Under the hoods: the brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) of Spain’s Holy Week

“Spain is different!”. Napoleon took this view after his defeat by Spanish guerrilla warfare tactics.

Under the hoods: the brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) of Spain's Holy Week
Penitents of "Jesus the Poor" brotherhood take part in a procession in Madrid during Holy Week. Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou

Generalissimo Franco’s government later made use of this slogan to promote Spain’s unique appeal to international tourists. The success of this tourism campaign is evident today: in 2016 Spain welcomed 75m tourists. Once an isolated peninsula on the edge of the European continent, Spain now ranks as the third most visited country in the world. The Conversation

Foreign visitors spent €77 billion last year enjoying the country’s climate, food and cultural attractions. And one of the big ones is Easter – when Spain highlights a different approach to religious celebrations with colourful and macabre street processions.

The Spanish turn the streets into an improvised stage to dramatise Christ’s death and resurrection during Holy Week. Striking pictures of medieval figures in candlelit processions are published daily around the world. These pictures emphasise Spain’s distinctive identity. Parish groups, cofradías (fraternities), spend months on charity work and fundraising to stage the elaborate processions.

The parade of the Christ and the Virgin Mary statues circle through the community to celebrate the celestial glory of these figures that glide majestically above the crowds. On Spanish streets, everyone takes part in the drama – a moving chorus that brings together the musicians, players, bands and strolling audience.

What interests me is the social affiliation of these traditional groups; the bands of brothers. My research into identity reveals the psychological power of belonging to social groups. What is a celebration without the people? Local town halls stop traffic to enjoy each cofradías’s procession. In Seville, 60 parish groups take part in processions and published maps schedule the float departure times and street crossings.

The sumptuous floats with their sculptures of religious figures are followed by penitent sinners in monastic robes and pointed conical hoods that reach upwards for divine grace. Medieval hoods concealed the face and identity under the hood. In this way, individuals seeking repentance in public could remain anonymous. Across Spain’s diverse regions these processions bring the social community together. In Easter week, even the capital Madrid stops for the communal plays.

Penitents take part in the “Cristo de la sangre” (Christ of the Blood) procession during Holy Week celebrations in Palma de Mallorca. Photo: Jaime Reina

Super teams

The brotherhoods demonstrate that collaboration, training and disciplined team work achieve remarkable performances. The fraternities display exceptional group cohesion that aligns with research analysis of the critical elements of super teams. First, the brotherhoods come together in their dedication to the rituals of Holy Week, Semana Santa – and they share a compelling purpose. Some members have waited 15 years to attain the revered honour of carrying the processional float.

The participants are skillful team members who adjust to each other’s strength, stamina and pace – this takes preparation and rigorous practice to build group cohesion. Members train together persistently for hours carrying concrete blocks to simulate the strain of carrying such heavy weights. Musicians and drummers put in hours of rehearsal to be able to march in step. A team leader directs a strict regimental formation to ensure a dignified progress. The choreography of a procession is a difficult balance for members manoeuvring through the cobbled streets alongside the eager crowds.

Over the centuries, the brotherhoods have had to change. Some groups date from the 14th century yet gradually over the past 30 years have widened participation to include women who now represent 40 percent of the membership. New groups have started up and women, celebrities, and children have joinedthe ranks.

Penitents take part in the “Cristo de la sangre” (Christ of the Blood) procession during Holy Week celebrations in Palma de Mallorca. Photo: Jaime Reina

Laying ghosts to rest

These processions demonstrate a profoundly social sense of identity. Passion plays inspire a shared emotional response of applause, sentimental cries, prayers and chants. The processions are rooted in biblical stories, spiritual hopes and imaginary force. Despite the solemnity of the religious spectacle, the Spanish enjoy these fantastical rituals with great exuberance. In Jerez de la Frontera, I was amused to watch penitents remove their tall purple hoods to light a cigarette, check their mobile phones, or sip a glass of wine. Meanwhile, children devoured sweet marzipan versions of miniature penitents.

Spain is proud of these cultural traditions. The drama is alive, in motion and passionate, bringing together into a choral spectacle the bands, the penitents and the audience. The street is an improvised contemporary stage that knits together individual participants as a collective social group.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain shifted at remarkable speed from an authoritarian dictatorship to a democracy. This political transition was achieved through an agreement to forget the wrongs on both sides. The writer Giles Tremlett in his book The Ghosts of Spain reflects:

“Spain was unique. It had to find its own way. And it did so by smothering the past. Many of those who would lead la Transición had anyway, Francoist pasts. It was better to cover their personal stories, too, with a cloak of silence.”

Similarly, the personal stories of group members are veiled as they cast long shadows processing through the night. To a curious observer, the sight of a white-cloaked spectre is ambivalent – a visual reference to Spain’s dark past. Ghosts of the Spanish Inquisition, ghosts of the Jews expelled from Al Andalus, and ghosts of the Civil War.

But at Easter these troublesome layers of past divisions and contradictions are temporarily hidden – shrouded under the social sharing of celebration. A social affirmation of identity rooted in a deep cultural heritage. The Spanish way to mark Easter is social – through collective participation that bolsters a sense of self. Yes, Spain is a part of the European community – and still proud to be different.

Margaret Mackay, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How Spain is celebrating Holy Week in lockdown

In the week leading to Easter Sunday, hundreds of colourful processions featuring penitents in cone-shaped hoods and centuries-old religious floats traditionally flood the streets of villages and cities across Spain.

How Spain is celebrating Holy Week in lockdown
Photos: AFP

But with a nationwide lockdown in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, Spaniards are finding ways to mark Holy Week from their homes, by blasting religious music from their balconies or viewing videos of last year's parades.   

In the western city of Salamanca, the association of religious brotherhoods that organises processions is posting pictures on social media of religious icons that would normally be paraded through the streets at the hour that would have taken place. 

“And on our YouTube channel we are posting a video of the procession from last year,” association president Jose Adrian Cornejo told AFP.   

There is one part of the processions that can still go ahead — the singing of “saetas”, short, flamenco prayers sung from balconies which are especially popular in the southwestern region of Andalusia.

Saetas are usually sung as effigies of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are carried past, but this year they are being performed to empty streets.    

Type in “saetas of confinement” on YouTube and several events come up, including one by Alex Ortiz in Seville — which is not staging Easter processions for the first time since 1933 —  who sings of a “sad spring” without “drums or bugles” in the streets.


Toilet paper roll icon

Pablo Murillo, a Catholic father of four, said he was celebrating Holy Week with “more seclusion”.

He was supposed to take part in a Palm Sunday procession but instead listened to the traditional “marchas” — special musical compositions featuring wind instruments and drums that accompany the floats — at home with his sons.

“My oldest who is 12 puts the speakers in the bathroom, and takes a shower while listening to the Holy Week 'marchas',” Murillo said.   

He lives near Seville's largest hospital and every night many neighbours blast “marchas” from their balconies after applauding healthcare workers at 8:00 pm, as people are doing across Europe.

This bus driver in Seville gave his own performance.

While this bus, also in Seville, emulated the processions that would usually be taking place in the city during Semana Santa, entertaining onlooking residents with the jerky movements and sudden lurches that are typical of a float being transported by shuffling penitents.


Some people have violated the lockdown rules to celebrate Easter, meanwhile.

In Puerta de Segura, a small town of whitewashed houses in Andalusia, several people left their homes to imitate a procession, with one man carrying a drum and a woman wearing a blanket wrapped around her head like the veils depicted in the statue of the Virgin Mary, images on Spanish TV showed.   

In the nearby town of Porcuna nine women dressed in black and carrying candles walked through the streets, while in the northern city of Palencia two men dressed in a tunic and hood held a mock procession by carrying an “icon” made of toilet paper rolls.

'Really struggling'

Police have joined in on the act. In Seville, two municipal police cars drove slowly in front of a church, stopping at times before moving on just like Holy Week floats do, to the tune of religious music.

With processions called off, many religious brotherhoods have focused on helping fight the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 14,500 lives in Spain, one of the highest tolls in the world.

A man walks past the Pieta Chapel in Seville, adorned with flowers and candles left by the faithful as Easter processions were cancelled. Photo: AFP

In the northern city of Valladolid, 20 brotherhoods donated €1,000 ($1,085) each to buy protective equipment and other urgently needed supplies for healthcare workers, said local association leader Isaias Martinez Iglesias.

Pablo Alen of Seville's Carreteria brotherhood said it would take a “relatively big” economic hit this year, because it will not collect any donations from participants during the traditional Good Friday parade.

With less money coming in the brotherhood's priority is to focus on its charity work such as a soup kitchen, so it will postpone planned restorations of its religious artworks, he added.

“There are people who are asking for help, who are really struggling,” Alen noted.

By Alvaro Villalobos and Emmanuel Michel