To the solemn, persistent beat of a single drum, hundreds of men wearing pointed hoods that cover their faces parade through narrow streets bearing huge crucifixes, whilst women dressed in black stand silently and watch. This is the Deep South, not of America but of Spain, where unique Easter processions will soon get underway. To be in Spain at Easter is to witness a series of ancient rituals that go to the heart of a country with a fiercely religious history.
Whilst it is claimed that Spain is sliding into secularism and its youngsters are largely ignoring their Roman Catholic backgrounds, in Holy Week or Semana Santa, there is not a village or city that is untouched by some form of public display to mark the predominant church's most important feast: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And the further south you go the more elaborate and passionate are the parades. Pointed hoods, reminiscent of those worn by the Klu Klux Klan are used by members of the parades and are said to represent penitents too shamed by the crucifixion to show their faces. From these hooded penitents who march to the solemn beat of a single drum on Good Friday, to the joyous celebrations and church services of Easter Sunday a week later, the streets resound to the sounds of historic ceremonies that have marked this holy time for centuries.
Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramas), which falls on April 9 this year, sees the start of Holy Week when most churches will organise a parade to mark the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem. Instead of the small crosses fashioned from part of a single palm frond that are popular in many Protestant churches, the congregations in Spain carry huge, leafy palm or olive branches that have been blessed in the church.
After this fairly upbeat day the mood takes an altogether more sombre turn for the rest of the week. In many towns there will be daily parades every evening starting at the parish church from where one of the huge wooden statues that usually rests in a side chapel will be carried through the streets to solemn music.
Many places indulge in rituals specific to their town and seen nowhere else, some more extreme than others. In San Vicente de Sonsierra in Rioja a form of flagellation is still carried out on Good Friday by one of the religious brotherhoods, and although technically outlawed, it draws crowds of onlookers every year. In Valverde de la Vera, in Caceres, men wearing crowns made out of thorny branches walk in bare feet along a symbolic path to Calvary with their arms tied to a wooden bar on to which heavy swords are hung. Whilst in Madrid, people dressed in the medieval garb of penitents, including iron shackles, carry one of the images from the church around the city.
But it is in Seville, in Andalucía, where the most famous Easter celebrations take place. Seville has a total of 52 religious brotherhoods whose members take part in parades that start at first light each day and continue until three and four in the morning. The origins of these brotherhoods are said to date back from as early as the 13th century when they were bands of men organised to rescue the wounded from battlefields during the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors.
Each brotherhood has its own penitents’ garb, which varies from rich satin and brocade to sombre black. Carrying ornately-carved wooden floats, that date from the 17th century and weigh up to 2000 kilos, these hooded men march through the town accompanied by a band playing drums and trumpets to end their journey in solemn silence in the massive Gothic cathedral.
As the passion of the crucifixion gives way to the celebration of Easter Sunday, the mood changes to one of jubilation; the floats are covered with flowers, traditional sweet cakes such as monas, torrijas and pestihos are eaten and the final parades are played out to triumphant music.