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