One of the many floats depicting the Virgin Mary in luscious glory
Artillery Row

Extreme veneration in Seville

The ongoing echoes of the reformation

Four in the morning on Maundy Thursday and the drums were still sounding their merciless beat. As I tossed and turned in my bed, I felt trapped in some sort of Voodoo ceremony. Actually, it had morphed into Good Friday, the famous Semana Santa Holy Week processions of Seville having gone on all through Maundy Thursday night into what the Spanish call Madrugada, which, appropriately enough, means early morning.

The body of Christ rocked jarringly, as a dead body would

The processions start on Palm Sunday and continue through Easter Sunday. They are organised by different brotherhoods — hermandad — of churches spread throughout the city. Great “pasos” or floats depicting scenes related to the Passion of Christ and the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary are carried by sweating burly men in vests, accompanied by marching bands, and hundreds if not thousands of penitents. They wear the distinctive cone-shaped “capirote” hats that also mask the wearer’s face (a way of making everyone equal and remaining anonymous as you make your penance). 

The floats can weigh over a tonne, and they are decorated with flowers, candles and religious accoutrements. The Spanish, especially those in Andalucía, have an artistic eye that is on full display in the beautiful spectacle and decorative details adorning the floats (I loved the giant white feathers garlanding the helmets of the Roman soldiers). All the figures depicted are rendered with precision and highly realistic. The Sevilliano locals take it very seriously. As a paso approaches a street junction, admonishing ssh’s reverberate amongst the crowds jammed together, and an eerie silence falls. 

The El Gran Poder float reaching the end of its procession as the sun rises on Good Friday morning

A particularly striking paso is the Quinta Angustia float from the Parroquia de la Magdalena church. It depicts Jesus’s inert dead body being lowered from the cross by two men on ladders leaning against the cross and manoeuvring white linen wrapped around Christ’s body and the horizontal beam. At the foot of the cross await a group of women with anguished faces, bearing a white sheet with which to wrap the body of Jesus. As the paso slowly edged out of the church, the body of Christ, suspended in the air by the white linen, rocked jarringly, as a dead body would, with the movement of the paso. People standing on the street and watching from surrounding balconies crossed themselves as the paso went by. Once a float has passed, the spell is broken and the fiesta resumes, the silence giving way to people giving each other directions as they scamper off to find the next junction where a paso will pass. The result is a strange mixture of both the profound and bonkers.

Watching it as a Brit, one can’t help but marvel on several levels. For one, Semana Santa could never happen in the UK for the simple reason that too many people would become drunk. All hell would break out in vast crowds of people packed together in plazas and narrow alleys, trying to squeeze past each other or get served at bars. The Spanish, by contrast, hold their liquor, stay calm and make it work

It could also never happen in the UK due to the Reformation. All those things that got banned by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s injunction — including “the offering of money, candles, or tapers to images or relics, or kissing or licking the same”. To a large extent they are still taboo in the UK today, yet it is all on full display in Seville and utterly embraced by locals. Semana Santa is a living repudiation to the Reformation and the modernising forces that Mario Laghos discusses in his Critic article “We can’t Retvrn to tradition”. Events in Seville indicate that a return to tradition is possible — to a degree, at least. Smartphones dominate Semana Santa, naturally, facilitating photography and close ups of the weeping Virgin’s face, along with navigation and coordination.

“One key point to remember when comparing the UK with Spain and Portugal is that Spain and Portugal are Catholic countries, whereas Britain is still heavily influenced by its Protestant legacy,” says Anne Bailey, a pilgrimage scholar at Oxford University. “Saint veneration — the major driver of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages — was banned in Britain at the Reformation and, as a consequence, Britain lost most of its pilgrimage infrastructure, including its shrines and saints.” 

As a result, Bailey notes, established British churches must “negotiate the troublesome balance between heritage and religion, as well as between Protestantism and Catholicism”. 

Despite the veneration on show, actual church attendance in Spain is in decline

“Many Anglican clergy, for example, are still a bit queasy about appearing to promote saint devotion, yet at the same time are keen to stress that their churches are first and foremost about worship and not tourism,” Bailey says.

Admittedly, the UK isn’t alone in navigating such queasiness. Whilst the majority of Western European countries contain predominantly Catholic populations, countries such as France and Germany are closer to the UK when it comes to shunning overt displays of religion. Despite the veneration on show during Semana Santa, actual church attendance in Spain is in decline, especially amongst younger generations. Nonetheless, the religious-inspired forces at play on the level of the national subconscious shouldn’t be underestimated. Roughly five centuries on, and the rupture between Protestantism and Catholicism continues to wield its force. 

In their book Religion and the Struggle for European Union, political scientists Brent Nelsen and James Guth explore how religion plays a role in support for (and opposition to) the European Union. As the scientists explain in a Washington Post article, Catholics have tended to favour European integration and to see Europe as a single cultural whole that ought to be governed in some coordinated way. Protestants, however, see the nation state as an important bulwark against the likes of Catholic hegemony, and so they have been more reluctant to give up such sovereignty. This dynamic has lessened as Europe has become more secular but it has not disappeared, Nelson and Guth note.

“Catholics have always been very comfortable, even if subconsciously, with the notion of supranational governance,” Nelson and Guth say. In the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Anglicans were more likely to vote leave than British Catholics, according to studies. 

Seen through the lens of Semana Santa, Brexit certainly doesn’t appear quite so baffling. Brits are just still so different from their European brethren. One can’t help acknowledging it, when witnessing such a potent reminder of the divergence in national characteristics forged and still heavily influenced by the direction of post-Reformation forces. 

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