Semana Santa is a key festival and tradition in Spain, a country with a strong Catholic history that has helped to form its culture and customs. This “Holy Week”, which marks the last few days of Jesus Christ’s life before crucifixion, has evolved into something more than just a religious commemoration, it is part of the cultural fabric of the country, especially in southern region of Andalucía. It is a week full of pageantry and color, promises and dedication.
Procesiones and Cofradias
To truly enjoy the processions of Semana Santa, you should know a little about the individual parts and roles that make up the whole event. A procesión is a parade of various components. Many churches in Granada have cofradías or fraternities made up of men and women from church’s congregation. Besides their year-long charitable and social duties, these brother and sister-hoods are responsible for and make up the various parts of each procession.
The procession leaves the home parish, proceeds through the neighborhood and then must go through the tribunal stand in the Plaza del Carmen (Ayuntamiento or city hall). From there they head over to the Cathedral through the Plaza Bibrambla. At the Cathedral, the float bows in front of the main doors. The lights in the Cathedral are turned on and the float enters to the triumphant march of the accompanying band. After a short time, the float then heads back to its own church to be put away for next year. A procession can last from 5 to 12 hours, usually starting in the evening and lasting into in the early hours of the next day.
A paso is the float itself, the main part of each procession during Semana Santa. Usually each procession has two- the Virgin Mary and then the Christ. The Virgin Mary is dressed in an embroidered silk and velvet mantón (cloak) and corona or crown. She is protected by a matching canopy. Each Virgin has a particular theme – “Nuestra Señora de las lágrimas”, “Nuestra Señora de la esperanza”, “Nuestra Señora de la salud” are some examples.
The Christ float represents a scene from the pasión or his way to the cross. Some of those themes are “Nuestro Señor en el huerto de los olivos”, “Santísimo Cristo de la lanzada”, “Nuestro Padre Jesus de la paciencia”. Flowers and candles adorn the floats. The statues themselves are invaluable sculptures that are remarkable for the feeling that they portray. The float called “La Santa Cena” is the heaviest and most intricate of all- 13 statues representing Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper.
Costaleros, Penitentes and Camareras
A costalero is one of the men (or in some cases, women) who carries the float. He or she wears jeans, straw-soled shoes and a faja or cloth belt. A costalero stands underneath the float with 39 or 49 others. They carry it along the float’s journey through the streets. They must all walk in sync and follow directions from the guides. If some costaleros do not keep in sync with the others the float cannot be moved and may even fall. Each carries approximately 50 kilos (110 lbs.) on his shoulders throughout the night. You can imagine that they need to rest every few minutes. These men and women have been practicing and training for long hours every evening since before the Christmas season. Dedication and sheer willpower are necessary to get them through this long night.
A penitente dresses in clothes that demonstrate his penitence for his sins to God. His face is covered in shame by a pointy cap and veil. His body is covered in a gown and gloves. The penitente’s act of devotion is to walk with a heavy wax candle, to light the way for the Christ float during its long journey. Each cofradía wears different color combinations symbolizing the floats main theme: verde esperanza, rojo pasión.
A camarera is a woman dressed in mantilla (lace veil) and peinetta (comb) accompanying the Virgen Mary float. She dresses completely in black and carries wax candles. She also does this in penance for her sins. A banda de música accompanies each float. The drumbeats help keep time so the costaleros walk together and do not miss a step. The mood of the music also helps tell the tale of Christ´s passion: slow, sorrowful mournful hymns to triumphant marches.
The Semana Santa processions begin ever year on the afternoon of Palm Sunday or Domingo de Ramos and continue each evening throughout the week- Lunes, Martes, Miércoles, Jueves, Viernes, y Sábado Santo, and Domingo de Resurreción. The most famous procession is “Los Gitanos” of Miércoles Santo. It travels throughout the Albaicin and the hills of Sacromonte which are lit with campfires, returning in the early hours of the morning to the Sacromonte Abbey.
Another is “el Silencio”. This is held in darkness and with the strictest silence from the audience as well as the penitentes. “El Silencio” is held on Jueves Santo. The best place to see it is at its exit from San Pedro y San Pablo Church on Carrera del Darro (near Plaza Nueva). Another beautiful procession is “Santa Maria de La Alhambra” on Sábado Santo. This proceeds through the Puerta del Vino and through the Puerta de la Justicia of the Alhambra and makes its way down into the city.
Semana Santa throughout Spain
Each town and city in Spain has its own holy week traditions, but the vast majority will center around these processions between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Students participating in Spring semester programs will be fortunate to experience these breathtaking events. The South of Spain in particular attracts thousands of tourists each year.