A Primer for Holy Week in Spain

by Jeffrey Neil Weiner

photos by Jeffrey Neil Weiner

During my first Holy Week in Spain, I found myself barricaded in a cul de sac near La Giralda, the Moorish tower that forms part of the Baroque fortress that is the Cathedral of Seville. Two Millennials relentlessly pushed us forward into the crowded plaza, and I had an impious exchange of words on that Good Friday. The day before, the taxi driver dropped us off as close as he could get to our hotel, given the procession sweeping by the front door. We plowed through shoulder-to-shoulder processional spectators with large suitcases skipping over bumps and sticking in cracks on the cobblestone streets—two tourists with heads hung in embarrassment right behind the massive floats of the Virgin and Her hoard of candles. As we arrived at the threshold of our hotel, a large woman passed out right there on the street. That was as close as it seemed to get to the spirit of foot-washing Maundy Thursday—the lady on the street, feet up, head down.

For my Lutheran-raised, Anglican travelling companion, Holy Week in Spain may very well have been on Mars. There was nothing to prepare him for the funereal tone, the macabre dirges, the hooded confraternities, and Mary as the enthroned, doll-like, queen of the week. For a Protestant, Holy Week may be downright disquieting, at worst heretical. Even for a Roman Catholic from other Western countries, accustomed to one dreary Good Friday, surrounded by otherwise upbeat or joyous holy days—Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and, of course Easter—there is something outlandish about the Spanish interpretation. The mix of drunken revelry and partying combined with public self-flagellation, cross-shouldering, and pall-bearing produces cognitive dissonance in the foreigner.

Here is an explanation of the most confounding aspects of Easter week in Spain for the perplexed Breton or American.

Sevilla ShopPolychrome busts of Jesus in the display window of a department store in Seville

  1. Mary as Belle of the Ball

The focus of Holy Week is on the floats. There’s something sacrilegious about giving them that name, as if they were entertainment in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. These are large platforms that have some aspect of the Passion depicted on them with polychrome statues—statues made out of wood, painted in oil, often using human hair and marble eyes, made to look as life-like as possible. Representations of Jesus are ghoulishly bloody, with abundant streams of blood meant to be as realistic as possible, as if you were a spectator of the suffering of Christ in real time. But whether you are in Seville, Granada, or Valladolid, most of the floats tend to carry Mary—and not the poor and modest Mary of the Gospels. Mary is depicted as a grande dame in silken garments heavily embroidered with gold. The floats are laden with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of candles. It’s not uncommon for spectators to touch a piece of Her garment, or the edge of the float, as She passes by. The focus on Mary as the Queen of Heaven may be unsettling to some, particularly, Protestants, but it is a representation of the Mother of God, “Theotokos,” visibly transformed in terrestrial splendor. As the earthly portal between the divine and the incarnation of God in Christ, Mary is in the Catholic tradition represented as royal. While Marianism, the focus on Mary as intercessor, was a feature of the medieval church, these floats of Mary are much more modern. It was during the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church dug its heals against the wave of change threatening tradition, that the Council of Trent elevated Her status further.

It may not be a coincidence, however, that it was with the first great reigning queen of Spain, Isabel I, Ferdinand’s wife, who ruled with him, but by all accounts, wore the pants in the family, that the open displays of religiosity that persist today, gained steam. Think of the Queen advancing through the narrow streets of many Spanish cities and towns as a tribute to the important religious role that Isabel I played in the history of the peninsula and of the great empire that she launched.

Mary Float

Float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, in a chapel in Granada before a procession

  1. Exhibitionist Penitence

More so in the provinces of central and northern Spain, where Holy Week is more austere than in the wild and wooly south, Holy Week is a demonstration of penitence. Most Holy Week processions feature barefoot penitents walking on the uneven, cold cobblestones and “chinas,” as the flint-like paving stones are called. They carry actual crosses or just march behind the floats. Either way, the focus is on a public form of penitence, and an experiential reenactment of Christ’s physical pain, humiliation, and solitude on His march toward Golgotha.

To some foreigners, these extravagant gestures of piety may seem to go against the spirit of Jesus’ words: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:6). However, when these processions became popular and spread through Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were a reaction to the private spirituality of Protestantism—the proverbial direct relationship to God in the cloister of one’s own room with nothing other than a Bible. They were public affirmations of one’s allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church in a country still afraid not just of the spread of the reformations from the north, but of covert “new Christians,” people whose roots were Muslim or Jewish. The growing conflict between the kings of Spain—particularly Charles V, Philip II, and Philip III—and Moorish rebels manifested the fear of the continuing presence of “false Christians.” In 1609, Philip III declared the final expulsion of Moriscos, Moors who had settled in Spain since 711.

Another ritual similar to Holy Week processions was the triumphal return of Spaniards who had been captured by Moors and imprisoned in North Africa. They, too, would march in procession before they presented themselves to the Holy Inquisition, which would decide whether they had been contaminated by Islam or had secretly converted and returned to Spain to help kidnap Spaniards. Processions were, and still are, an integral part of establishing community as Christians. Today, when there are as many non-believers as confirmed Christian Spaniards participating, the processions express the legacy of exhibition and pageantry as part of Spanish identity.

Cross-Shouldering in Segovia

Cross-Shouldering in Segovia

Good Friday Mass in Valladolid

Good Friday Mass in Plaza Mayor, Valladolid

  1. Polychrome Technology

While polychrome techniques have been around since the Middle Ages, it was in the sixteenth century that some of the most remarkable examples of it surfaced. Today new, plastic, tacky sculptures abound, but there are occasional authentic polychromes from the 16-18th centuries. In cities less visited by tourists, such as Valladolid, you may encounter them. The point of polychrome technique is to make the figures of Jesus, Mary, John, Pontius Pilate, and the rest of the characters from Holy Week, come alive. We can trace the desire to engage all the senses—the realistic skin and blood, the human hair, glass eyes with veins in them, incense and sweat—to the influence of the spirituality of native son Ignatius of Loyola on Spanish pageantry.

The Counter-Reformation responded to the stripping down of the liturgy and of the churches by Protestants by adding more flesh and bone to its forms of worship. The Holy Week processional polychrome statues were made using a variety of woods for different parts of the body, depending on how detailed the carvings needed to be. The artist cured the wood with glue, and then applied gesso, a binding agent also brushed on canvas. These techniques allowed the paint to assume a brilliancy that mimics oil paintings. Another technique, “estofado,” added depth: artists alternated layers of different mediums, for example, gold leaf and tempera paint, then sanded these down with stone to give the gilt robes a liveliness that a flat coat could not achieve

In the best processions, particularly in the central and northern cities of Valladolid, Segovia, Salamanca, Madrid, and Oviedo, you will see these treasures bringing the last chapters of the Gospels to life.

Cristo_yacente_Gregorio_Fernandez_2 copy.jpg

Polychrome by Gregorio Fernández in Valladolid (Wikipedia)

Jesus Float.jpg

Polychrome of Jesus stepping on a skull, symbolizing the conquest of death

  1. It Always Rains During Holy Week

I have been to three Holy Weeks in Spain, spending days in Granada, Seville, Cordova, Segovia, Madrid, Barcelona, and Valladolid, and it has always rained for part of the week. This is an odd and tragic coincidence, given that the rainfall in most of these regions of Spain is virtually nonexistent the rest of the year. Even in the desert that is the autonomous region of the capital, I remember being caught in a downpour worthy of the Amazon with my umbrella turned inside out, standing under the shelter of the arcade of the grand Banco de España off the Plaza de Cibeles.

When the heavens pour down rain, the floats cannot come out: in the south, this can mean outright hysteria and tears. Everybody has a family member or friend in a confraternity, the society of men who carry the float and train all year to transport over a ton of religious art in rehearsed synchronicity. You can see the float heave and shimmy every time it is lifted and laboriously carried down the street. On an overcast day, there are whispers and rumors circulating through the crowds on the street: the float coming out of such and such church or confraternity building will not be launched. Thirty minutes to an hour of drizzle pass, and ear-to-ear news travels to tell whether the procession prevails or is canceled. If this is the event of the day—or just one of many—determines whether there are widespread meltdowns or just contained weeping.

Rainy Segovia

After the rain in Segovia during Holy Week 

  1. No, Those Are Not KKK Members

The confraternities, the groups of men who form religious societies, wear high, pointed hoods with eyeholes and matching, simple shifts. To Americans, the first association is with the Ku Klux Klan, and fear, or at least a ripple of overriding creepiness, is the emotional effect. But the colors tend to be black, purple, green, burgundy, rather than white, although you will also see the KKK’s stark white. The purpose of this disguise is anonymity. In theory, the penitent should be anonymous, and this aspect does conform to the repeated admonishment of Jesus to avoid parading one’s expressions of piety: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mt. 6:1). In practice, however, people know which confraternity their relations belong to, although they cannot identify them in the crowd.

Hooded Confraternity.jpg

A confraternity with its banner marching on Good Friday

  1. Jamón

Spaniards are obsessed with their ham, and not only will you probably eat pork in one of its incarnations on Easter, but virtually on every day of the year, barring Fridays during Lent and Good Friday. Pork is a no-brainer protein-source in a country that is mostly arid with bad soil, as much of the Iberian Peninsula is. The national obsession goes back to ancient times, no doubt. However, the conspicuous consumption of pork in all its forms intensified during the period the processionals became a national tradition. To eat pork in public was a declaration of being a Christian in a country that as recently as the seventeenth-century was still attempting to purge the vestiges of the other religions of the Book—Islam and Judaism—which have purity laws prohibiting the consumption of pig.

If you have seen the swine pornography of a “Museo del Jamón” with hundreds of hanging hams in the window, you begin to appreciate the obsession with pork. A Spaniard eating jamón in no way resembles an Italian eating prosciutto, although only a connoisseur can distinguish between the Iberian and the Apennine versions of cured meat. In Spain, pork is an obsession, not an item on the menu. Eating “cochinillo,” suckling pig, during Holy Week (except Friday, of course), is as Spanish as you can get. It tastes good, but it’s a morally challenging experience to get through when you can see the piglet’s little face.

Jamón Shop

El museo del Jamón in Madrid

  1. The Day of the Resurrection

“El Día de la Resurrección” is the name given to what we call Easter. In Anglo countries, only the religiously observant will attend Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday, but the numbers multiply on Easter Sunday. In Spain, the Day of the Resurrection feels like an afterthought. By then, the processions have petered out. There will be usually one last morning procession, and after a week of dirges, one would expect an exuberant triumph on Easter. But it seems like an afterthought, rather than a counterpoint of ambitious enough proportions to counter the gloom of the preceding week. Cathedrals, like the leviathan in Seville, whisk people in and out for forty-five minute, mirthless Masses. If you tarry too long, you will likely be scolded. There are no pastel bonnets or beautiful music. Although the cheerful pagan customs in Anglo countries of candy and chocolate Easter bunnies are popping up in sweets shops from Segovia to Granada, they are not ubiquitous.

Why Easter is not bigger and better, as the most important day in the Christian calendar, is still hard for me to explain. In the Golden Age of Spanish literature, the seventeenth century, the idea of “desencanto,” translated roughly as “to be undeceived,” pervades the art of the time. There is a gloomy sense of a political and economic decline of the Spanish Empire. It was during this time that the customs of Holy Week we see, came to be, and they may owe their flavor to the pervasive feeling of doom. There may also be an explanation in the looming presence of the Holy Inquisition with kings such as Philip II, as its bulldog. These champions of Roman Catholicism inspired more fear than jubilance.

Processional Lad

For a fan of ecclesial art and of the diversity of Christian expression, Holy Week in Spain is a worthwhile adventure. Take the time, however, to pray and meditate in the beautiful chapels, churches, and cathedrals where the processions begin. Think of it as an Easter-egg hunt through the artistic treasures of Spain, and a chance to explore a unique perspective on the most sacred week of the Christian calendar. Spain’s extraordinary version of Holy Week may keep you coming back.



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