The Semana Santa (Easter Week or Holy Week) celebrations in Spain can be quite bewildering for north European expats and visitors, but this is no reason to avoid them. After all, from a Spanish point of view the way in which Easter is celebrated by the majority of the UK (with the exception, of course, of practising Catholics) has an equally incomprehensible fixation on chocolate eggs and bunnies.
In Spain, on the other hand, Semana Santa is a time of spectacle, faith, suffering, sacrifice, penitence, art, beauty, generations-old loyalty, endurance, reaffirmation of local identity, community spirit, love, joy, deliverance and, above all, passion: the passion of preserving age-old traditions and the Passion (with a capital P) of the last days of the life of Jesus Christ. These elements have become stronger and stronger with the passing of the centuries, and while the celebrations in each village, town and city are different they all reflect the local identities which have been forged over time within the framework of the Passion.
It is generally fair to say that the Semana Santa processions are more important in central and southern Spain than in the north, perhaps because of the unforgiving climate and relative historical poverty and hardship which the locals have endured for centuries, and a week of re-enacting those hardships culminates in the joy of Resurrection Sunday. While this may mean little to visitors from abroad, it is no reason for them not to appreciate the commitment of the Spanish – including the Murcianos – to perpetuating the celebrations which have taken shape over the ages.
Of 10 local fiestas to have been awarded International Tourist Interest status in the Region of Murcia, 4 are the Semana Santa celebrations in Jumilla, Lorca, Cartagena and the city of Murcia, and various others are classified as being of National Tourist Interest. All of the local Semana Santa programs have their own traditions and unique ways of celebrating Easter, but at the same time the essence of the week remains the last days of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and his resurrection.
In the capital city of Murcia the processions are large-scale affairs, attended by huge crowds who divide their attention between the historic sculptures by Francisco Salzillo being paraded through the old centre, the lively atmosphere in the bars and restaurants along the route and the unusual sight of statues being lowered through the window of a church because they are too big to fit through the door, or witnessing the ass of red as they 4,000 “Coloraos” cross the Puente Vieja on Wednesday evening.
In Lorca, meanwhile, the razzmatazz and exquisitely embroidered cloaks are at times more reminiscent of a grand circus-style show than of a deeply emotional religious occasion. Roman chariots race through the streets as the crowds applaud feats of daring horsemanship, and the local population is divided between their loyalties to the “Blues” and the “Whites” as the two groups compete to put on the most spectacular show.
At the other end of the scale is the military precision of the solemn parades in Cartagena, where the processions begin in the very early hours of Viernes de Dolores, before any others in the whole of Spain, while the penitents in Jumilla continue a tradition of Easter processions which is among the earliest to be recorded in the country, dating back at least as far as 1411, and the recent award of International Tourist Interest status reflects the rich artistic heritage, colour, devotion and enthusiasm. which have inspired the locals for over six centuries.
As Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter, so too do the Vía Crucis (Way of the Cross) events, which are essentially an act of penitence in which participants visit the stations of the cross while prayers and readings take place at each station. Each station represents one of the key events in the last days of Jesus, from his betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane to the moment his body was laid in its tomb.
However, the main body of events begins on Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows), which in 2022 falls on April 8, and continues on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter Day. In Cartagena and Águilas Viernes de Dolores is also the day of the Patrona, the patron saint of both locations, so there are floral offerings and other events running parallel to the Semana Santa programme.
The processions are organised by Cofradías, or Brotherhoods, many of which have been in existence for hundreds of years. During the troubled years of Civil War in the 1930s and the subsequent rule of General Franco many Cofradias were disbanded, but Semana Santa and its traditions have since enjoyed a revival, and in Murcia, for example, young children are often enrolled into the family’s traditional Cofradía at birth. The Cofradias are the custodians of the sculpted figures and tableaux which are paraded through the streets, and spend much of the year rehearsing and planning their participation in the Semana Santa processions.
Each Cofradia has its headquarters, often a church or chapel, where the sculpted figures are kept along with other pasos, standards and tunics.
The Pasos are the vast platforms on which the sculpted tableaux and figures are set for the parades, when they are carried on the shoulders of the costaleros belonging to each Cofradía. Some are priceless, including the works by Salzillo which are paraded in the city of Murcia: on Good Friday morning nine of his most magnificent pieces can be seen in the "procession of the Salzillos".
The pasos are transported on enormous structures known as tronos, thrones, which are usually floral, decorated with fabrics, lights and candles and are extremely unwieldy and heavy. One of the most memorable experiences of this week is to go into these churches before the processions leave and watch the tronos being decorated.
Some of these pasos are priceless, carved by the great sculptors of Spain: here in the Murcia Region youll see the name Salzillo cropping up from time to time, the greatest Baroque sculptor in Murcia. On the morning of Good Friday nine of his most magnificent pieces parade in whats become known as the "procession of the Salzillos" in Murcia city, although there are other pieces by the master dotted around the region. Many of the pieces which parade today are 20th century as so many masterpieces were destroyed in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.
The pasos are transported on enormous structures known as tronos, thrones, which bear the pasos and their accompanying decoration. These are usually floral, intertwined with fabrics, lights and candles and are not only vast, but unwieldy and heavy. One of the most memorable experiences of this week is to go into these churches before the processions leave and watch the tronos being decorated. In some places this is easier than others, but ask, you might be privileged to enter and see whats going on.
Cartagena takes tronos to another level, with vast swaying structures of inverted chandeliers and extravagant floral displays which are so enormous that watching them trying to exit the church is an entertainment in its own right: a couple of gladioli too many really could spell disaster!
In Lorca, on the other hand, the tronos have evolved into massive biblical floats and are works of art in themselves!
And in Murcia, getting the sculptures out of churches and onto the tronos is part of the tradition: on the first Saturday of the week Christ is lowered from a window and slotted onto his throne as hes too tall to come out from the church in one piece, and in Cartagena there are legendary spots where members of rival Cofradias will wait to see if their rivals negotiate the tightest corners without an accident occurring. Then by the time we reach Lorca its a whole different ballgame altogether, their biblical floats on an enormous scale, squeezing down the streets with a hairs width to spare.
The costaleros are among the members of the Cofradías who dress in uniform to accompany the pasos, becoming “Nazarenos” for the duration of the procession. Their tall conical hoods and tunics are similar to those sometimes associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but in Murcia many stuff the tunics with sweets which are handed out during the procession! Each Cofradía dresses in its own uniform, wearing distinctive colours, and in fact the robes go back to the days of the Spanish inquisition!
In some processions, such as those of Jumilla, you also see penitentes, often carrying wooden crosses and walking barefoot and in chains. Others are more light-hearted, featuring children, but the penitents walk in silence as an act of penance.
All of the penitence and suffering comes to an end, though, on Easter Sunday, Domingo de Resurrección, when the serious atmosphere of the processions in silence (typically on Thursday evening) is replaced by light, flowers and joy.
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