Spanish celebrations for Easter broadly divide up according to geography. On and near the Mediterranean - in the south and east - it is already spring and there is an air of euphoria and jubilation. Events in the north and centre of the country are generally more solemn and sombre.
If you can face the crowds, the Easter processions to see are those of Seville. Over the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday 57 brotherhoods carry 114 pasos (mobile religious sculptures) in over 50 processions - many of them in the middle of the night and some of them running concurrently. You need a copy of the fiesta programme to find out which procession goes where.
Another important area for Holy Week is the region of Murcia. In the capital, a stock of lifelike Baroque pasos by the 18th-century artist Francisco Salzillo are carried in procession on Good Friday. In neighbouring Lorca, Easter Week comes close to carnival. The lavish parade on Good Friday has a cast of characters akin to Cecil B de Mille's The Ten Commandments, with 4,000 people taking the parts of Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba, Ptolemy, Solomon, Isis, Horus, Cleopatra and other Biblical and historical characters.
Easter Week has a very different character in the Castilla y León region. Processions here are generally more restrained and often silent. A large procession on Good Friday in Valladolid includes 28 painted wooden sculptures depicting the events of the Passion by Renaissance artists such as Juan de Juni.
In Lower Aragón - around Alcañiz, Calanda and Híjar - the soundtrack of Easter is the incessant drumming of Las Tamborradas, whose dour rhythms mourning Christ are said to symbolize the earthquake that struck at the moment of his death. Some towns in central Spain act out gestures of penitence through the mortification of the flesh. In Valverde de la Vera in Extremadura the empalaos (literally, "the impaled ones") visit the 14 stations of the cross at midnight on Holy Thursday with their outstretched arms lashed with ropes to heavy wooden plough beams. Even more severe are the sufferings of the picaos of San Vicente de la Sonsierra in La Rioja, a procession of barefoot penitents who flagellate themselves as they go.
The tone of Easter Week changes completely at midnight when the night of Easter Saturday turns into the morning of Easter Day. In some places, it is traditional to throw old crockery into the streets, tip water from a balcony, set off fireworks - anything to show that misery has changed into joy as Christ rises from the dead. Easter Sunday itself is a day of joy and celebration. The most common way of celebrating the Resurrection is the Encuentro or meeting, in which a paso or float bearing an image of Christ is brought alongside a paso carrying the Virgin.
Semana Santa ,with its swaying processions of barefoot hooded penitents and bedecked statues of Jesus and the Virgin, is one of the moments in the year when foreigners in Spain feel the otherness of this country most strongly. Professor Susan Verdi Webster (author of Art and Ritual in Golden Age Spain) has studied the penitent brotherhoods in Seville, the home of Spanish Holy Week. Susan, art history professor at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, has spent years befriending members of the brotherhoods in Seville. "It is a vestige of the past which is very much alive. And it has that added intriguing element of being a closed society like the masons."
The tradition of cofradías (confraternities) or hermandades (brotherhoods) who bring to life the Passion of Jesus Christ has been alive for over five centuries in Spain and Latin America. In the 16th and 17th centuries almost every citizen belonged to one. Seville grew as an important home due to a trade monopoly which led to the rapid growth of the city and a huge influx of immigrants plus it was home to a permanent tribunal of the Inquisition. Susan adds another factor. "Seville was and is super traditional. It remains a very closed city with an inner world that is very difficult to move in. Nowadays there is also the very 20th century fact that it brings a huge amount of tourism to the city." 16th century Seville was a city teeming with foreigners: a contemporary compares the city to a giant chessboard with as many black as white players. Separate fraternities were formed by Moros - they and all other foreigners were excluded from the Spanish fraternities, so they in
turn excluded the Spanish.
The brotherhoods often replaced outlawed trades guilds and worked as an effective entrée into and protection against a tightly sealed community. Difficult to enter, the stated aim of the brotherhoods was to bring to life the passion of Christ through the sufferings of the penitents and the lifelike depiction of the statues. The early processions looked very similar to those of today: elaborately dressed statues with real clothing, hair and glass eyes and with penitents barefoot and wearing the conical hoods similar to those worn by the condemned during the inquisition. (Susan describes Semana Santa as a “kaleidoscopic, sensory overload”). They were, however, far bloodier affairs. A French noblewoman visiting Sevilla in 1679 wrote: "When they [the flagellants] encounter a pretty woman they lash themselves in a certain way that makes the blood splash upon her, for which the lady is eternally grateful."
"Participants speak of the time walking the streets during the procession as one of reflection on sins,” says Susan. “‘You can see everything but no-one can see you’ one told me. The face is covered not to protect the identity of the penitent but to make him anonymous. The penitents are taking on the sins of the whole crowd and are not being judged by it. There is a community service being done if you like and you don’t want the crowd being distracted thinking ‘Oh there’s my neighbour in chains.’”
Today, brotherhoods are made up of normal people from every walk of life who perform good works and give money to run their own charitable organisations. They are active every day of the year with catechism classes and other celebrations. Friends of the Sevilla confraternity Susan became closest to urged her to join. "I told them I didn’t believe but they said that didn’t matter. Strangely, I’ve found the members of the confraternities to be less fanatical than other church members in Spain.”
Semana Santa in Seville starts on April 15. In Madrid, things are more low-key although the confraternity of Jesús Nazareno el Pobre in La Latina is impressive. Just outside Madrid in Chinchón, a Passion Play is performed in the plaza.
Art and Ritual in Golden Age Spain is available from Princeton University Press http://pup.pupress.princeton.edu/