While each town, village and city within Murcia has its own traditions, and its unique way of celebrating Semana Santa, or Easter week, the essential essence of this week is a remembrance of the last week in the life of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection.
For weeks before this one week, drums can be heard late into the night as preparations begin for the week of processions, the acts officially starting on Ash Wednesday, the first Wednesday of Lent, when the Cofradías formally ask permission from their councils to parade in the streets. This is called the "pedida" in some places.
As Lent begins, so do the Vía Crucis. These vary tremendously from place to place but are essentially an act of penitence in which participants visit the stations of the cross, a prayer and reading taking place at each station. (Please click Read More for full details)
The main body of activities begin on Viernes Dolores, followed by Palm Sunday, then processions throughout the week, concluding with the resurrection parade on Sunday morning.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, and many date back hundreds of years. During the troubled years of Civil War in the 1930s, and the turbulent times of change which beset Spain in the 1970s following the death of General Franco, many Cofradias fell apart or were disbanded, but Semana Santa and its traditions have enjoyed a revival in the last few years, and some Cofradias have reformed or new ones started up as Spain revives inherited traditions.The larger Cofradias are subdivided into smaller units which each care for specific processions and their own sculptures, necessary as in some of the larger parades such as that of the Coloraos, the reds, in Murcia, 4000 people will walk together in the procession.
Each Cofradia has its headquarters, often a church or chapel, although some of the larger Cofradías also have substantial headquarter buildings in which to store their sculptured pasos, statues or the huge tronos on which they are carried in some places, and form the focal point of their processions, and each Cofradia has its own pasos, standards and tunics.
There are three types of pasos, an allegorical scene or a scene of the passion of Christ, known as a misterio, then the images of Christ, and thirdly the image of the suffering Virgin Mary, known as a dolorosa.
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, some only squeezing through the doorways with a cm or two to spare on either side. One gladioli too many really could spell disaster.
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.
Some of the city tronos are on wheels, but the majority are born on the shoulders of members of the Cofradias, who are known collectively as Nazarenos.
Those with the specific job of carrying these vast structures are called costaleros or portapasos, due to the little pad, the costal, which they wear on their shoulders to ease the burden of the tronos, which can easily weigh a ton. It has been estimated that each costalero bears 100kg, which can weigh very heavily when the parades last for several hours, as some do.
The Nazarenos all wear distinctively coloured robes, and carry extravagantly embroidered standards bearing their insignia, which also appear on their robes. Some are full length, others knee length and are known by various names in different parts of Spain: San benito, zamarra or abito and the designs vary from place to place.
These robes go back to the days of the Spanish inquisition, when those convicted of heresy against the church were forced to wear robes bearing symbols and inscriptions as a mark of their shame, being easily identifiable and reviled as having sinned against the Church. They were also forced to wear a hat, which has evolved into the capirote, the distinctive tall, pointed hat that is so widely associated with Semana Santa today, although there is a great deal of variation and there are several different versions as well as open-faced headwear.
You will also see penitentes, who often carry wooden crosses and some of whom walk barefoot.There are often children amongst the groups accompanying each paso, and again, depending on the town, these may or may not dole out sweets, food, and cards showing the images of their pasos.The Murcians hand out vast quantities of sweets, so their robes bulge grotesquely under the weight of food they are carrying, poking fun at the Cartagena Cofradías, who, they say, give very little in the way of sweets "measured out one per street in the same way as their processions are measured and militarily perfect."
Participation in the parades is an act of penance, so its normal to walk in silence, faces covered, and in Cartagena in particular, the penitents walk with military precision in perfect lines,in fluid perfection.
Yet in other places there is less penitence and a festive atmosphere, but thats the joy of Semana Santa as it varies so much from place to place and its a never-ending journey to visit different parts of the region and see what happens.
Each procession represents part of the original story of Christ, so on Palm Sunday, known here as passion Sunday the mood is of celebration as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, by Wednesday the mood has turned to despair as Christ is betrayed, by Thursday lights are extinguished as the Nazarenos march through darkened streets, remembering the taking of Christ and on Friday, all are in mourning for the death of Jesus.
On Sunday the mood changes to light as white and flowers celebrate the resurrection.
Many find the larger processions in Murcia impressive in their scale, or those of Cartagena mesmerising in their precision and control,others enjoy the sombre mood and atmosphere of the Thursday night processions of silence, whilst others prefer the intimacy of atmospheric towns, where the streets are barely wide enough to accommodate the processions.
Some love the explosion of celebration on a Sunday morning, Alhama being particularly noteworthy for its congregation of pasos and stunning flowers, and some are blown away by the incredible spectacle of embroidery, light and Broadway-scale Biblical processions featuring embroideries which have taken years to make, which are unique to Lorca.
Other names you will come across this week are Auto sacramental, which is equivalent to a passion play, many texts dating back to the 17th century and still widely performed in churches today.
There are choral performances all over the place, treat after treat as the churches and plazas are filled with beautiful choral music, and most of the concerts are free.
Via Crucis is another term you will see used here, the stations of the cross following the last days of Jesus.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested
,Jesus is condemned
Jesus is denied by Peter,
Jesus is judged by Pilate,
Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns,
Jesus takes up his cross,
Jesus is helped by Simon to carry His cross,
Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem,
Jesus is crucified,
Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief,
Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other,
Jesus dies on the cross,
Jesus is laid in the tomb.
There are 14 of them, and in every town and village you will find a route which marks these 14 points at which the Via Crucis stops.
During lent the faithful walk the Via Crucis, with readings and prayers at each station. These Via Crucis are often at night or early in the morning.
They take many forms, and as we near Semana Santa it is quite common for the Via Crucis to take the form of a theatrical representation, with performers acting out each station as it is reached, or in others, the reading of text and prayers are offered. The Ed will never forget the night that as a newly arrived, bewildered ex-pat, who spoke no Spanish and had inadvertantly bought a house with a station fixed on its wall, I followed the crowd who were outside my front door with no knowledge of what was happening, intrigued by the soldiers, the strange figures in sackcloth and the accompanying donkey, to witness the simulated crucifiction of a man in the church square of Moratalla, with the darkness and the wind howling as the cross was raised, blood pouring from the ropes that tied his wrists to the cross, lit by a solitary spotlight as the silent crowd of hundreds stood mesmerised watching him "die."
And when he cried out to his father on the moment of death and simulated thunder rumbled across the plaza as the lights went out I moaned involuntarily with the rest and went home drained with the emotion of it all.
After many years here I still follow Via Crucis for the sheer pleasure of being part of the experience, and have found astonishing little hermitages and hidden corners chasing them around the region.
In other cases scenes from the last days of Jesus life are performed as "passion plays", almost like small acts of theatre. The death of Christ, the taking of Christ and the resurrection are all performed in various places and at different times, some, absorbed into the Via Crucis, others as a separate theatrical act within the Semana Santa programmes.
Each parade is different, each town and village is different. If youve been to Cartagena once, try a different night and if youve only ever been to Murcia, go to Alhama or Totana and feel the swish of satin as it brushes against your legs, smell the flowers, and crush against the narrow streets as the tronos squeeze past.
Dont be shy to poke around in the churches or watch the ladies lovingly dressing the tronos, examine the embroidery, admire the way the lights catch the handwork thats taken months to create, and if everyone seems to be going somewhere with purpose, follow them, in Semana Santa week you never know what youre going to find around the next corner. Some of the most memorable moments of years chasing Semana Santa have begun by following a man with a drum who looked as though he was late for some unknown act which was about to begin.
Just enjoy it for what it is.