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Easter procession in Bilbao, Spain

Under the Hoods: The Brotherhoods (and Sisterhoods) of Spain’s Holy Week

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“Spain is different!”. Napoleon took this view after his defeat by Spanish guerrilla warfare tactics. Generalissimo Franco’s government later made use of this slogan to promote Spain’s unique appeal to international tourists. Foreign visitors spend around €75 billion a year enjoying the country’s climate, food and cultural attractions. And one of the big ones is Easter – when Spain highlights a different approach to religious celebrations with colourful and macabre street processions.

The Spanish turn the streets into an improvised stage to dramatize Christ’s death and resurrection during Holy Week. Striking pictures of medieval figures in candlelit processions are published daily around the world. These pictures emphasise Spain’s distinctive identity. Parish groups,  cofradías (fraternities), spend months on charity work and fundraising to stage the elaborate processions.

The parade of the Christ and the Virgin Mary statues circle through the community to celebrate the celestial glory of these figures that glide majestically above the crowds. On Spanish streets, everyone takes part in the drama – a moving chorus that brings together the musicians, players, bands and strolling audience.

What interests me is the social affiliation of these traditional groups; the bands of brothers. My research into identity reveals the psychological power of belonging to social groups. What is a celebration without the people? Local town halls stop traffic to enjoy each  cofradías’s procession. In Seville, 60 parish groups take part in processions and published maps schedule the float departure times and street crossings.

The sumptuous floats with their sculptures of religious figures are followed by penitent sinners in monastic robes and pointed conical hoods that reach upwards for divine grace. Medieval hoods concealed the face and identity under the hood. In this way, individuals seeking repentance in public could remain anonymous. Across Spain’s diverse regions these processions bring the social community together. In Easter week, even the capital Madrid stops for the communal plays.

Medieval hoods concealed the face and identity so that individuals seeking repentance in public could remain anonymous (public domain)

Medieval hoods concealed the face and identity so that individuals seeking repentance in public could remain anonymous (public domain)

United brotherhoods

Brotherhoods come together in their dedication to the rituals of Holy Week,  Semana Santa – and they share a compelling purpose. Some members have waited 15 years to attain the revered honour of carrying the processional float.

The participants are skilful team members who adjust to each other’s strength, stamina and pace – this takes preparation and rigorous practice to build group cohesion. Members train together persistently for hours carrying concrete blocks to simulate the strain of carrying such heavy weights. Musicians and drummers put in hours of rehearsal to be able to march in step. A team leader directs a strict regimental formation to ensure a dignified progress. The choreography of a procession is a difficult balance for members manoeuvring through the cobbled streets alongside the eager crowds.

Over the centuries, the brotherhoods have had to change. Some groups date from the 14th century yet gradually over the past 30 years have widened participation to include women, who now represent 40% of the membership. New groups have started up and women, celebrities, and children have joined the ranks.

Holy week procession in Spain (public domain)

Holy week procession in Spain (public domain)

Laying ghosts to rest

These processions demonstrate a profoundly social sense of identity. Passion plays inspire a shared emotional response of applause, sentimental cries, prayers and chants. The processions are rooted in biblical stories, spiritual hopes and imaginary force. Despite the solemnity of the religious spectacle, the Spanish enjoy these fantastical rituals with great exuberance. In Jerez de la Frontera, I was amused to watch penitents remove their tall purple hoods to light a cigarette, check their mobile phones, or sip a glass of wine. Meanwhile, children devoured sweet marzipan versions of miniature penitents.

The personal stories of group members are veiled as they cast long shadows processing through the night. To a curious observer, the sight of a white-cloaked spectre is ambivalent – a visual reference to Spain’s dark past. Ghosts of the Spanish Inquisition, ghosts of the Jews expelled from Al Andalus, and ghosts of the Civil War.

White-cloaked participants march in Holy Week (CC by SA 4.0)

White-cloaked participants march in Holy Week (CC by SA 4.0)

At Easter these troublesome layers of past divisions and contradictions are temporarily hidden – shrouded under the social sharing of celebration. A social affirmation of identity rooted in a deep cultural heritage. The Spanish way to mark Easter is social – through collective participation that bolsters a sense of self. Yes, Spain is a part of the European community – and still proud to be different.

Top image: Easter procession in Bilbao, Spain (Mindaugas Danys / flickr)

The article ‘Under the Hoods: The Brotherhoods (and Sisterhoods) of Spain’s Holy Week’ by Margaret Mackay was originally published on The Conversation and is being republished under a  Creative Commons license.

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