Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is Spain’s traditional Easter celebration, offering the perfect illustration of this vibrancy and the ideal time to visit Andalusia.
Andalusia — Home of Easter Processions
Located in the southern part of Spain, Andalusia is one of the country’s autonomous communities. Consisting of eight provinces, the largest of which are Seville, Malaga, Cadiz and Granada, Andalusia has everything needed to charm visitors. Its rich history and fascinating monuments stem from the area’s Roman and Arab influences, while the region’s sunny weather is ideal for exploring its mountains, coastlines… and even a desert! The evocative scent of Andalusia is that of orange trees and incense and the entire region is full of eye-catching mosaics made from azulejos tiles that sit among beautiful whitewashed towns and villages. Linger over wine and tapas in one of the many bars and restaurants, but don’t forget to explore Andalusia’s flamenco culture and solemn Easter processions.
Colourful processions are an integral part of Spain’s Easter celebrations, attracting crowds of locals as well as tourists from all over the world. Interest in these displays is so great that accommodation in the areas where many processions take place can be fully booked months beforehand. Although you’ll find Easter processions in practically every region of Spain, they may look very different across the country.
The biggest, loudest and most numerous events take place in Andalusia, especially in Seville, where dozens are organised every year. However, Andalusia’s colourful, loud processions stand in contrast to more peaceful and solemn events that take place in Valladolid. In some Spanish regions, Easter celebrations are linked to the custom of self-flagellation and are attended by men who wish to redeem their sins or atone for the sins of others. These barefoot penitents, dressed in white robes, often drag metal chains behind them. In contrast, the town of Verges hosts the Dance of Death, in which people dress as skeletons throughout the procession.
The Fraternities of Semana Santa
Even though Easter in Spain focuses more on the passion of Christ than on his resurrection, festivities are accompanied by a cheerful mood and an abundance of colours. Semana Santa couldn’t happen without Spain’s many religious brotherhoods and fraternities of several thousand members, who play a huge role in these processions. Carrying wooden platforms with sculptures of sacred figures on their shoulders, to participate in the procession is not only a great honour, but also a penance, with many members walking barefoot. Each brotherhood belongs to a different church and has its own distinct colour of robes; founded in 1340, one of the oldest is Hermandad de Silencio.
Brotherhoods have a long history, and membership is often a tradition for many Spanish families. Children can join a fraternity from an early age, but this involves expenses such as membership fees. Moreover, there is a hierarchy — the longer the membership, the closer a given member may be to the sacral figures during the procession. During Semana Santa each brotherhood carries out a procession to the church on a particular day, often covering extremely long distances. As preparations for the procession last the whole year, the brotherhoods pay special attention to manoeuvring the narrow, winding streets in such a way as not to damage their platforms. Easter processions start as early as Palm Sunday and last all week, although in some Spanish regions they only take place on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. A fun fact: Antonio Banderas is a member of one of Malaga’s established fraternities!
Nazarenos — The Hooded Penitents
Easter processions in Spain are accompanied by the scent of incense and the sound of drums and wind instruments. Nazarenos are members of the fraternities who wear hoods, drawing the attention of gathered spectators in their long robes with distinctive conical caps with eyeholes. Nazarenos have a specific role in the procession. Some carry candles (often pouring drops of wax onto their hands as a form of penance), while others carry the brotherhood’s books, wooden crosses or platforms, called pasos. They walk in line to the rhythm of the music carrying valuable Baroque and Renaissance-era sacred figures draped in robes, while the pasos themselves are covered with flowers, candles and colourful canopies.
What To Expect
The most important figures — those depicting the body of Jesus or the suffering mother Mary — are part of the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday processions. Platforms can reach several hundred kilograms in weight and require the help of other members of the brotherhoods, known as Costaleros, to carry from below. During the procession, there comes a moment when the music stops and the resulting silence is broken by a moving song performed by a professional musician from one of the balconies. It comes as no surprise that this performance is derived from flamenco music. The Master of Ceremonies guides the brotherhood’s members and oversees the procession to its conclusion, when the altar is finally brought to the church.
Spectators throng the procession route or sometimes watch from a paid seating area on route’s most significant sections. Many locals and tourists alike will watch from one of the bars or restaurants, with the day noted for its loud, colourful and welcoming atmosphere. Processions take place during the daytime and at night, with many people choosing to take time off work to appreciate the spectacle. Participation in the procession is a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation, so it isn’t unusual to see children following the footsteps of the brotherhoods until quite late at night.
Some find the Semana Santa celebrations to be an extraordinarily emotional experience, while others notice a certain degree of theatricality in them. Regardless of how they are experienced, these processions form an extremely important part of Spanish culture. While processions are all-consuming for their duration, Easter celebrations end on Easter Monday and by the following morning, there is no trace of the events that have taken place, with the towns returning to normal life… apart from in Seville, where preparations are already underway for the next big festival, the April Fair. Combining a love of ceremony and tradition, long live the iconic Spanish fiesta!