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

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
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: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave