John Julius Reel
The most famous of the more than 60 life-size Virgin Mary replicas that are paraded through the Sevillian streets during Holy Week has her very own bustling basilica in the working-class district of Macarena. Nuestra Excelsa Madre y Señora María Santísima de la Esperanza Macarena Coronada (Our Sublime Mother Mary and Most Holy Lady and Crowned Hope of Macarena) was carved in the late 17th century by an unknown but clearly inspired artist, and occasions such unrestrained devotion among Sevillians that even they think the neighborhood was named after her, and not the other way around.
Twelve hours before she is scheduled to emerge from her basilica on Holy Thursday, people start taking their places on the street around the entrance. Some Sevillians keep reverently silent before her, some have tears in their eyes and reach out beseechingly, others shout “¡Guapa!” (gorgeous) then kiss the knuckles of their thumbs and cross themselves. Most hold their smartphones high, flashing and filming away. It’s said that before one Holy Week, the Archbishop of Seville suggested to La Macarena’s Catholic brotherhood that, instead of festooning her religious float with flowers that year, they should donate the flower fund money to a group of poverty-stricken gypsies. Perhaps begrudgingly, the cofradia (brotherhood) agreed. The gypsies, to show their gratitude, spent the money on none other than flowers for the Virgin Macarena! Popular legend perhaps, but by no means far-fetched.
The literal translation of Semana Santa – Easter (or Holy) Week – doesn’t do a bit of justice to the Sevillian significance, which is Catholic religious faith taken to the extreme of spectacle. The entire city converts into an open air museum with works of chillingly lifelike baroque religious sculpture, some pieces over 400 years old, being carried and escorted through the teeming streets. The double-filed processions in front and behind can have more than 3,000 nazarenos (penitents) donning the brotherhood’s signature vestments, famously topped off by capirotes, the high pointy hats that hide their faces. Depending on the penitence, there are nazarenos in all black who walk the entire route barefoot in a kind of brooding trance, and others in brighter colors who wear sporty espadrilles, hand out candy, and let their baseball bat-sized cirios (paschal candles) drip on the balls of wax that Sevillian children collect as holiday souvenirs. Between Palm and Easter Sunday, processions go out at all hours of the day and night, each one starting at a parish church, before passing along a specific route to eventually enter into the Seville Cathedral – the largest in the world – where respects are paid before the main altar – the largest in the world – before finally returning to the parish church, sometimes over 12 hours later.
The float at the start of each procession features a scene from Christ’s Passion, and the float at the end carries the Virgin, dressed in robes of phantasmagoric splendor and propped on an enormous sliver-plated pedestal surrounded by rising banks of lit candles and fresh flowers. The first time I saw the centurions of La Macarena, with their silver-plated armor, sandaled feet and white-plumed helmets, marching out of narrow Calle Sierpes (Serpents Street) into cobbled San Francisco Plaza in front of City Hall, I thought of the old Hollywood epics, like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, when the studios spared no expense to give an added note of kitschy glamor to the look of ancient times. The floats of the Virgins, even those of the more solemn processions, unaccompanied by music and escorted by mute regiments of black-garbed penitents, are blatantly over-the-top expressions of grandiosity.
Ostentatious opulence to convey mourning? Did so much high-spirited revelry and festive hullabaloo make sense when commemorating Christ’s most tragic and humblest hours on earth? And those legions of faithful Sevillian women who invested such time, money and effort into crafting, caring for and dressing the Virgins, couldn’t they find a more constructive Christian activity to volunteer for? Semana Santa just didn’t square with me at first.
Sadly, there are lots of Americans like me – grudging and self-castigating in our daily lives, and therefore under the impression that God is the same. A confession: upon seeing Mel Gibson’s brutal film, The Passion of Christ, I burst into incontrollable tears, as I’ve seen die-hard cofrades do when finally, after two years of rain outs, they finally see la Virgen de su alma (the Virgin of their soul) pass through the doors of her temple out into the streets. There was a time in my life when I would see Gibson’s film every Holy Week to remind me of Christ’s unjust and excruciating suffering. According to my country’s most puritanical traditions, still alive and kicking, achievement goes hand in hand with suffering, and perhaps to some extent that’s true, but the idea is instilled in us years before we are able to think, suffer and achieve for ourselves. Maybe that’s why so many of us U.S. Catholics and certain of our more gloomy evangelical and Protestant counterparts embrace any and all masochist interpretations of our faith.
My first Easter Sunday in my adoptive city, I went out into the street, curious to know the grand finale. After the six-day build-up of processions, I expected to be floored. As most of us will know, Easter morning is when the party starts in the U.S., and it finishes after dinner. Being culturally programmed by this itinerary, I couldn’t imagine what surprise Seville could possibly hold in store for me. I made it down to the Cathedral around noon, and was stunned to find it shut up tight except for the tourist entrance. The wooden chairs that had been set up all week in rows along the final stretch, were being stacked and loaded into the backs of trucks. The party was over! Then it hit me. The fiesta finished in the exact moment that, according to the Gospels, Christ’s pain and suffering had lifted, as if the whole flamboyant spectacle had been to prevent His ordeal from oppressing the city’s most bona fide believers.
The illustrious Sevillian historian Antonio Domínguez Ortiz (1909-2003) once wrote about “the immense contrasts” of the Seville in which he grew up: “the poetry and the filth, the opulence and the misery, the hovels beside the grandiose monuments. Seville was pure bedlam… where we didn’t eat but split our sides laughing.” Perhaps the tactics that the Sevillians used to endure times of hardship and poverty have survived in how they celebrate the passion of their Señor.
Nothing for a Yank to turn his or her nose up at, if we consider that our most popular form of celebrating Christ’s resurrection outside of Church is with a second-rate Santa Claus, dressed up in a bunny suit, milked, as usual, to its last commercial drop. The English writer Somerset Maugham wrote in his masterpiece The Summing Up that we should not attribute to God characteristics that we would consider mean and petty in human beings. Subsequently then, perhaps we should contribute to God characteristics that we would consider splendid or generous in human beings. In my opinion, a splendid human being wouldn’t judge either culture’s Easter celebration, but would prefer the material and spiritual squandering that at least spilled over into art.
The floats, some coming in at four tons, move and dance on the shoulders of 50 or more religious strongmen, called costaleros, who step out in perfect unison to Spanish marches or dirges composed for the occasion. Although two brass bands, each over 100 strong, go out with most processions, the first float I saw pass by up close was accompanied by only the sound of traipsing feet. I was brought back to a safari I once took in Africa, when an elephant whisked by our parked Range Rover, not lumbering and shaking the earth as I expected it to, but moving as if levitating, and on a mission.
All week long, my Sevillian wife and I keep the TV on at home, tuned into the local channel, which broadcasts the fiesta, but doesn’t have the budget to pay commentators. There are just cameras rolling with the mikes on, nothing else, allowing the sights and sounds of the street to come right into our living room, unadulterated by talking heads. For that one week, the boob tube, which cheapens the décor of whatever room it’s in and reminds me of family dysfunction, becomes edifying to both my eye and ear. If only the Starbucks, McDonalds and Burger King of La Campana (Bell Street), where every float begins its final stretch to the Cathedral, had the decency and good taste to conceal their neon signs for a week, perhaps by draping them with burgundy velvet interwoven with gold.
My favorite moments, both live and on TV, are the saetas, a supplicating, almost wailing type of Andalusian religious canto, performed solo and a cappella. The idea is that the image of the passing Christ or Virgin causes such unrestrainable emotion in the onlooker that he or she can’t help but burst into worshipful, caterwauling song. I doubt if saetas arise quite so spontaneously these days; they’re usually belted out by consecrated flamenco artists placed strategically on picturesque balconies, but, still, the sound of a single voice suddenly rising above the murmur of the crowd, and the crowd going quiet before the voice’s growing force, and the religious float rotating rhythmically to face the singer, makes “The Star Spangled Banner” sung before ball games seem canned.
After a dozen years in Seville, what moves me most about Semana Santa turns out to be exactly what made me skeptical at first – that the cofradias and their ardent crusade of volunteers are not only willing, but yearning to send their priceless and irreplaceable works of art out into the streets, putting them at the mercy of the tumultuous mob, of the fickle spring skies, or of any hater or fanatic who might be lying in wait.
It’s as though they were saying, Here are our most beloved and prized possessions, both spiritually and materially. We entrust them to you, whoever you are, Sevillian or not, believer or not, to love with all your heart and soul, or not. As you see fit.
Such a gesture takes faith, the type of faith that can only be inspired by love. Love of God? Of traditions? Of self? During Semana Santa in Seville, I suspect it’s all one and the same.
To be fair, many locals would roll their eyes at what I’ve written. “Sevillians don’t believe in God,” says my Sevillian friend Rafa. “They believe in El Corte Inglés.” That’s the name of Spain’s most well-known and upscale department store. Rafa and many other Sevillian naysayers will argue that Semana Santa is a week of pure theatre, of a city calling attention to itself, that it has more to do with the participants’ social aspirations – cofradias in Seville have the same cache and old-boy benefits as country clubs and alma maters do in the States – than with respect for traditions or with piety. I couldn’t care less. During Semana Santa, we’re all fishes swimming in the same sacred sea, locals and foreigners alike, at least that’s how I feel. The fiesta makes me sense God’s palpable and joyous presence in the streets, delighting in and approving of what’s taking place there.
On occasion, I hear my countrymen and women make a grand display of their ethnocentrism by claiming to be appalled at the Sevillians’ custom of wearing KKK outfits to celebrate Holy Week. Not only did Semana Santa and the attire that goes with it exist 300 or more years before our nation did, but why would Sevillians chose the costumes of Catholic-haters to celebrate the most Catholic of all festivals? I’m afraid that such overt and shameless presumption by certain U.S. citizens causes us to be disliked and distrusted the world over. We tend to think that life on this earth – as far as it matters, anyway – began and will end with us. It may end because of us, but that’s another story.
During Semana Santa, the Sevillians trot out their Christian faith magnanimously. In contrast, U.S. folks who claim to be Christian tend, in my opinion, to be miserly, cult-like and sometimes even bumptious in spirit. They strike me as abstemious, closed and suspicious. The more down-to-earth (or so they think) members of the cult preach with bumper stickers, t-shirts and billboards. The highfalutin types don’t deign to speak of God any more than they do of their lavish material comforts. There are exceptions, of course. God bless them. Just like there are Sevillian Christians as proud and possessive of their faith as the most WASPish Christian on the East Coast, or as belligerent as the most bumpkin believer of the Bible Belt. To hoity-toity or hillbilly hell with them all! Like all those who believe themselves among God’s select few, they’ll get what they deserve in the end – to live out eternity, just as they lived on earth, among like spirits.
Thanks to Holy Week in Seville, I now prefer to celebrate Christ’s passion among the vulgar multitudes, as the cloyingly false merges with the bracingly authentic, and the inveterately vain with the heartbreakingly humble, and the shamelessly hypocritical file past, in tight formation, side by side with the fiercely principled. I can’t tell the sinners from the saints. I just see everyone together, everyone the same, sharing the frenzied and chaotic public thoroughfare, under the eager and opportune watch, I suspect, of both God Almighty and that great and tireless adversary.
About the Author: John Julius Reel, born and raised in Staten Island, NY, has lived for twelve years in Seville, Spain. He wrote a memoir in Spanish, ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, and collaborated in El derbi final, about the Seville soccer derby, shortlisted for Libro del año in the 2016 Premios Panenka.