came from Barcelona to spend seven days seeing as many processions as they can. For her, the religious imagery that fills the city's streets helps renew her faith.
"It brings up a lot of emotion, a lot of feeling, especially when you think of the people under the float who are carrying it, they have to put a lot of effort into it," she said. "But they do it for the love of Christianity."
More than a religious festival
But Holy Week in Seville is more than just a religious observance, experts say. While it is still a religious event, it is seen by different people in different ways, according to Isidoro Moreno, a senior professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Seville who has written on Holy Week.
"Many people, perhaps it's even a majority, who have more secular values, participate and even help out with the festival. The religious element isn’t an obstacle to this, nor is it a necessity to be religious to take part," he told Deutsche Welle. "There is sort of a cocktail of motivations. One might be religious, but there are many others."
To Americans, the figures resemble the Ku Klux Klan
He said the community uses the event to reconnect with old friends and neighbors, to show off their new babies or new spring wardrobes, flirt with the boys and girls in their school classes, or, indeed, to reinvigorate their Christian faith.
"If it were only about tradition, it would be impossible to have a festival that involves hundreds of thousands of people," he added.
The processions do seem to fuse the old and the new seamlessly, as when the crush of people gathered along the procession routes cross themselves as the images of Mary go by, then go back to texting or chatting on their mobile phones. Or the bars along the routes are full of young men and women engaged in the type of flirting that would get one thrown out of a Catholic mass. Their popularity is not in question among locals. Trying to make one's way across the city during procession days is challenging at best, as getting through the hoards who line the routes is next to impossible.
In addition to being crucial to the city's identity, Holy Week has become essential for the city's economy. A University of Seville study in 2010 found its economic impact to be just over 240 million euros ($351 million).
Up to a million people participate in Holy Week activities on any one day, either as participants or observers. Hotel rooms are usually fully booked and prices for them can triple during the week. Bars and restaurants see their business skyrocket and jobs are generated in the hospitality, sanitation and even tailoring sectors - someone has to sew all those tunics and hoods.
Many of the sculptures have a high artistic value
City officials and other involved in Holy Week insist the celebration is not on the way out, destined to wither as an older generation of more devout Spaniards dies out and a younger, non-church-going population replaces them.
In fact, Santiago García-Dils de la Vega of the city's tourism office believes this 450-year-old tradition, with its strong religious imagery, provides a psychological foundation for local residents, strengthening their ties to their home region even in our more secular age.
"Seville and our region of Spain are very modern, in the 21st century. But on the other hand we are very proud of our roots," he told Deutsche Welle.
"All these religious images are something more than representation of holy Christ or Mary, but also an image of our soul, of our roots, of our culture. That's why they are so popular still nowadays."
Indeed, as the sun sets behind Seville's enormous cathedral, it is truly a remarkable sight to watch a float carrying a life-size statue of Our Lady of Sorrows surrounded by dozens of lit candles and hooded figures make its way into the dark church portal as drums beat. Even for the non-religious, it is an experience that stays with you.
Author: Kyle James, Seville
Editor: Nancy Isenson