Nazarens and drums

Holy Week is supposed to be a religious celebration. And it was. Probably it still is for some people. But in Spain, nowadays, it is more of a cultural manifestation, and a tourist attraction, very popular with nationals and foreigners alike. Each year this week of street demonstrations moves millions of euros; each year it moves less and less consciences into religion.   Though Spain is officially a non-confessional country, and statistics consistently show that religious feeling, and specially Catholic, is constantly declining moreover between the younger population, Catholic presence is still overwhelming in many everyday aspects, from education to holiday, from public ceremony to football. Even in politics and, allegedly, in governmental issues. And, during a whole week, main streets all over the country belong to the quite strange commemoration of a murder.   Most shocking for non accustomed visitants are the Nazarenes. These are the members and associates of “Cofradías”, which are club like institutions, usually focused in the promotion of one specific saint or virgin. Sounds a little strange, but it looks even stranger. Many of them keep company to the images all along the course of the demonstration which, in some cases, can last for more than ten hours.

Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.
Penitent in the procession, walking around with the cross as sign of repent.

From an artistic point of view, the most relevant thing of “Semana Santa” is the sublime imagery, which is considered one of the pinnacles of Spanish arts during the Baroque period. Those images, usually made from wood, sculpted and painted to achieve the maximum dramatic effect, are the center of the celebrations, and, although not all are pinnacles of its art, and many are mere copies or inspired by the long-lost originals, are revered in awe and justify by themselves a close look to this celebration. The better sculptures were designed by the likes of Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni. These artistic development began as a part of the Catholic Counter-Reform, of which Spain was the greatest defender. As a form of opposing Lutheranism and its despise for religious images, Spanish Catholics developed a fancy for realistic depictions of the life and deeds of Jesus Christ, and preferably of the last night with “Ecce homos” and Crucifixion at the top. Soon Saints, Virgins and scenes of the everyday life of Jesus began to take part in what, from the XVI century onwards, was a Catholic Church sponsored activity which, Spain being the stronger supporter of Catholicism, counted also on the Royal favor: the Spanish Monarchy wanted people showing of their love for God and Christ in the streets, and it was staged as a popular demonstration, state in which it has last.

One of the
One of the “Pasos” during the procession in Santander (Spain). It represents Judas betrayal.

The”Cofradías”, originated in guilds and unions during the Spanish Golden Century, were the center of those devotional celebrations. And they still survive, albeit in a different version, usually related to a specific church or district, otherwise there still are some guild based.   But let’s go back to the “Nazarens”. Clad in their long robes, usually hooded and handling some sort of torch, or light, this ghost-like figures are a constant presence in the Semana Santa. Penitents in the beginning, today most of them take part as a long running family tradition deprived of deepest religious meaning albeit devotion is still strong, mainly in Andalucia, and would probably be described as idolatry in many a culture as the zeal is customarily related only to a particular image and not necessarily as a part of a more complex religious understanding. Lately, the responsibility of increasing the ranks of the “Nazarens” falls mainly in woman and children. Moreover, quite a lot of those kids get involved with “procesiones”, as demonstrations are called, as a school activity as they assist to schools run by religious orders more because of the quality of the education provided than as a result of a strong family involvement with religion.

“Little Nazarene” getting ready for procession with her school’s parish Cofradia.

An act of cultural affiliation, maybe, as Semana Santa and its traditions are considered, at least by a significant share of the locals, as a mains stake of true Spanish culture and way of life. And that extends to music, or some kinds of music at least: it is customary for “Cofradías” to parade along with wind and brass small bands or even to boast their own Nazarene musicians, all clad as their mates but playing the traditional drums and bugles. It is everything but ironic that, for instance, the main “procesión” in the city of Santander is called “Del Silencio” (the Silence) while almost every “Cofradía” plays the drums during the whole parade.   The everyday of a Nazarene during the Passion Week, as it is sometimes called, could be really stressful, because responsibilities with the “Cofradía” must be usually shared with regular life duties, thus creating a very harsh timetable. It depends on the geographical areas and local traditions, and we have to admit that some days are considered Bank Holidays that week, but the fact remains that “procesiones” do start after dusk, and the longest of them end in the morning. And all that could take place after a long day at work or school. When arriving home, the Nazarene must change clothes. Again, there are different local customs, but the customary basic equipment comprises of a large cloak which covers a habit and is held by a soft rope; dark plain shoes, gloves, and the always surprising hood, which sometimes, with newcomers, arise the non too fair and tremendously awkward comparison with KuKluxKlan that so annoys Spaniards.

Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias
Different representatives from Spanish Cofradias

This hood could have a cardboard frame inside to give it a long conical look, and children would not wear it, as is for penitents and sinners and small kids are considered still pure enough. Now clad like an anonymous Templar, you can go out and walk through your town keeping company to a four hundred years old wooden sculpture of Christ in the cross which is considered a masterpiece. And that would last at least four hours. Fortunately, if you are a kid, you’ll probably get some candy for all the effort.

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