Semana Santa

by La Sevillana /
La Sevillana's picture
Apr 01, 2010 / 0 comments

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, as I recently explained to my American students, is celebrated in Andalusia through religious processions (called pasos) that wind their way day and night through the streets of cities and towns. As with so many Spanish traditions, such as bullfighting, it’s almost impossible to convey an accurate picture of Semana Santa celebrations to anyone who has never attended one. They must be experienced rather than understood at an intellectual level. While this makes these spectacles incredibly exciting to witness, it also means Semana Santa and the processions that accompany it are impossible to fully explain in a blog entry, the purpose of which is to reduce complex data so that it may be understood by a broad audience. Nevertheless, as this month’s blog just happened to fall during Holy Week, I've decided to take a stab at it.

paso with band


At the center of Semana Santa processions are statues made of carved wood or plaster of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other Biblical characters, many created during Spain’s Baroque period, which rest on enormous, intrically carved wooden platforms and are carried through the streets.

The paso in the photo at the left features statues of Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. The platform the statues rest on is decked with fresh flowers and candles, and the details, such as the cup held by Jesus and the lanterns that decorate the paso, are made of gold.




the nazarenos

Each paso is sponsored by a religious fraternity of laymen (and sometimes women), which solemnly accompany the statues during their course through the streets (see the photo at right). Each procession may involve upwards of 2200 participants from each fraternity, including, but not limited to: nazarenos, those guys who wear the pointy hats and look, at least to most Americans, spookily like members of the Klu Klux Klan; penitentes, who carry large wooden crosses to atone for some unknown sin; costaleros, who carry the platforms and statues, which can sometimes weigh several tons, on their shoulders and necks; and a band or bands, with the exception of those pasos which perform in silence and therefore do not incorporate music.


The Holy Week processions were created by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago to bring the Passion of Christ and his crucifixion to the people, who were largely illiterate, via a medium that they could understand and appreciate: drama and art. Despite the growing secular nature of Spanish and Andalusian society, members of which can often be vehemently anti-clerical, these spectacles are actually growing in popularity.

Spectators (below) shower a statue of the Virgin Mary, the queen of every procession, with rose petals from a rooftop terrace as she passes beneath them.

A shower of petals

Semana Santa is enthusiastically celebrated in churches, in the streets, and in every bar and restaurant, especially in Seville, which is known for having the most elaborate processions. In Andalusia, Holy Week is not just about commemorating the death of Jesus; for some, his suffering and crucifixion are entirely beside the point. It’s about re-living memories from past processions, vehemently defending the Virgin from your own 'hood as the most beautiful, maneuvering through the crowds to arrive where a procession is scheduled to pass after grabbing a quick beer in a nearby bar, children making balls of wax out of the drippings from the candles of the nazarenos, and staying awake for la Madrugá, which begins late Thursday night and spills into Friday afternoon, to catch a glimpse of one of the grander pasos.


It also marks the ceremonial and ritual arrival springtime, which, after the rainiest and (dreariest) winter in 40 years here in Andalusia, has been a long-time coming.

So, as they like to say here, ¡Viva la Virgin!

Queen of the paso

A statue of the Virgin Mary (above), who weaps for the suffering of her son and the world. She stands on a silver dias and is surrounded by candles and fresh flowers. The gown and robe she wears are hand embroidered with golden thread by special artisans.


La Sevillana is the Anthropology Editor, Andalusia, for Wandering Educators.