Trail Of The Unexpected: Holy Week in Seville

The timeless power of the Passion

Nothing prepares you for the magnificence, the three-dimensional grandeur of Holy Week in Seville, where celebrations begin tomorrow, Palm Sunday. The whole population, it seems, jams the streets to follow their favourite jewelled figure of the Virgin, or of Christ.

In this patrician city, where class differences are sharply etched, this is the moment when ordinary folk claim the streets in an explosion of emotion that's part devotion, part fiesta.

Sevillanos follow mobile altars bearing life-sized images around town with a passion that's difficult for outsiders to understand. Sceptics see Easter celebrations as an outmoded ritual sustained by fanatics. That view is strengthened by long processions of caped, hooded penitents who parade two by two in their pointed hats, bearing huge candles tilted from the hip.

Medieval European penitents adopted the theatrical garb of long robes, tall conical cap and mask obscuring the face but for two eyeholes centuries before extremists in America's Deep South gave it today's sinister association. It gives you a jolt to see these costumed figures hurrying through town.

All week, at the meticulously appointed hour, every church in Seville hoists its image of Christ or the Virgin, or a scene from the gospels showing a moment of the Passion, on to an elaborately decorated float or paso, a movable altar and theatrical stage, and hypnotic focus of a high-voltage drama.

On the dot, the float is eased through the church door, taken through narrow streets to the cathedral and back. It is heralded and followed by penitents formed up in hierarchical order with sections marked by penitents carrying silver crosses, candlesticks, insignia, bugles and other regalia.

The journey can last hours, sometimes all night until the flaming heat of the following afternoon. If you aren't participating, you're expected to dress up as if for a gala outing to the opera.

As a spectator, your challenge is to hop from procession to procession, of which 10 may simultaneously crisscross the city. You have to slip through short cuts, synchronise places and times to catch the highlights of each procession at the best moment: the shuffle-shuffle of stockinged feet on the cobbles, or a candle-lit multitude crossing the Isabel bridge in the moonlight. Be prepared to be immobilised for an hour by impenetrable crowds.

Stars of the show are the grieving Virgins, each sheltered by a fringed and swagged canopy supported by 12 slender pillars. The canopy symbolically protects her (the images are always considered to be real persons) and marks her exalted status. When the drums roll and the trumpets wail, bearers hidden beneath the float slowly rock their burden from side to side in time with the music. The pillars sway and the fringes and tassels swing, as the Virgin shimmies voluptuously down the street. It's a breathtaking moment.

Imagine the air heavy with orange blossom, candle wax, lilies, incense and cigar smoke, with the whiff of hot chocolate and fritters, and the birds' pre-dawn chorus challenging the trumpets' call.

It all began when 17th-century Catholic priests needed to dazzle their illiterate flock with images of Christ's suffering, death and (something of an afterthought) resurrection, to counter the heresies of Protestantism. Spain's finest baroque sculptors created images of enormous beauty and emotional impact. Later artists parodied the excesses, producing religious kitsch loathsome to the austere Protestant ethic.

But see the original spectacle in the city that once commanded a mighty empire, sacked the new world and produced the Inquisition, and feel the pull of one of the most convincing instruments of mass persuasion that Europe ever invented.

Elizabeth Nash's 'Seville, A Cultural and Literary History' is published by Signal

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own