Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Easter In Spain

Holy Week celebrations range from the
strange to the sublime

Holy Week celebrations range from the strange to the sublimeText and photos by Gerald Fitzpatrick The pounding drums were relentless. No rhythm, just sheer noise. Through the dusty hillside town of Moratalla, Spain, boys in long black cloaks with pointed hoods strutted through the streets, drumming as hard as they could. They were having the time of their lives, while the adults shrugged with resignation and cats and dogs darted for cover. A few boys were drumming inside the doorway of a café; the owner was either very understanding or stone-deaf. I picked up a leaflet that a considerate soul was handing out. It offered a free hearing test on April 11 -- when things quieted down after Easter.

Easter festivities in Spain are not only loud, but are among the most ancient in Europe. Moratalla, in the southern province of Murcia, was celebrating as it had done for generations. The most well-known Holy Week celebration takes place in Seville. But some of the best festivities are held in this less-visited, sun-baked part of Spain inland from the Costa Blanca. From small villages and towns like Moratalla and Jumilla, to larger centres such as Lorca, Cartagena and the city of Murcia, the week before Easter is the greatest celebration of the year.

Moratalla's church, on the peak of the hillside town, is an ancient, damp and gloomy building with weeds growing between stones. It's not an ideal place to linger, but it offered a respite from the incessant drumming. We followed a group of young people inside. In a side aisle, fresh-cut flowers were piled high, ready to be added to a life-size religious sculpture. These richly painted wooden sculptures, called , are carried through the streets of Spain on special occasions. We witnessed many in the week ahead as we followed festivities from town to town. Outside in the sunlight, we could still hear the throbbing sound of drums. A small boy watched as a teenager drummed furiously. The envious look in the boy's eyes seemed to say, "Maybe next year I'll be old enough."

The place to be on Palm Sunday is Elche, near Alicante. Elche has the largest palm grove in Europe. The trees were planted by the Phoenicians hundreds of years ago and continue to flourish in the mild climate with the help of an ancient irrigation system. Each May, men climb the male palm trees, bind the new growth fronds together, and cover them in heavy plastic to keep out the light. In January, the plastic is cut away and the newly whitened fronds are harvested and sent all over Spain -- as well as to Rome and Jerusalem -- in time for Palm Sunday.

On Palm Sunday morning we joined the crowd headed toward the centre of Elche. Families carried long blanched fronds woven into intricate designs, an art the women of the town have created for generations. At the bridge over the River Vinalopó, crowds lined the sidewalk waiting for the procession to begin. First came the ubiquitous drums -- muffled this time. Drummer boys dressed in red and blue were followed by other boys in white robes who carried a large cross and candles. The main attraction of the parade was a painted, life-size wooden figure of Christ on a donkey. The sculpture was enveloped in exquisite, woven palms.

Then came the people of Elche -- by the hundreds. Dressed in their best clothes, the men and women carried palms decorated with carnations and greeted friends on the sidewalk. Mothers pushed adorned strollers, while impeccably dressed children bore palms tied with blue and pink ribbons. Dashing older men wore tiny lapel palms fitted with miniature Spanish flags.

When the last band had passed, people gestured to us to join the procession heading toward the cathedral. The music was haunting and hard to define: very Spanish with lots of brass. Inside the packed church, the most elaborate palms were readied for judging, while many people milled outside, greeting friends before heading for lunch. We headed for Murcia.

The city of Murcia, founded by Muslims in 825, blossomed and grew in the 18th century. A magnificent baroque façade was added to the cathedral when sculptor Francisco Salzillo y Alcaraz was at the height of his skills. Salzillo's carved and painted are among the finest in Spain and paraded proudly through the streets of the city during Holy Week. More than a dozen processions are held during this time; each represents a different brotherhood or fraternity and follows a different route through the old city.

Members of a brotherhood wear different-coloured cloaks and hoods, and are referred to by their colours, such as los rojos (the reds) or los morados (violets). Hooded penitents in plain costumes drag wooden crosses, while others dressed more lavishly bear the heavy pasos. Those of the highest rank direct the procession. The costumes of most participants, other than the musicians, bulge above the waist with candies and other treats to hand out to bystanders.

The most moving procession was the Procesión del Silencio on the eve of Good Friday. Street lights were extinguished and the crowd was still as the penitents approached in complete silence. The only sound was of the shuffling procession -- hundreds of people, many barefoot. Some participants dragged heavy wooden crosses, while others held flickering candles. The procession carried a single 17th-century paso.

If Thursday evening's silent march was the most moving, it was the Good Friday procession of the morados that all Murcia came to see. Everyone wanted a good spot for viewing Salzillo's beautiful polychrome creations; naturally the route was crowded hours in advance.

We watched as the procession began joyously. Crowds of children, dressed in red, green and violet costumes, created a kaleidoscope of colour as the sound of muffled drums blended with the blasts from two "Horns of Jericho." These long horns were rolled along on wheels, only to pause from time to time to be blown to the crowd's delight and applause.

The murmuring spectators became silent as the first magnificent paso came into view. It was carved by Salzillo in 1763 and depicts the Last Supper. Thirteen life-size figures were seated at a large table loaded with flowers and real food. This massive paso was carried on the shoulders of about 30 men. The leader rapped on it loudly and the cumbersome weight was carefully transferred from their shoulders to support rods. After a short rest, another knock, and the bearers resumed their load, gingerly easing forward and swaying gently from side to side.



It would be simple to place these statues on slow-moving vehicles, converting the event into a sort of religious Rose Bowl Parade, but the entire point of the ritual would be lost. Much of the emotional impact and drama of the procession came from the strain and intensity reflected in the faces of the proud bearers as they manoeuvred the enormous figures around corners and down narrow streets. Each time the men picked up their load after a rest, it was as if everyone watching shared in the experience.

With hundreds of penitents interspersed between the pasos, the procession moved slowly. As some came into view, people rose from their seats and crossed themselves. Other times, onlookers rushed out to be photographed in front of the pasos. As the last remnants of the parade passed through the streets, people began to head home. An hour later, we were on the road to Lorca, about 60 kilometres west of Murcia, to see a totally different type of celebration.

The contrast between Easter festivities in Murcia and Lorca was astonishing. On the surface, Murcia's celebrations appeared fairly passive -- at least as far as the spectators were concerned. In Lorca, which is about one quarter the size of Murcia, the entire year revolves around Holy Week and the inhabitants are anything but passive. Good Friday celebrations were spectacular in every sense of the word, with much of the excitement coming from the competition between the brotherhoods, especially the blues and whites.

Los Blancos (the whites) held Easter processions in Lorca as early as the 16th century. Later came public displays of penitence, which included self-flagellation and carrying crosses through the streets -- with occasional outbreaks of violence between the brotherhoods. Originally brotherhood membership was restricted to aristocratic families but, by the 18th century, most of the town's population was involved. Though the worst excesses had ended, the intense rivalry remained.

At the same time, the nature of the Good Friday festivities developed into a dazzling and moving depiction of the triumph of religion over paganism. People still come to Lorca from all over Spain to see Ethiopian soldiers marching on Jerusalem, the king of Babylon, Solomon and the queen of Sheba, Antony and Cleopatra, prancing horses, dashing Roman chariots and a host of others in a mind-blowing spectacle that is a bizarre combination of Ben Hur, a Shriner's parade and a three-ring circus.

In the late afternoon of Good Friday, anticipation and excitement were building steadily on the crowded streets of Lorca. We followed the people converging on the glittering Church of San Francisco to view the decorated pasos. Inside, military marches blared from loudspeakers and the gilded baroque altar was ablaze with light. In the centre of the church, people gathered to admire the exquisite embroidery on two huge pasos: One was decorated with thousands of pink gladioli, the other with purple irises.

Back on the street, a Roman centurion band passed by. The noisy crowd, wearing blue scarves and ribbons, followed the band and acted more like soccer fans than religious celebrants. Suddenly, a group of blancos appeared from a side street and frenzied chanting broke out as people waved banners and ribbons, each group trying to outdo the other. It was just a taste of what was to come.

By eight o'clock, bleachers on both sides of the wide, straight Avenida de Juan Carlos I were packed with spectators. Hawkers walked up and down selling white and blue scarves. The procession began quietly enough, but then the band of Roman centurions appeared. The band picked up the beat. The "Blues" waved scarves and the people began to cry, "Viva, viva!" Then a spectator stood up, turned to face part of the crowd, and instructed them with a series of yells as banners waved in time to the cries. On the opposite side of the street, the "whites" chanted their own responses and tried to drown out their competitors as the band moved forward.

Excitement built as the first horses appeared. The crowd urged the riders to make their mounts prance on their hind legs. Some of the horses glistened with sweat and their flanks were bloodied from their riders' spurs. Roman chariots arrived, first with two horses, then four and finally six abreast. From time to time a chariot stopped and allowed the parade to advance, and then dashed forward at full tilt as the crowd roared. A Roman band played the triumphal march from Verdi's Aida, as hooded penitents passed by in strange juxtaposition with the sweating horses, Nubian slaves and young nymphs in diaphanous dresses. A figure of the Virgin Mary, covered in flowers, brought the crowd to its feet; a fiddle-playing Nero brought on a barrage of beans, cigarette cartons and the occasional crushed beer can.

On and on it went, hour after hour, and still the vivas echoed. Three hours after it began, the last of the procession passed; the crowd filled in behind as people streamed down from the stands. Within 20 minutes, workmen moved in to dismantle the bleachers.

We tried to make sense of it all during the long walk back to our car. Of all the processions we had seen, the one in Lorca was the most extraordinary. It wasn't as emotionally moving as Murcia's silent procession, and certainly not very religious. Simply put, it was an over-the-top extravaganza.

We crept out of Lorca early the next morning. We were on our way to Granada and afraid to waken the sleeping centurions and exhausted nymphs. Their lives were back to normal -- at least for another 11 and a half months.

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