Photos: Holy Week processions in Spain

Good ol’ Semana Santa. The week leading up to Easter isn’t just spring break for students, teachers, and language assistants all over Spain – it’s also the week that streets around the country are blocked off for days at a time for the famous processions. While some locals might understandably gripe about the interrupted flow of traffic, the Holy Week processions are truly a sight to behold.

Each procession is peformed by a different cofradía, or religious brotherhood. Most generally start during the afternoon or evening and can last for hours, often not ending until the wee hours of the early morning. Each procession has a different route, but all of them stop at the “official route.” Here in Córdoba, the “official route” is the famous Mezquita-Catedral (Mosque-Cathedral). Spectators must pay for a reserved seat at the official route, but anyone can line up along the streets to watch the rest of the procession. Routes and schedules are available online.

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A procession makes its way into the Mezquita. Not my picture

I only got to see two half-processions last year – one before and one after I headed off on my spring break trip. This year, I’m staying in Spain for the better part of Semana Santa before jetting off to the UK later this week, so I was able to get my first true glimpse of this beautiful tradition.

Who’s who and what’s what

Nazarenos

Most members of the cofradía walk as “nazarenos” and have been doing so since the first processions in the sixteenth century. They’re the ones with the long robes, pointy hoods, and covered faces. Although foreign visitors might associate this style of dress with the KKK, “these cone-shaped paraphernalia have no sinister significance and, in fact, their symbolic meaning is actually quite interesting.”

The pointed hood, in this case, is meant to symbolize offering one’s sins up to God in heaven. The symbolism of the shape is actually historically quite similar to that of the dunce cap of yore in that it is meant to be worn by those who have done wrong. In wearing it, the nazarenos are acknowledging that they are sinners, and their faces were historically covered out of shame. Because of this, nazarenos are also known as “penitentes,” or “penitent ones.” Some nazarenos even walk the processions barefoot as a form of penance.

Nazarenos have traditionally been men, but lately some cofradías have started allowing women to participate as well. Some people even think that quite a few women have snuck into the processions over the years as nazarenos due to how easy it would be to disguise oneself.

Each procession always begins with a cross.

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Many nazarenos carry candles, lanterns or incense.

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This solemn procession was done in total silence – even spectators were asked not to speak.

Nazarenos are also responsible for carrying other symbols, like banners and religious paraphernalia.

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Costaleros

These are the dudes (and dudettes, but more on that later) whose job I respect but do not envy. They’re the ones responsible for carrying the gigantic floats, or pasos, which can weigh up to two tons (2000 kg)! They support the weight on their neck and shoulders, easing the burden by wearing a special headpiece that contains a small cushion.

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Costaleros rehearsing in Sevilla. Not my picture.

Like nazarenos, the costaleros have traditionally been men, but that’s starting to change as well. This gigantic Virgin Mary from one of the Palm Sunday processions in Córdoba was carried by an all-female team of costaleras!

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Kids

Los niños are an integral part of the processions. Some accompany their parents for part or all of the route.

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Many children carry baskets full of candy, which they hand out to kids along the sidelines, as well as water bottles and snacks for the nazarenos and costaleros.

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Even the kids on the sidelines play an important part in the festivities. Lots of kids will collect the hot wax that drips off of the nazarenos’ candles. It’s win-win: the nazarenos don’t have to worry about the wax building up and dripping down to burn their hands during the long walk, and the kids make a game out of it to see who can get the biggest wax ball.

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Pasos

And of course, there’s the giant floats which are the heart of the processions. These humongous “pasos,” carried from below by the costaleros, represent either Christ or the Virgin Mary. All processions have at least one Christ, sometimes two, and sometimes a Virgin as well. The Virgin is always the last of the pasos.

The pasos are designed by Spanish artists and maintained tirelessly throughout the year by the cofradías. When they hit the streets during Semana Santa, not a candle nor a thread is out of place. Each one is unique as well – no two Christs or Virgins are alike in all of Spain. Even non-religious folks can respect the painstaking attention to detail.

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Holy week processions in Spain

 

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