People carry statues of saints around on floats or wooden platforms, and an atmosphere of mourning – which can seem quite oppressive to onlookers – and the Easter week processions end with Easter Sunday, a day full of light and colour when church and cathedral bells are heard ringing throughout the country.
In some of the processions, marchers wear clothes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. In fact their clothes are meant to depict the Nazareños, people from Nazareth. The religious fraternities and brotherhoods are responsible for carrying the statues and organizing the penitents and musicians. The Nazareños follow the people who carry the floats bearing sculptures and models of biblical scenes.
The people who carry the weight of the floats are called “costaleros” and are expected the carry these “thrones” with solemnity and grace. They use a small cushion, “costal” to protect themselves from getting sores from the wood rubbing against their skin during the long processions.
History of Semana Santa
As with any cultural celebration, Spain’s elaborate Semana Santa was for centuries a work-in-progress. The starting point for its extensive history is clearly the death of Christ, from which it takes its subject, however the celebration that we see today is the result of centuries of evolution.
A significant point in the history of the Semana Santa is 1521, when the Marqués de Tarifa returned to Spain from the Holy Land. After his journey, he institutionalized the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) in Spain and from that moment on this holy event was celebrated with a procession. Over time, the observance of the Via Crucis eventually broke up into the various scenes of the Passion, with the incorporation of portable crosses and altars. This would eventually lead to today’s elaborate processions.
Check out any map of Semana Santa routes and you will see the Carrera Oficial, or official route, clearly marked. This original route, while it has evolved since 1604, continues to serve as the backbone for the present route. The final major step took place in the 17th century, when Seville’s various cofradías (brotherhoods) began dividing and organizing themselves into what they are today.
Semana Santa Traditions
The holiday, jubilant in Seville and Andalucía and solemn elsewhere in Spain, is practically defined by its stunning processions. Each of these processions typically boasts two intensely adorned floats, one of the Virgin and the other of a scene from Christ’s Passion. Take in the lavish decoration of these incredible creations as they slowly pass before you accompanied by the music of coronets and drums; its hard to do without getting chills. Underneath each float, you’ll just barely be able to make out rows and rows of feet. There are up to forty men, called costaleros, who haul the float on shoulders and control its swaying motion. In fact, they practice so much and are so in sync with each other that the realistic figures on top look eerily as if they were walking along to the music.
Impossible to miss are the seemingly endless rows of nazarenos, or penitents, who walk along with the float.. You may even see many nazarenos walking barefoot, which is pretty impressive, considering some of the processions last up to 14 hours!