Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Sevilla: within Spain, Sevilla has one of the best known celebrations in the country during Holy Week and possibly for the entire year. Holy Week in Spain is obviously a big deal anyways, given the fact that its a predominantly Catholic country and has been for centuries. The celebrations you see in the cities are unlike anything else and definitely would not be possible in the United States. Its something that everyone should have the experience to see, especially if you are a devout Christian and more specifically Catholic.
So what exactly is it? Basically each day of Holy Week and even starting the Friday and Saturday before Palm Sunday there are processions throughout the city. Each church within the city has a brotherhood or cofradía of traditionally men, although now women can participate, who pay yearly dues. During Holy Week, these brothers or nazarenos, dress in different colored robes according to their brotherhood and wear hoods or capirotes much like the KKK in the U.S. (Interestingly enough, the KKK took the idea of the hoods from these religious brothers who had been wearing them since as early as the 14th century and now when people see the hoods, they don’t think of religious penitents but instead of racist intolerants.)
Nazarenos, La Rendición
Each procession has nazarenos and a float or paso of Jesus followed by the Virgin. Each procession marches out of their church and through the narrow streets to and inside the main cathedral in downtown. Some of the processions march for 8-10 hours due to their distance from the cathedral and the fact that the crowd has to clear the street and the actual pasos are so incredibly heavy. The biggest procession we saw had over 2000 nazarenos and took about an hour to pass by where we were standing. Depending on the brotherhood, the procession starts with a band playing religious music, followed by nazarenos carrying candles, some walking barefoot and carrying/praying with rosaries.
Band, Las Aguas
After the nazarenos, the first float or paso comes through which is a depiction of the Passion of Christ.
Jesus de la Redención, Jesus of the Redemption
Followed by more nazarenos, sometimes bearing crosses
El Gran Poder, The Great Power
The last paso is of the Virgin all decked out in gold and silver wearing a velvet robe.
Virgen de Las Aguas, Virgin of the Waters
Each float is carried by men, or costaleros, marching in step underneath and unseen so it appears the paso is actually floating. They are incredibly heavy with some being carried by 40 or 50 men each carrying about 100 lbs. on their shoulders.
For weeks before, Semana Santa could be heard on everyone’s lips in Sevilla. I could feel the tourists pouring into the city as Palm Sunday approached and there was definitely an air of excitement. All throughout the city center, construction of platforms and bleachers had been taking place for weeks. The main avenue in front of the Cathedral had been completely lined with little wooden folding chairs that each sold for €100 or about $150 to people who wanted the best views of each paso as it passed through and into the Cathedral.
I was in Portugal for the first weekend but I went to my first paso on Holy Monday (Lunes Santo) with a friend and a guide from our CIEE Study Center. I had no idea what to expect but it is really something that is surreal to experience. Just imagine the most confusing, oldest part of the city with narrow streets and tall buildings with balconies compleeeetely FULL of people, like unable to move at all amounts of people. And that is how the entire downtown area of Sevilla was. People would line up for the pasos hours before they came by just to get a good view. People would stand in the street until the paso was close enough that the police came by and pushed everyone up into the sidewalk. I have never felt so claustrophobic in my life. At one point, we were literally like a herd of cattle trying to get down an alleyway. We were being pushed into people without any control until we finally turned a corner and had room to at least walk without being pushed along. Holy Monday I saw the La Redención (The Redemption) paso as well as Las Aguas (The Waters).
Tuesday morning Sarah and I headed to Salamanca & Ávila (see post below). They also have Semana Santa celebrations although they are not nearly as elaborate as in Sevilla and therefore not the amount of people. We did manage to see a paso in Salamanca on Tuesday night and one in Ávila on Wednesday. We headed back to Sevilla just in time for La Madrugada (The Dawn), the biggest night of Semana Santa.
I have never ever seen anything in my life like I saw during La Madrugada. I left my house at about 9:30pm in search of food since my family hadn’t made me dinner after I got off the bus from Salamanca. I didn’t really know where I was going but decided to head to the city center to see if I could find some food. The sheer amount of people was unbelievable. And all the bars were completely packed but people had their little stools outside and brought the bar atmosphere out into the tiny streets. I have never seen so many people just gathered on sidewalks, sitting on curbs, in the street, on ledges, any nook and cranny they could fit just drinking beer, eating sandwiches, eating tapas, talking in small groups, families with little kids, and old people all showing just how Spanish they were. I honestly just walked around the streets completely lost because the main routes were so packed or full of pasos, with my mouth almost open as I tried to take it all in. I stumbled upon a little store selling bocadillos (sandwiches), chips and a water bottle for 4euro so I got my little meal and headed for the Cathedral for more people watching and to eat my sandwich. It was just fascinating to sit on the steps and take in the atmosphere. I really can’t explain what it was like. I ate my food, stuck around the cathedral for a while watching a few pasos, then decided to head to another section of the city. It took me probably about an hour when normally its about 15 minutes. I saw people lined up on the sidewalks in front of a church after I got through the huge crowds and decided to wait with them since there was obviously a paso coming through. I waited about 30 minutes before it came by.
I finally got a hold of a few friends and we met up and headed for a main plaza where 2 pasos would be coming by. Finding a spot in the plaza was absolutely impossible. The sidewalks were completely full of little wooden folding chairs and barricaded off and the only space in the streets was literally just big enough for the paso to get through. The plaza was as packed as it could get with people standing. After realizing that even if we could find a spot for 5 of us, we wouldn’t be able to see anything, we decided to walk down a narrow small street. The sidewalks of the street were equally as packed so we walked down the middle of the street for a few minutes before the police walked toward us followed by a paso. They were basically pushing everyone up onto the sidewalks so the paso could get through. We decided to split up and just find a spot for ourselves. It turned out for the best because our view was so much better than if we had stayed in the plaza. I could literally touch the paso as it went by. The paso was El Gran Poder (The Great Power), it was completely silent with no band and the onlookers were quiet as it passed. Its the oldest procession dating from 1340 and the biggest one I saw. I think there were over 2000 nazarenos and it took about an hour to pass us. Because it was at night, all the candles of the nazarenos were lit, as well as the candles on the paso of the Virgin. Just being on that tiny Spanish street, surrounded by thousands of silent people, and watching everything in front of me was one of the most memorable experiences. During that paso we also experienced a saeta or an impromptu song sung by a passerby in flamenco style singing praises to Jesus and Mary. I couldn’t understand any of it, but the man singing it was the only thing you could hear and was standing in the balcony right above my head…SOOOO cool. As the Virgin went by, we heard the man in front guiding the costaleros. The paso was so wide and the street was so narrow, they were literally a few meters from the balconies as they passed. Since the costaleros can’t see at all where they’re going, the man in front shouting directions is very important. We could hear him say “a la izquierda un poquito, siempre andando, siempre andando” (to the left a little, always walking, always walking). Such a cool thing to see.
Nazarenos, El Gran Poder
María Santísima del Mayor Dolor y Traspaso, El Gran Poder
Holy Mary of Great Pain and Crossing, The Great Power
After an hour of El Gran Poder, we headed for a much more open space to see La Esperanza de Triana (The Hope of Triana). Since Triana is the neighborhood where most of us live, we were excited. The Christ in that paso, Cristo de las Tres Caidas (Jesus of the Three Falls), was the most beautiful one I saw. There was so much gold it was unbelievable and people touched and kissed it as it walked by. The Virgin was beautiful as well but most of them started to look the same. After La Esperanza, I decided to head home, it was about 5:30 am. I had been out for 8 hours and I only saw about half the pasos that night. One of my friends was out until 9:30am!! And THAT is how big of a deal La Madrugada is…an overnight party of pasos in the crowded tiny Spanish streets.
Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope)
Good Friday was more low key than the night before but nonetheless, still a big deal. We saw two pasos, El Cachorro (The Puppy) and La O. I never figured out why one of the brotherhoods is called The Puppy but there has to be some religious significance. We did get to see the costaleros turn the corner with the Virgin in El Cachorro which took about 10 minutes and after which, everyone cheered on the costaleros.
Santísimo Cristo de la Expiración, El Cachorro
The Most Holy Christ of the Expiration, The Puppy
Nuestra Madre y Señora del Patrocinio, El Cachorro
Our Mother & Lady of the Patronage
La O was the most memorable though. The nazarenos were all dressed in purple satin, head to toe. We were once again on a tiny crowded Spanish street watching the nazarenos pass by with candles lit. The coolest part was seeing the costaleros switch. Because the pasos are so heavy, the costaleros switch out fairly often. We happened to be standing at the very spot where they decided it was time to switch out. The man in front yelling directions, counted off and they lowered the Virgin. A few costaleros switch out at a time, row by row. When they’re ready to start again, the costaleros are all cheering and encouraging each other to keep going. Right before they lift the Virgin up, they all yell in unison something to the effect of “La Virgen al cielo” (We lift her to the heavens). It was sooooo cool to see and hear.
Nazarenos, La O
María Santísima de La O, Most Holy Mother of the O
Costaleros, La O
Although Holy Week is a huge celebration in Sevilla, I felt like Easter definitely lacked in celebration. I could go on and on about what I think about Spain and Catholicism but that’s another blog post.
Semana Santa in Sevilla IS one of the things that should be seen and experienced if at all possible. Even if you’re not a Christian, its still a religious experience that can be appreciated and respected for its historical and traditional aspects. Although I think a lot of the religious aspect of it has been lost, it would be a meaningful experience for a Christian who takes their faith seriously.