The Pageantry of Holy Week in Spain

Semana Santa—Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday to Easter—is one of the most important and solemn festivals in Spain. Members of Catholic volunteer organizations (cofradias) work year-round to prepare for the religious processions that fill the streets throughout the week.

Bearers train to shoulder the heavy wooden floats that carry life-size figures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in cities and towns around the country. The venerated figures (many carved in the 1600s or 1700s) are lovingly cleaned and cared for, robes and canopies are intricately embroidered, wood and silver are polished, flowers are meticulously arranged, bands practice the solemn and mournful tunes that accompany the marchers. All to create a public spectacle that touches hearts deeply in this part of the world.

Float carrier looking solemn and wistful

Because of COVID-19, which has hit Spain especially hard, there will be no Semana Santa processions this year. For the first time since the 1930s, the beloved celebrations that have been the focus of so much work won’t take place. We can only imagine what a sad, disorienting blow that must be to many Spaniards.

To give you a sense of what isn’t happening this week, let us take you back to 2017, when we got to watch an entire week of Semana Santa pageantry in a place that’s famous for it: the town of Antequera in southern Spain.

Statue of Semana Santa marchers in Antequera, Spain
Musician's gold arm band labeled Antequera

Reliving Semana Santa

We first saw a few Holy Week processions during our travels in southern Spain in 2008. As a photographer, Melissa longed to return and shoot the entire week’s festivities. So when a housesit opening appeared for Semana Santa in Antequera—an ancient town of 40,000 people in the heart of Andalusia—we jumped on it.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the dirtiest, most uncomfortable housesits of the dozens we’ve done around the world. The apartment was dark, cluttered, and reeked of cat pee. Dust and fur covered every surface, except the kitchen counters where the owner had left dirty pots soaking in her haste to leave for vacation. Worst of all, the hot water heater broke the day before we arrived, and with all of Spain on holiday for a week, there was no chance of getting it fixed. So (after cleaning the toenail clippings out of the bathtub), we bathed in three inches of water that we heated in pots on the stove.

The only thing that made our stay in that apartment bearable was that, every afternoon or evening, we took to the nearby streets to watch the spectacle of Semana Santa unfold.

Boy in purple and white robes holding banner with picture of Jesus
People in purple robes carry gold float with figures of kneeling Jesus and an angel behind him

Each cofradia organization puts on its own procession, on the same day of Holy Week each year, following its own long traditions. The processions feature banners and floats that illustrate some part of the story of the Passion of Christ—from Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his solitary prayers for strength, his suffering at the hands of the authorities, his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Most processions also feature a revered figure of the Virgin Mary that emphasizes a different aspect of Our Lady, such as hope, sorrow, comfort, or peace.

It’s amazing to watch as many as 100 marchers carry a heavy float so smoothly that nothing on it jostles, even when they’re maneuvering it through the doors of its home church or down the church steps. Other marchers, doing penance, dress as Nazarenos in robes and cone-shaped masks designed to obscure their face and height to provide some anonymity. To American eyes, they look unnervingly like the Ku Klux Klan. But to Spaniards, they look ceremonial and devout.

Nazarenos in red or purple robes and white pointed hoods with eye slits

Wonder Upon Wonder

In addition to the beauty of the floats and the eeriness of the hooded Nazarenos, these were some especially striking moments of Holy Week in Antequera:

  • At the end of an hours-long procession, we watched members of one cofradia carry their massive floats—at a run—up a steep cobbled street that we’d labored to walk up to find a viewing spot.
  • On Holy Wednesday, in a procession whose theme was great pain or sorrow (dolor), we were startled to see stern-looking armed soldiers marching past. Their uniforms identified them as members of the Spanish (Foreign) Legion. To us, they felt like an uncomfortable reminder of Spain’s long years of military dictatorship under General Franco. But perhaps their presence was also a reminder of the Roman soldiers who took part in Christ’s crucifixion.
Members of Spanish Legion march in green uniforms with rifles
  • Late at night on Good Friday, after two more-conventional processions, we stumbled on a procession that felt like none of the others that week. Streetlights had been extinguished on its route, and only a few candles and a single, steady drumbeat marked the presence of the marchers. In the darkness and near silence, an unusual float of Jesus lying in a glass-sided coffin, followed by women in veils, conveyed a deep sense of grief.
  • Then, on Easter morning, under sunny skies, the final procession brought the pageantry of Holy Week to a close. As members of the different cofradias marched together—with a single float bearing a triumphal image of the risen Christ—there was a palpable feeling of relief and renewal on the streets of Antequera.  
Backs of kids walking in embroidered robes with spectators
Figure of Christ in loincloth holding cross on gold float

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