theatre isn’t really my thing, but i really rather enjoy easter celebrations in spain. as one of the big events on the christian calendar and, as an ex-non practising catholic), one might also think that it is not likely to be my cup of tea. however, it is undeniable that holy week presents us with a form of walking theatre that gives a lot of food for thought to christians, non-christians, travellers, and walkers alike.
i have always found easter to be a fascinating spectacle, with elements that tend to rub my secular sensibilities entirely the wrong way, and which to me have always bordered on the ridiculous. i suppose this attitude began to form years ago, when i attended holy week in sevilla and was blown away by the intensity of the processions and the crowds, the depth of emotion and drama, the narrative, the music, the actors and the costumes. confronted by this manifestation for the first time, i remember it as a type of sensory overload, kind of like standing on a street corner in india for the first time and trying to make sense of the organised chaos. the experience had such high impact that twenty years later i still have the memory of attending a procession featuring the most famous of all virgins, “la macarena”. caught in a dense crowd outside la macarena’s home church, with the unpleasant sensation of skin touching skin, sardines in a tin, my body being jostled this way and that, i was surrounded by women, men, and children, and most memorably, señoras “of a certain age”, glittering with gold jewellry, crying, mascara dripping, imploringly raising open hands and passionately shouting out “guapa!!” (beautiful woman!!) to the image as it crawled past, carving a frustratingly sluggish path through the crowd. oh sweet jesus. those señoras. they seemed at the time to represent everything that was wrong about the church. they seemed so fake, so hypocritical, all that glitters is not gold……
it is this memory, and the sense of the absurd that it inspires that has led me to participate in easter this year, so i can watch, experience, and most importantly think more carefully about this thing that has been on the periphery of my life since i was a child.
like most rituals/celebrations, this practice has its roots in another time, surviving to this day by transforming in ways that have allowed a radically different past to coexist with a rapidly changing present. i would like to move past the passive viewing of this show as a curious (and slightly preposterous) aspect of spanish culture, and towards a more nuanced and embodied understanding. so, here i am in the desert landscapes of almeria, in the south. spring is in the air, and true to the spirit of spring, the whole country feels like it is collectively waking up from the stupor of winter. the beaches of almeria are beginning to come to life, “chiringuitos” (beachfront bars) are hiring staff, tintos de verano are beginning to be drunk, and you can feel the sun gathering force for the summer onslaught.
this easter scenario is same-but-different to those of my childhood, the memories of which take me back to similarly cool, crisp days, under similarly cloudless blue skies. however, easter in australia happens at the very onset of autumn, so i was a kid basically heaving a sigh of relief at finally seeing the never ending queensland summer in the rearview mirror (plus, i was looking forward to easter eggs). around easter there are faded memories of holidays from school, last ditch end-of-summer swims in the pool and the lake, easter eggs, or more to the point, socially and parentally sanctioned abuse of chocolate, and, of course, church………..here i suppose the memories begin to take on more acute detail, probably due to their more theatrical nature. i remember good friday processions of bodies (priests, altar boys and such) wrapped in sombre purple, moving slowly down the aisle at the good shepherd church in mt isa…..the softness of my mother and the hardness of unyielding wooden church pews that made my bum hurt, but did a pretty good job of stopping me from falling asleep……..somewhere in that memory, further off in the distance, a woman is playing an organ, and faceless people are singing hymns, their voices merging with the fragrant clouds of frankincense pouring out of a swinging burner, wafting down the aisle, then dispersing into nothing….. in contrast to the funereal vibe of good friday, i remember the lightness and perfume of white flowers on easter sunday, bringing with them new life, a new season, and faith in the child’s idea that in the end everything will be just fine. in short, for me easter has always been a transformative story of new beginnings and not without a sense of theatre, even in the desert landscapes of mt isa in the 1970s. as a child i understood this, and it is this performance of easter that draws me to the processions here and the desire to understand my part in it more deeply.
one, two, onetwothree.
one, two, onetwothree.
one, two, onetwothree.
one, two, onetwothree.
first come the drums, like distant thunder. it is the heartbeat of the procession coming closer, slowly taking over the hum of the city until it is all i can hear………then, shrill trumpets sound, weaving up and over the rhythm, pushing the faint hum of traffic aside, and body surfing across the top before becoming one, punching memory holes through the sounds of an ordinary city night. the music has the effect of anchoring me with an awareness of where i am now, in this place, on this street. it grounds me with its solemnity, adding emotion and drama to the spectacle that is unfolding. the approaching pulse of sound heralds the journey of the image as it leaves its home in the church and makes its way past spectators, through the streets. in the spain of the past, the only music that could be heard on the radio during holy week was classical music as it was meant to be a collective time of grief and mourning for the death of jesus. however, with the increasingly secular nature of spanish society, these ways of being have slipped out the back door of the daily life of households, ultimately finding form and expression in these annual processions. saetas (religous songs dedicated to the image) can be heard at key moments during important “pasos” (processions). the word “saeta” refers to an object with a sharp point, like a spear, that can be launched and used to pierce something (or somebody) else. in this way, these powerful songs pierce the heart, allowing words and emotions relating to the story to penetrate and settle somewhere within. the santa (unlike the one you are listening to now) might be delivered by a lone singer from a balcony with no instrumental accompaniment, or from people walking in the procession. either way, it adds depth to the already mournful soundtrack, giving actors and spectators a moment of pause and reflection……………………….
like life, the music is not static, it shifts and changes across holy week. there is the profound thunder of drum (heart) beats as christ makes his way to be crucified on holy thursday, a deeply respectful absence of sound on good friday, and finally, the triumphant sounds of bells and horns on easter sunday.
like any other piece of art or theatre, without spectators, there would be no show. in fact, they are an integral part of the show (remember those señoras in sevilla?). it is a sign of the times that smartphone applications now make it easy for locals, and for tourists, like myself, to participate by providing easily accessible user friendly timetables, photos and historical information, as well as maps marked with processional routes. using such an app i move from jose’s house, along the paseo maritimo, past beachgoers and boardwalk wanderers into the pulsing heart of almeria where i join the many bodies that are pooling on street corners like blood, before funnelling into footpaths and settling somewhere along the processional path.
for today’s show, a large section of the paseo has been lined with grandstands dressed in red velvet. as with traditional modes of theatre, this fabric curtain separates the spectator from the actor, creating a protected empty space between -a stage- where a sense of anticipation is building, stirred up by the sounds of approaching drums, spilling into the sidelines. before the show begins, two young women can be seen running up and down the empty asphalt shouting “palomitas!!! gusanos!!!!!” (“popcorn”!!! “cheetos”!!!). cameras have been set up at strategic points along the paseo to televise the event for the armchair spectators, and there is a definite sense of backstage chaos, as all onlookers hastily take their places. the lucky (and smart) ones have already found a seat, while latecomers hurriedly squeeze into any available nook or cranny at the last minute, and standing on tip-toe or on sidewalk benches, i can see them craning their necks, ready to catch a glimpse of the image as it passes by……………
at the core of the pasos are the “cofradias” or brotherhoods, which are religious groups with their own identifying tunic and colours. they belong to a particular church and comprise devotees of the church’s resident image. these brotherhoods have roots that go quite a way back into history, some as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. cofradias began by engaging in social work like building hospitals and helping the poor, which were practices that facilitated worship as well as the opportunity to develop an honourable identity in the community. the cofradias of today differ in some ways from those of the past, most notably when you consider the flagellant brotherhoods of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. of course, it is hard to imagine the passage of time now permitting this sort of bloody and hyperrealistic representation to be publicly consumed without censorship. i imagine bloody streets and the sounds of whips hitting skin- very effective religious theatre indeed! despite their community building mandate, membership to cofradias was (historically) not open to everyone. curiously, some brotherhoods that operate today were originally formed from groups of people that were, and in some cases continue to be, ‘othered’ and even persecuted. a famous example of this is the brotherhood of gypsies who are devotees of “Jesus de los Gitanos”.
through the paso, the cofradias apply a kind of visual pedagogy, which in some ways is like a very rudimentary type of life-sized puppet show, in order to bring the story to life by giving it a heartbeat. the music (or at times lack of), and the slowness of movement, one where the image appears to be walking, as if alive, provide a sensorial and thus cognitive point of entry for both spectators and actors to connect more intimately with the narrative of the story at hand. for some, this cocktail of the senses is so powerful, so moving, as to inspire devotion, which was entirely the whole point of these processions to begin with.
carried along by ‘costaleros’, the image pauses periodically on the street, perhaps accompanied at that moment by a lone singer on a balcony offering up a saeta, presenting actors and spectators the space for contemplation, meditation, of course, emotion. carrying the image is an honour, and often the people doing this work are doing so in order to fulfil a promise or to pay some kind of penance. as the costaleros are generally (but not always) hidden from view by thick fabric draped across the platform on which the image is situated – they are moving blindly. so, accompanying the costaleros and the image on their journey is the ‘capataz’, a type of coxswain, marking the pace and ensuring that everything is running smoothly.
as for the images, the lead actors, they are life-sized wood figures that have generally been fashioned by commissioned artists. although these are life-sized images, only the parts of the image that are visible to the spectator are ever sculpted. in my minds eye i see the strange apparition of a de-robed virgin, she is a block of wood with a face, a neck, and two hands, yet when she moves past me, dressed and enveloped in flowers and candlelight, she seems so very lifelike, her face frozen in an eternal expression of sad compassion. when jesus comes past, dragging a cross, for a split-second, he also appears to me to be real, walking past me and away…….for that moment, reality is suspended and i feel a pang of empathy followed by a sorrowful sense of injustice.
and what of the famously pointy-hatted nazareno/as? now, i think about it……of course, there are obvious negative associations (thanks to some misguided hillbillies in another country), but the ‘capirote’ that the nazarenos wear has its roots in another time, when dunces caps were used to punish ‘naughty’ children, as well as during the Inquisition when they were placed on condemned people. the nazareno/a was/is someone who has sinned, but who is now repentant, and isn’t there something hopeful about that? this idea of repentance and forgiveness? as most of the caps (‘capirote’) are quite high, some people have argued that they may even symbolise an increase in the stature of the wearer as they participate in the procession, signifying the subsequent moral growth that the penitent person is experiencing. along similar lines, the tunic that is worn throws back to habits worn by monks. this, plus the cap affords the wearer a degree of anonymity, symbolising humility, and allowing the penitent person to carry out his (or her) good deed invisibly. anonymity provides the wearer an opportunity to distance him or herself from the direct view of the spectator as they move past, facilitating precious distance from the mundane. in this way, the nazareno/a can silently meditate and reflect on the year just gone, and by embodying the steps of jesus, connect with those who walked before.
on holy thursday or good friday, women who join the procession as ‘madrinas’ (godmothers) also follow a reasonably strict protocol in terms of how they dress. as it is supposed to be a time of mourning, the look is beautiful, but sober…..impeccably traditional. las madrinas wear black ‘mantillas’, draped over a large hair comb called a ‘peineta’ to cover the hair. these long pieces of fabric are clipped back and held in place with a brooch. lengths of skirt, types of jewellry, hairstyles, makeup and pantyhose colours…..all of these markers of traditional spanish feminine identity have guidelines, which women are expected to adhere to for such a sombre occasion. in the absence of guidance from a mother or a grandmother in how to dress correctly for such an occasion, information can also be found on websites or online articles click here for an article in spanish. looking at images from the past (below) compared with what i saw in these processions, the manifestation of the ‘feminine’ does not appear to have shifted all that much………..
the stars of the show, however, are the images, which must also be dressed. traditionally, the virgins were dressed with clothes after the fashion of royalty in the 16th and 17th centuries. in fact, the queens of that time often donated their dresses, and sometimes their crowns, to be worn by images. like queens, the virgins continue to be dressed in their undergarments by handmaidens (always female), before being dressed with the regalia by someone else (who could be either female or male). dressing the images is an important part of the ritual, as it is another way that the celebration of holy week (momentarily) breathes life into the images during their brief annual outing.
hanging all of this together are the stories brought to life by the pasos. palm sunday retells jesus’ entry to jerusalem, holy thursday is his journey to the cross (which also involves a ‘paso’ called ‘el encuentro’ (the meeting), telling the story of Mary meeting Jesus on the street when he is on the way to be crucified), good friday describes his death, and easter sunday, his resurrection. it is not unusual to see images containing multiple actors that define a particularly key moment that you or i might have been told in church, or at sunday school………….each story comes together through the paso, to feed the grand narrative of suffering, forgiveness and rebirth.
what i see in these processions, and what i feel watching them, goes beyond the thought-provoking historical facts that i have now learned that relate to holy week in spain. these facts give me insights into intertextuality and the passage of rituals over time. indeed, it has been wonderful, as a spanish australian, to finally pause and consider the meanings hidden behind a spectacle that has, to varying degrees at different times, been a part of my life. i feel relief at no longer seeing it in such one-dimensional, and probably ignorant terms. no, beyond gained knowledge and experience, something else has touched me during this years holy week……you see, i now understand that my almost 1500 km winter walk is still very much present in my mind and my heart, which means that reflecting on these processions has brought me even closer to an embodied understanding of the significance of walking as an expression of spirituality and connection. shifting away from the pedagogical objectives of these processions, i am touched by the significance of this type of walking to those who are participating. as a pilgrim who has spent long stretches of time walking, i think what struck me most was that for some of the participants (and also for those of us on the sidelines looking on) the act of walking provides a precious sense of retreat from daily life, a special moment within which one can slow down, pause, and reflect. i can definitely relate to this, and in thinking about it, i realise that i miss walking. in fact, i now understand that in the past two months since i finished my camino i have been living a type of mourning for the ending of what that time was, for that three month long pause that i took away from my mundane life. now, with this story of resurrection fresh in my mind and my senses, i begin to see with greater clarity what that experience meant to me, now that it is finished. i feel awake, ready to begin again.