Sunday, April 05, 2015

Holy Week in Spain: a religious tradition and tourist spectacle

Our Lady of the Pillar Church, Zaragoza, on the Ebro River
ZARAGOZA, Spain -- For those of you who like anniversary celebrations, this one is the oldest I know of: the 1,975th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of the Pillar to the Apostle James, and it occurred here in Zaragoza in 40 A.D.

James was discouraged about how hard it was to convert to Christianity the residents of what we now call Spain. The Virgin Mary appeared to him on a pillar and encouraged him to keep at it. Which he did. Today there is an amazing Baroque church dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar in the heart of the city.

Holy Week processions

Zaragoza has dozens of cofradías that are known for their drum corps. Each of these groups has hundreds of members who participate in the Holy Week processions and observances. Each has a slightly different rhythm to their playing, but all beat the big bass drums hard.

Each has its own floats depicting religious scenes. Acolytes with censers fill the air with the smell of incense to create a visual, audio, and olfactory experience.

One of the cofradías. Traditionally, penitents join the procession to atone for their sins. The hoods protect their identity. The pointed hats, called capirotes, were required to be worn by criminals. 

Religion and spectacle

Most of the countries of Western Europe are Catholic in name but ignore many of the dictates of the Church when it comes to pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and same-sex relations, among other things.

So I wondered what part of these Holy Week celebrations might be motivated by religious belief. They take place all over Spain. A study by Spain's Center for Sociological Studies and reported by the Catholic News Service found that only 13.6 percent of Spain's Catholics practice their faith and attend church on Sundays and Holy Days.

I have seen earlier versions of this study that show similar figures.

The way of the bullfight

Today, Holy Saturday, I read a column in La Vanguardia, a national newspaper based in Barcelona, in which the author expressed extreme skepticism about the religious motivation of the Holy Week processions.

Gregorio Moran noted with sarcasm (paywall, in Spanish) that the most radical members of the left, who are avowed atheists, are leaders of many of the cofradías or participate in the processions. All the true believers, he said, have left town during Holy Week and have gone "to the beach, to their second home, or to an exotic destination."

Moran is a cynic, but given the statistics about religious participation, he may have a point. He says that the main audience for the processions is the tourists and the comfortable classes. Eventually, he says, Holy Week will go the way of the bullfights, which are a cultural and touristic attraction that has been banned in Vanguardia's home region, Catalonia.

Romans and Arabs

Part of the old Roman wall in Zaragoza now houses the city's tourist office.

The Roman theater in Zaragoza could seat about 6,000.

This town was named Caesaraugusta for the emperor, and there are remnants of the old Roman wall and a theater from the first century A.D. The name Zaragoza is a corruption of the name "Caesaraugusta." Say it fast and you will see what I mean. When the city had Arab rulers, they called it "Saraqusta." 

The Aljaferia in Zaragoza. It was an Arab castle and fortress, later a palace of the first 
Spanish kings, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Castille and Aragon before the conquest of Granada in 1492.
Zaragoza was the capital of Aragon, an important kingdom in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula. Castille dominated the northwest. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille in 1469 created a powerful new kingdom that launched Spain's Golden Age.

This Aljaferia castle in Zaragoza, capital of Aragon, was one of their residences.

Ferdinand was a shrewd, visionary, and ruthless ruler who was praised by Machiavelli in The Prince. In 1492 he ended all Islamic rule in what is now Spain with a victory in the battle of Granada. The Iberian Peninsula was now all Catholic. That was also the year he decided to banish all Jews who did not convert to Christianity.

This was also the year that Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus off to look for new worlds. He landed in the Bahamas Oct. 12, 1492, and claimed it all for his sponsors. The Pope later honored Ferdinand and Isabella as "the Catholic Monarchs."

The interior of this castle, the Aljaferia, has wonderful Mudejar architecture reflecting Islamic influence. You can see it on the outside with the pointed crenellations on the top of the walls and towers. Inside, the palace is breathtaking. The Christians conquered Islam, but Islamic culture won in the end.

Mudejar architecture can be seen all over Zaragoza, including in the Catholic churches. 
Also I was just listening to a podcast from Cadena Ser, the national radio outlet, about Jewish influence on Spanish literature. Evidently many conversos, or Jews who converted to Christianity, played an important role in the Spanish literature of the Renaissance.

Here is a video of the Holy Week processions in Zaragoza:


How to spend nine weeks in Europe without losing your shirt
Barcelona's art and architecture make it a favorite
Pamplona: Lots of running, no bulls
Cordoba's main attraction: mix of Jewish, Moorish, Christian cultures 
Basque language has mysterious origins
Andalusia has different flavor from rest of Spain 
Tapas or pinchos are our favorite foods in Spain  
Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela 
We didn't run into a lot of Americans in Spain

No comments:

Post a Comment