Since the 14th century, the festival of Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated across Spain. In Christianity, Holy Week is the one-week period preceding Easter, the day believers celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. The streets of Seville, and other Spanish cities including Malaga, will be filled with thousands of medieval robed and hooded figures, processing slowly behind swaying life-sized religious effigies, accompanied by the deep thud of drums and mournful wailing of trumpets. The Holy Week interest is increasing especially among the younger generation. The processions are organized by cofradías and hermandades (church brotherhoods). Up to a million visitors flock to Seville for the spectacle; the late-night processions on Thursday (tomorrow), la “Madrugá”, are unmissable.

The processions follow a time-hallowed ritual. The images of Christ and the Virgin are born on separate floats and form part of a cortege of robed nazarenes (forman parte de una corte de nazarenos) with pointed hoods (capirotes) carrying the paraphernalia (standards, staffs, incense burners) or simply long candles (velas) and black lace mantilla-ed “widows” parading to a musical accompaniment. Although some of the guilds parade during the day, the majority start in the very early evening and follow an official route which may take as much as seven or eight hours (que puede durar incluso siete u ocho horas) to complete and the atmosphere when the throne finally returns to its chapel is charged with emotion.

Malaga and Seville stand out for the sheer magnificence and tradition of their celebrations and it is curious to note how different the two are (es curioso comprobar qué diferentes son una de la otra). In Seville bearers (costaleros) are hidden from view beneath the throne and proceed with a somewhat jerky step while in Malaga the bearers are visible and carry the throne on their shoulders (hombros), marching with a swaying gait. Even the terminology differs: in Seville the floats are called pasos and in Málaga, tronos, while the throne bearers are referred to as costaleros in Seville and in Málaga, hombres de trono or portadores.

In Seville, where Easter Week is Festivity of International Tourist Interest, the costaleros, bearers of the pasos which support the images of Jesus or the Virgin (some of these dating back to the 17th century) practice manoeuvrings the awkward wooden platforms through the serpentine streets of the Barrio Santa Cruz into the wee hours of the night (a altas horas de la madrugada), wearing white turbans in their heads to ease the pressure of the pasos.

Anyone walking over Seville’s bridges can hear the eerie sounds of traditional dirges and drumbeats that float up from the banks of the rio Guadalquivir (cualquiera que cruce los puentes de Sevilla puede oír los inquietantes cantos fúnebres y los redobles de los tambores), where the bands who accompany the costaleros attempt to unify their sluggish marching patterns. Material stores outfit sevillanos for the cone-topped túnica de Nazarenos (penitents); their lollipop counterparts are displayed in candy store windows. Spanish women take their mantillas to be cleaned in time for the first procession and prepare their best black dresses. The scent of incense wafting from churches is overwhelming as each brotherhood cautiously adorns its cofradías of flowers, candles and precious stones.

62 cofradías (church brotherhoods, many dating from the 16th century) take part in the Holy Week of Seville, each with their own much-adored Virgin Mary and Jesus statues, as well as colourful misterios (tableaux of bible scenes), on elaborately-decorated floats (122 pasos, in total). Each cofradía has up to 3,000 nazarenos.

Only those with either prestige or full wallets can obtain seats in Plaza San Francisco, through which every procession must pass on its way to the cathedral. Others wait in line to buy street seats from one of the numerous sidewalk ticket vendors. The best tickets are for Good Friday (Viernes Santo); during the 400-year-old procession of  “El Silencio” and the arrival at the cathedral of “La Esperanza Macarena”, who, in this case, is the patron Virgin of bullfighters (toreros).

If you are a total beginner and you feel like coming to Spain these days to enjoy our Holy Week, you can take our Spanish survival course. In our Spanish lessons on Skype we also explain Spanish culture. Go ahead!

Images: Aleksandra Urbanska / Wim De Smet /Miguel Angel Navarro by