Travel Experiences

The Holy Week in Madrid – Semana Santa

The Holy Week in Madrid – Semana Santa
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The Holy Week in Madrid

The Religious Parades

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room straight away. The religious parades during Semana Santa, or holy week, in Spain are indeed creepy. The traditional Spanish Easter procession takes place at night, and features candle and torchlit processions of grunting, pained men carrying intentionally heavy and unwieldy wooden floats supporting ornately-decorated statues of saints, the Virgin Mary and crucifixes. The floats hardly “float,” but are meant to bite into the shoulders of the men lined up on each side to support their massive weight. This is considered a plus, the pain a reminder of Christ’s Passion. Some of the confraternities represented in the processions wear traditional costumes that, we have to be honest, today look disconcertingly like the uniforms of Ku Klux Klan members (and indeed, the Klan designed their pointed white masks based on these medieval costumes). And then there are the statues themselves. As a professor of art history, I have an intellectual appreciation for the 17th century Spanish Baroque style of hyper-realism, with rubicund, porcelain cheeks and anatomically gruesome martyrial wounds and blood and tears. These statues fill a liminal zone: we know that they are statues, but they are intentionally so realistic that, in our peripheral vision, if we spy them we are uncertain as to whether they just might be real, just might start moving. The goal of the sculptors was to inspire penitence and pity for the suffering of the ancient martyrs, so the focus on sadness and suffering adds to the collective eeriness. I admire the sculptures, but I can’t say I’d want one in my living room.

Semaine Sainte à Madrid - Espagne
© juanrvelasco

Goya's artistic atmosphere

I have vivid memories of my night on the town in Madrid, walking with the holy week parades with a group of my local friends. We flitted from one point along the processional route to another, ducking in for a caña (a small, cold beer) and some tapas or a bocadillo (a sandwich, my favorite featuring fried calamari), then return from the Edward Hopper-like glow of the neon-lit bars to the candlelit nocturne outside, the serpentine trail of the procession winding through the Plaza Mayor and tentacling down various side streets. I joked with my best friend that this felt like walking through a Goya painting, and that remains the best way I can describe it. Goya was a wonderful painter of darkness, literal in the form of night scenes, but also metaphorical, in terms of illustrating macabre visions of the imagination or the darker traits of man. For the faithful, the holy week parades can be an ecstatic experience, and I witnessed weeping before the candle-decked statue of the Macarena (which those of us of a certain age will associate with a pop dance hit, making the religious association even odder). The masochism in the name of faith, the desire of the men bearing the floats to intentionally wound their shoulders under the weight, is something that the pious may understand more than someone like me, an open-minded lay viewer. In centuries past, these parades would have also included flagellants, whipping themselves in order to feel a oneness with the Easter Passion, with the more of one’s own blood shed, the better.

It has been said that the Spanish are a people who appreciate blood, from their notoriously gruesome crucifixes to bull fights, and at least in art terms, there may be something to this. The most famous of the holy week events takes place in Seville, and it is meant to be more melodramatic, with the Madrid rendition described as “somber.” To a tourist, it will appear plenty intense.

The origins of the procession

The pasos, as the processions are called, date back to the 15th century, when religious icons were carried out of churches and into the streets for all to see, during the week leading up to Easter. The icons paraded were normally those that were votive, many of them considered to be miracle-working, and they were inevitably decorated with additional flourishes for the occasion—sometimes a new set of clothes, sometimes hung with bangles, sometimes given a wig of real hair. The volunteers who carried them are called costaleros, and it is considered a privilege to bear the weight and feel a unity in suffering.

Semana Santa in Madrid - Spain

© Sloot

20 Processions in Madrid for the Semana Santa

These days there are around 20 processions during Easter week in Madrid. On Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), the icon of Cristo de la Fe y Perdon, sculpted in the 18th century by Luis Salvador Carmona, and a statue called Santa Maria Immaculada Madre de la Iglesia are borne from the Basilica de San Miguel at San Justo by night, while audiences carry palm fronds, a symbol of martyrdom. On Holy Wednesday (Miercoles Santo), the Archbishop of Madrid leads a parade along the Via Crucis, joined by the confraternity called Cruzados de la Fe, who carry a Christ icon (Santisimo Cristo de la Fe) from their base at Atocha 87 and kiss the image’s feet (called besapie, literally kiss-the-foot). Meanwhile, the church of San Jeronimo el Real is the starting point for another confraternity, Nuestro Padre Jesus de la Salud y Maria Santisima de las Angustias. Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) sees the most dramatic of the processions, beginning at the Colegiata de San Isidro (Calle Toledo 37). For art history lovers, Goya’s Pilgrimage to San Isidro inevitably comes to mind, and if you can find an eerier painting than that, I’d like to see it. There emerge two icons, Jesus del Gran Poder and the Virgin Maria Santisima de la Esperanza. The catch is that the costaleros must carry these immense artworks on their knees, as if standing with hundreds of pounds’ worth of wood to carry it for several kilometers were not enough. Across town, the church of San Pedro (Calle Nuncio) is the point of departure for two parades, carrying Maria Santisima del Dulce Nombre and Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, El Pobre, while the painting called El Divino Cautivo emerges from the Colegio Calasancio (Calle General Diaz Porlier 58).

Holy week moves towards a climax on Good Friday (Viernes Santo), when the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno statue processes from the Basilica del Cristo de Medinaceli (the aptly-named Plaza de Jesus), and makes its way through the main streets around the iconic square Puerta del Sol. The Procesion del Silencio begins at the church of Santisimo Cristo de la Fe (Atocha 87), while the city hall holds its own parade, Santo Entierro, from the church of Santa Cruz (Atocha 6), carrying the painting called the Lignum Crucis. On Holy Saturday (Sabada Santo) the procession carrying Nuesta Senora de la Soledad emerges from the monastery of Corpus Christi. And the week concludes on Easter Sunday (Domingo Santo) during the day at Plaza Mayor, at which a selected confraternity bangs a variety of militant drums that quake the nearby café table tops and wine glasses, in the Tamborada del Domingo de Resureccion.

These days there are around 20 processions during Easter week in Madrid. On Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), the icon of Cristo de la Fe y Perdon, sculpted in the 18th century by Luis Salvador Carmona, and a statue called Santa Maria Immaculada Madre de la Iglesia are borne from the Basilica de San Miguel at San Justo by night, while audiences carry palm fronds, a symbol of martyrdom. On Holy Wednesday (Miercoles Santo), the Archbishop of Madrid leads a parade along the Via Crucis, joined by the confraternity called Cruzados de la Fe, who carry a Christ icon (Santisimo Cristo de la Fe) from their base at Atocha 87 and kiss the image’s feet (called besapie, literally kiss-the-foot). Meanwhile, the church of San Jeronimo el Real is the starting point for another confraternity, Nuestro Padre Jesus de la Salud y Maria Santisima de las Angustias. Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo) sees the most dramatic of the processions, beginning at the Colegiata de San Isidro (Calle Toledo 37). For art history lovers, Goya’s Pilgrimage to San Isidro inevitably comes to mind, and if you can find an eerier painting than that, I’d like to see it. There emerge two icons, Jesus del Gran Poder and the Virgin Maria Santisima de la Esperanza. The catch is that the costaleros must carry these immense artworks on their knees, as if standing with hundreds of pounds’ worth of wood to carry it for several kilometers were not enough. Across town, the church of San Pedro (Calle Nuncio) is the point of departure for two parades, carrying Maria Santisima del Dulce Nombre and Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, El Pobre, while the painting called El Divino Cautivo emerges from the Colegio Calasancio (Calle General Diaz Porlier 58).

Holy week moves towards a climax on Good Friday (Viernes Santo), when the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno statue processes from the Basilica del Cristo de Medinaceli (the aptly-named Plaza de Jesus), and makes its way through the main streets around the iconic square Puerta del Sol. The Procesion del Silencio begins at the church of Santisimo Cristo de la Fe (Atocha 87), while the city hall holds its own parade, Santo Entierro, from the church of Santa Cruz (Atocha 6), carrying the painting called the Lignum Crucis. On Holy Saturday (Sabada Santo) the procession carrying Nuesta Senora de la Soledad emerges from the monastery of Corpus Christi. And the week concludes on Easter Sunday (Domingo Santo) during the day at Plaza Mayor, at which a selected confraternity bangs a variety of militant drums that quake the nearby café table tops and wine glasses, in the Tamborada del Domingo de Resureccion.

Madrid, Spain: the Cathedral - Holy Week
@Krivinis

Traditions don’t die over time

The tradition of bringing religious icons out of churches and on parade is of medieval origin, and was originally done when miraculous intervention was needed—to fight off an enemy or to curb a plague, for example. But these rituals became codified during the 15th and 16th centuries, running alongside Counter-Reformation strategies to make the Catholic religious experience more personal, empathetic and emotionally-driven (part of a program on the part of the Catholic Church to counteract the powerful rebellion of Protestantism). Thus an added emphasis on bringing faith to the people, not only insisting that the faithful come to the church, was one such strategy, as was upping the drama and physical/emotional empathy that one could feel when meditating on stories from the Bible. It was perhaps most straightforward to show suffering or sadness, and have audiences understand and sympathize with such emotions, than for an uneducated public to contemplate more complex religious matters, and so art was given a propagandistic focus, with an emphasis on blood and tears.

These traditions survive and, for tourists, offer up an otherworldly combination of beauty, majesty, quiet ferocity and eeriness. They certainly make for a memorable night, or an entire week of nights.

Candles burning in Madrid during the Semana Santa.
@Maksym Azovtsev

Overview of the main spots

  • On Palm Sunday: Basilica de San Miguel at San Justo

  • On Holy Wednesday: starting point at Atocha 87 or the church of San Jeronimo el Real

  • On Maundy Thursday: starting point at Colegiata de San Isidro (Calle Toledo 37)

  • On Good Friday:

    • Starting point of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno statue procession at the Basilica del Cristo de Medinaceli
    • Starting point of the Procesion del Silencio at the church of Santisimo Cristo de la Fe (Atocha 87)
    • Starting point of Santo Entierro procession at the church of Santa Cruz (Atocha 6)

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Dr Noah Charney-
Professor of Art History & Author |

Noah Charney is a professor of art history and an internationally best-selling author. He is the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, and writes regularly on art and culture for Salon, The Observer, and the Guardian. He lives in Slovenia with his family and hairless dog, Eyck.

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