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?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
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
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable