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Semana Santa in Seville

Posted on April 3, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco

After our afternoon excursion to Italica (see previous post), we joined the crowds next to Seville Cathedral to watch part of a Semana Santa procession on Tuesday evening. It was definitely worth it, but also involves a lot of waiting, crowding, watching for pickpockets, and inhaling of cigarette smoke. The parades are also a little less atmospheric during the day than at night, but they are still worth watching anytime.

*Semana Santa means "Holy Week" in Spanish, and refers to the week leading up to Easter. It commemorates the events in the last week of the life of Christ, from his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his crucifixion on Good Friday. It's an important religious holiday, especially for Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and some Lutherans, and Anglicans...).

Holy Week is celebrated in various ways around the world, and naturally the most religiously meaningful place to celebrate it is Jerusalem. But over the centuries, rich traditions for celebrating the holiday have developed in Spain, and of these the finest are in Seville.

semana santa in seville

Seville's Semana Santa traditions date from the 1500s and really got going in their present form in the 17th century. It all centers around huge processions (parades) organized by over 55 religious "brotherhoods" (*hermandads). Each brotherhood is associated with a particular church in Seville and holds its procession on a particular day of Holy Week. The procession leaves the brotherhood's church, passes through the cathedral, then returns to its church. The churches are all over the city and the processions move slowly, so this can take anywhere from 6 to 13 hours!

Each procession consists of thousands of nazarenos, participants who dress in robes and cone-shaped hoods to hide their identity. The colors of the robes vary by brotherhood. I thought at first that maybe the hoods stayed up with a whole lot of starch, but upon closer inspection it became clear they have a thin cardboard insert in there.

semana santa in seville Traditionally all the nazarenos in the parade are members of the brotherhood, but now pretty much anyone (male or female) can participate. You just have to register with the brotherhood and pay a fee, buy your own robe and hood, and show up dressed about an hour in advance to receive instructions.

Many of nazarenos didn't act nearly as solemn or "religious" as we expected - many were chatting with each other or with friends in the audience, watching everyone watching them, smoking, and/or passing the time making shapes with hot wax from their candles. But there were thousands of them, and I'm sure there were plenty of serious ones as well.

Most of the nazarenos wear the tall, cone-shaped hoods, but a special group called penitentes leave out the cone and have droopy hoods. These participants are repenting for specific sins and carry heavy wooden crosses instead of candles. (This is the group we squeezed past upon our night arrival in Seville.) You can imagine what a burden the cross is for 7 to 13 hours, and many of them do it barefoot! As you might expect, this group did seem more solemn and contemplative.

semana santa in seville

Sadly, the Semana Santa costumes inevitably remind American onlookers of those worn by the Ku Klux Klan, but there is no connection between the two and of course the Spanish version is centuries older. According to Wikipedia, the KKK hood may be intended to look like that of an executioner or inquisitor, but it doesn't sound like anyone really knows for sure. Probably they just wanted to look scary. And indeed, even without the KKK associations, the Semana Santa costumes have a mysterious and eerie appearance - based in large part, I think, on the fact that they can see you but you can't see them. It is all part of the unique and wonderful atmosphere of the festival.

semana santa in seville
We're being watched! (Note the turban-wearing guys on the left - info on them below.)

As fascinating as the groups of nazarenos are, they are not what the processions are really about. The primary purpose of the parades is to carry religious statues that belong to the church through the streets - to show them off, present them to the city for veneration, and bring them to "visit" the cathedral. This practice is remarkably universal - the other day David was surprised to come across a photo of a Japanese festival with a very similar-looking procession, and for my academic research on Ephesus I've been reading about the processions that carried the image of the goddess Artemis from her temple and back again.

In Seville, each procession carries two sets of images: one of the Virgin Mary and one of Christ. The Mary statues are always sad-looking and tearful, in mourning for the suffering and death of her Son. La Macarena, who we visited this morning in her home church, is the most famous. The statues of Christ are accompanied by other figures like centurions or disciples, and each one depicts a different scene from the last week of his life. Many of these images are beautiful works of art and are centuries old.

For our procession, we only stuck around long enough to see the Christ float - I believe the Mary one is carried near the end. It's always very exciting when the float finally comes into view after what is sometimes hours waiting in anticipation (for us it was about an hour or so).

semana santa in seville semana santa in seville

As I think I mentioned previously, the extremely heavy floats are not on wheels but the shoulders of about 40 men hidden beneath. Several different groups take turns in a single parade (since it lasts for hours). The change is done quickly and quietly, but we were lucky to be right next to a changing point. In the photo below, the stout men in the turban-like hats (many of them also wore weight-lifting belts) are waiting their turn. When the float approached us, 40 sweaty men emerged from beneath it and these took their place.

strong men

The float is followed by a marching band, which is heavy on trumpets and drums and plays a powerful funeral dirge.

horns

After the float passed, we decided we were done and wondered if we could manage to reach our hotel. In the end, we managed to walk right through the parade when there was a pause, "*perdon*" our way through the crowd on the other side, and come out onto a more roomy platform with a nice view over the top of the parade.

semana santa in seville

As we had suspected, the parade was turning onto the very street that our hotel's on. But we thought that it probably turned again before actually reaching our hotel, because the street gets quite narrow there. So like true Sevillanos, we took a detour, turned down a charming back alley that seemed to be in the right direction, and came out right at our hotel! We were so proud of ourselves.

It was maybe 8pm or so by then, quite early for Seville. But we were officially worn out and this time felt no need to go see another procession. Instead, we spent a couple hours trying to figure out our transportation plans for the next day.

Transportation Considerations

I had planned that we would take a train back to Cordoba (which we passed on the train from Madrid), do some sightseeing, then take a train from there down to Algeciras (the major ferry port city on the tip of the southern coast). But when we checked the train times (on a laptop with wireless internet, wonderfully provided for free by our hotel), we made the terrible discovery that there is only one train from Cordoba to Algeciras per day, at 10:38 AM!

We considered a wide variety of options, from staying a night in Cordoba to skipping Cordoba (but that would have been horribly sad). In the end, David decided to rent us a car. We had a really good experience with renting a car in Germany a year ago, and he was excited at the prospect of the freedom it would bring. I was just excited that I would get to go to Cordoba!

Unfortunately this plan was also not without difficulty, as almost no rental car agencies wanted us to drop off the car in Algeciras. But in the end we found one through AutoEurope, an America-based company that I happen to have an affiliate partnership with on Sacred Destinations. I had always heard good things about AutoEurope and that's why I chose them as my partner, but it was nice to have a good personal experience with them as well. They aren't themselves a car-rental agency but more like a wholesale retailer, with access to the fleet of all the agencies, and our rental was through Europcar.

The whole reservation process was made even more exciting by the fact that by the time we got all this figured out, the laptop's battery was threatening to die any second. So David scrambled for his credit card, typed in our info as fast as possible, hit "Submit," and we both scrambled for a piece of paper and pen to write down the confirmation number - just before the screen went dead. Who knew travel planning could be so exciting?

Happy with our plans, we returned the laptop downstairs, then went to sleep to the sound of drums and laughter outside.