If you’re looking for an exotic Easter weekend, the streets of Seville – and the annual celebrations there – are hard to beat, writes James Chegwidden
“Now, the first thing you need to know,” says my guide, Roberto, keen to reassure, “is that all this has nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan.” The clarification was welcome: we are, after all, looking at a cluster of men (and, I later discover, women) dressed identically from head to foot in a manner which could indeed spook the unaware: pointed cone-hats entirely covering the head and face, gloves, white tunics with a cross embroidered onto the chest, rope belts around their waist – and all walking in silence to the centre of town where a major procession is due to start.
The group, however, is not part of any suspect movement from the American South. Rather, these are nazarenos, the chief protagonists of every one of the 52 annual Holy Week processions in Seville. Their attire originated in medieval Spanish Catholicism, the intended effect being to cover the individual’s face so that only God could know their identity as they process – mainly by night and in many cases barefoot – through the streets of Seville in an hours-long, penitential procession watched by thousands.
Semana Santa is “Holy Week” in Spanish, and as the name suggests, is a week-long event centred around the last events in the life of Jesus leading up to Easter Sunday. Though Easter itself is familiar to most already, in Andalusia, and particularly Seville, the celebration has taken on a life of its own, with customs, cuisine and street festivities in which everyone – whether believer, unbeliever or somewhere in between – is included.
Hitting the streets of Seville’s centre, I find I am competing with thousands of both locals and tourists eager to watch various processions meandering their way solemnly through the city to Seville’s gargantuan cathedral and back again. Each procession consists, first and foremost, of many hundreds of the identically dressed, cone-hatted nazarenos, each from their own particular confraternity, who form the procession’s core. Within the procession, the centre of attention is undoubtedly the paso – namely, a large, heavy, ornamented float carried on the shoulders of thirty or so specially selected local men. One paso always displays a life-sized scene from the passion of Christ, and the other a statue of the Virgin Mary, clothed in a rich cloth mantle, displayed underneath a canopy and surrounded by hundreds of candles. Add billows of incense, a brass band, lots of lace, candles, and flower petals thrown from nearby balconies, and you have got a medieval spectacle in the making. It is exotic, it is noisy, it is emotional (some participants will shed tears watching) – and it is undeniably spectacular.
The first processions start at about midday each day of Holy Week, and the last end well after midnight (we’re talking four in the morning. – Spain is no place for an early bedtime).