MARTIN FYLES reflects on his first unforgettable experience of Holy Week in Valladolid and how it has the power to move even those who profess little or no faith…
Much like the wine, the landscape or indeed the Spanish language itself, Semana Santa takes on different forms in different parts of Spain.
Having lived for one year in Logroño and another two in Madrid, this was something I was vaguely aware of, at least in theory, even before I darkened the doors of the Royal English College.
Nothing, however, could quite prepare me for the sounds and colour, the splendour and solemnity, or for what I’d call the spine-tingling moments of Holy Week in Valladolid.
The first spine-tingling moment hit me on the very first night of the celebrations, a rain-lashed Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows) that rather set the meteorological tone for the week to come. Inside the Church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, I saw the tears on the face of a woman walking slowly behind the Virgin and towards the figure of Christ, carried in solemn procession at our very first Encuentro (meeting between images of Jesus and Mary).
As the music from the band swelled to the rafters and threatened to raise the roof, I found myself deeply moved, both by the beauty of what I could see and hear, and by the profound importance that this ceremony so clearly had for those involved.
The second such moment arrived in the course of the Palm Sunday procession, and gave me a notion of the monumental scale of the local Semana Santa festivities (as compared with the more modest events in a city such as Logroño, where the week is important, but lacks the renown of Valladolid).
It was also the first glimpse of what it means to march in the processions, as a group of eight of us were lucky enough to be able to do just that. By the time we reached Calle Santiago, it already seemed that at least half the city was watching, and as we started to make our way to the Plaza Mayor, it was as if every bell in town began to ring out at the same time, creating a chaotic, joyful cacophony that accompanied us into the square.
The heady volume of these chimes then found a quieter, though no less exhilarating echo in the noise from dozens of palms, rustled by the bystanders as we processed to the ceremony’s conclusion inside the church of the Santa Cruz.
The drama of Semana Santa, rehearsed and re-enacted over centuries, began to make perfect sense; this was surely the closest any of us could come to gaining even the faintest idea of what Jesus must have seen and heard on entering Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday, flanked on either side by the same adoring crowds who would soon be calling for his Crucifixion.
Perhaps the most spine-tingling occasion of all for many of us came, not surprisingly, late on Monday night, with the much anticipated encuentro between the Cristo del Olvido and, of course, Our Lady Vulnerata.
How to reduce such a ceremony to any one moment, though? Whether it was the sight of incense billowing out of the wide-open entrance of the Chapel, as we waited in silence around a flower-strewn, candle-lit paso, the appearance of the first cofrades on the street outside, as they filed silently past in splendid scarlet and black to the eerie rasp of the snare drums, or the mixture of extreme nervousness and excitement that took hold as the moment to lift Our Lady’s paso finally arrived, and we began to intone the Pater Noster, singing with as much confidence as we could muster to soothe the nerves: the whole experience was a feast for the senses from beginning to end, and an unforgettable privilege for us all.
There were many other such moments during Holy Week, moments which made their mark and helped us to appreciate more what the week means to the people of Valladolid. Besides the eye-catching drama and pomp of the ceremonies, however, there is another aspect of Semana Santa which must surely strike anyone who goes first to Mass here, and then to watch any one of the dozens of processions that wind their way through the city’s streets.
It concerns the age profile of the participants. When I go to Mass anywhere in Spain, I often have what is, for me, an unusual sensation: at a modest 5’9” tall, I find myself towering over 95% of the congregation! The reason, of course, is simple: 95% of the congregation typically consists of little old abuelas or abuelos (grandparents); younger (and taller) Spaniards are conspicuous by their absence.
In Holy Week, on the streets of Valladolid, however, I saw people of all ages (and stature) watching the processions and walking in them. When it comes to this one week of the year, it would appear that the Church still has the power to attract a broad cross-section of Spanish society to its liturgies in a way that simply doesn’t happen at other times – especially not with the young.
The key question is this, however: what exactly attracts them? Is it faith? Tradition? The understandable desire to share in such spine-tingling moments as those described above, whether or not one subscribes to the beliefs that inspire them? The social aspect of participating in large-scale events?
A combination of all these things, or perhaps something else entirely? Such questions are evidently in quite a few people’s minds as they observe the processions of Semana Santa; an article in El País explored them this year by interviewing three young Holy Week participants from different parts of Spain about their motivations for being, as the headlines put it, “Jóvenes, ateos y cofrades” (Young, atheists and confraternity members).
The piece made interesting reading, drawing out the obvious respect that the young confraternity members had for Catholic tradition (with a small “t”), even if they did not share Catholic belief. It increased my own curiosity about what relationship, if any, exists between the Church and so many of the younger Spaniards who are enthusiastic participants in the rituals of Holy Week in Valladolid, but who rarely, if ever, attend religious events at other times.
When I fell into conversation with a couple of fellow spectators after a procession one evening, a man and a woman in their early thirties, it was the perfect opportunity for me to probe a little further.
Laura, who works as a waitress and artist, proudly describes herself as a Semana Santa addict, attending as many of the processions as her busy working schedule allows. Her friend Miguel, an IT analyst, is not quite so dedicated, but told me that he nonetheless always makes sure he gets to at least a couple of the events each year. Unlike the three young cofrades interviewed by El País, he would not describe himself as an out-and-out atheist, but nor is he anywhere close to being convinced about Catholicism.
Like many of his friends, he has little interest in organised religion. His visits to Church are usually limited to weddings, baptisms and funerals. What’s different about Semana Santa, then, I ask him? His reply closely echoes the ones I’d read in the newspaper: whether you believe or not, the celebrations that mark Holy Week in Spain are an important local tradition, and it’s healthy to respect that fact and to ensure that this tradition continues.
Is it really only about tradition, though, or is it possible that, for at least some of those who love Holy Week, but who rarely go to Church, there could be a genuinely religious element too? At this point, Laura, the self-confessed Semana Santa addict, becomes more animated and open about her beliefs. It’s been a long time since she went to Mass, she freely admits, but she considers herself a Christian, and these processions are certainly an important part of her faith.
In particular, she has a strong attachment to one of the celebrated images of the Virgin carried in the processions: a stunning pietà by one of the most revered artists to have worked in the city, Gregorio Fernández. Known as La Quinta Angustia (the Fifth Dolour), the sculpture is a truly marvellous piece of art; more than its undeniable artistic brilliance, however, what most attracts Laura to it is the devotion she has to this particular depiction of Our Lady. “Esta virgen hace milagros”, she tells me; this Virgin works miracles.
Indeed, she finds just talking about the image makes her emotional. At this point, I spy an opportunity for a little light evangelisation, and ask Laura and Miguel if they have ever heard of La Vulnerata. The strange name doesn’t mean anything to them, so I look the image up on Google and give them a brief history of our own beloved Virgin.
They are clearly both intrigued: why not come along to Mass one Sunday morning and see her for yourself, I ask? They may well do that, they reply, especially Laura – she could go with her mother, she says, because after all, her mother being elderly does still go to church. Neither of the two ever did make it to Mass in our Chapel, at least not during the rest of my Propaedeutic year.
Who knows, perhaps they will one day; whether they do or not, however, my conversation with them did give me a little more insight into the significance of Semana Santa for a variety of people in Valladolid and the impact it can have on them, however they might define their religious views. Surely a subject worth pondering.