Sacred Seville


Woman from Seville

Woman in black mantilla, Maundy Thursday.

Seville streets stage the most extravagant and theatrical Passion in christendom. Hooded penitents march in atonement for their sins.

The crowd leaned out into the orange blossom flavoured light of the early morning in Seville as the statue of the Virgin Mary on the float approached.

An old woman dressed all in black and with her elbow in my ribcage suddenly shouted “Guapa! Guapa! (Oh! beautiful one! Oh! beautiful one!).” A hush descended when the float reached a corner that seemed far too narrow and acute a turn. It was being carried in a swaying motion in time with the beating drum.

The music stopped and Our Lady rested momentarily, then upped and swayed, then swept around the corner and up the narrow cobbled road. The crowd sighed first and then cheered and clapped their hands.

It was Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish), which is the most important religious festival in Spain, and the street was filled with the tragic theatre of the death of our Lord.

Holy Week is the most important time in the Christian calendar and throughout the world it is celebrated with suitable veneration and pageant. Each year millions of Spaniards take to the streets to demonstrate the fervour of their Catholic faith. On the streets of Seville, the Andalusian capital in the sunny south of Spain, the street theatre seems even more flamboyant and heartfelt than anywhere else.

The tragic events of the passion and crucifixion are played out with true emotion. Visitors to the city at this time of the year may find the whole business a bit confusing and be perplexed and surprised at the impressive organization required to stage the event. But the preparations have been going on for months and the events are based on centuries of tradition.

It is on Holy or Maundy Thursday when the festivities really start to kick into gear. The women wear black veils or mantillas and the men don their best suits. Nowadays there is a touch of modernity and style to the attire. Young Sevillan women look elegant with their faces partially obscured by the lace veils and many of them now wear black miniskirts and high heels. High fashion is no longer sacrificed for religious devotion.

Men stand at the corners outside cafes drinking cortados (small shots of coffee like the Italian espresso that are often laced with brandy) and blow cigar smoke, which mingles with the sweet fragrance of the blossoms and perfume.

Over 100 floats pass continuously through the streets during Holy Week. Statues of the Virgin Mary and her beloved Son are paraded on floats that have been adorned with flowers and followed by groups of marchers from special brotherhoods or cofradias. The local Sevillans look on from the footpaths as, hour after hour, floats pass by along the road.  Flamenco elegies called saetas are performed from the balconies of crowded cafes.

On Good Friday, the processions are a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and there is no music. Marching continues throughout the night. The processions are suitably sombre and the black-cloaked marchers seem almost sinister. Inside the bars the conversation dies as these eerie processions pass by into the darkness.

The processions, which seem to last forever, finally stop on the morning of Easter Sunday with the triumphant resurrection of Christ and the passing of one special float through the main cathedral to resounding cheers. The festival is over for another year and everyone returns to normal life (at least for a week or so).

The floats travel in pairs with one statue of Jesus (on the crucifix or representing one of the stations of the cross) and one statue of the Virgin Mary. Each region of Seville has its own Virgin statue, which is lavishly adorned with jewels and intricately embroidered silk. It is a competition to produce the most beautiful statue.

There is considerable debate whether the virgin of the Macarena district or the Virgin of Hope of the Triana district, where mainly gypsies live, is more beautiful. The Macarena virgin is considered more tragically beautiful and she is the patron of bullfights; the gypsy virgin is considered to be more womanly beautiful.

Each float is accompanied by a group of marchers wearing long coloured cloaks and pointy hats. These are the brotherhoods or cofradias and the colour of their cloak marks which suburb of the city they come from.

During the Spanish Inquisition, penitents wore these costumes to hide their identity as they often betrayed their families or neighbours. Although the brotherhoods resemble the Ku Klux Klan in their attire, they are not racially motivated, but they do reinforce the medieval social hierarchy still present in Southern Spain.

The most important brotherhoods, Jesus del Gran Poder and El Silencio, wear black and they have the most elaborately decorated floats. They are from the wealthiest suburbs and they march silently through the streets carrying large candles to signify the burden of their sins.

The Los Gitanos brotherhood, which is from the suburb of Triana holds a lower position. Lots of gypsies live there and it is reportedly the birthplace of flamenco music. You can catch flamenco performances at the various theatres in the city, but it is more entrancing when you see it performed in a small bar or when you chance upon a group of students putting on an impromptu performance down a quiet street.

Seville is a truly beautiful city and the best way to discover its delights is to wander around on foot through the narrow streets or perhaps take a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages. Originally a mosque and if you make the long and strenuous climb up into its famous Moorish tower (La Giralda) then you will get a fabulous view of the city. It is in the top three biggest cathedrals in the world and inside is the tomb of America discoverer Christopher Columbus.

The second most popular tourist spot, which is in the Jewish quarter, is Plaza de Espana, in the Maria Luisa Park, with its many fountains and minicanals. The colourful ceramics depicting the local regional scenes are also an attraction here.

The park is a great place to escape from the throngs of the fiesta and you can find yourself an orange tree to sit under if you need some shade from the midday sun. Nearby is the ancient tobacco factory where Bizet’s Carmen worked and rubbed the odd cigar along her thigh. The royal palaces (reales alcazares) are also not to be missed for their Moorish architecture and their fabulous sculpted gardens and patios.

The Guadalquivir River bisects the city. Stroll along the riverbank as there are many beautiful bridges that span the river. Santiago Calatrava, the bridge designer extraordinaire who designed Dublin’s Joyce bridge over the Liffey designed one here first. Near the World Fair expo site, it is taut like an archer’s bow on its side.

To the north the Macarena district is filled with old churches and tapas bars where you can eat and drink with locals. It is the home of that dreadful pop song.

Celebrations during Holy Week are not all sombre. It is impossible to dampen the Spanish sense of fun. And it is impossible not to have a good time. After the processions, some of the participants return to their houses to party and to drink. In many of the city parks throughout the weekend the gypsies will sing and dance and make music.

An old Andalusian gypsy verse may best describe the true attitude to the ancient religious festival celebrations of Semana Santa in Seville.

“The child Jesus is lost, his mother is looking for him.
She finds him by the side of the river, having fun with the gypsies.”

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