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Monday, March 26, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Holy Week

The monument to the Merlú (an important Holy Week rite)
welcomes visitors to Zamora's Plaza Mayor.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
I was raised in the American secular/Protestant tradition, so when Spanish people ask me about Easter, I tell them it's a single day when we bite the ears off chocolate rabbits. (I briefly lament how unimportant Easter has become in Awash in Talent, Part III.) On the other hand, when I ask Zamorans about Easter, they usually launch into thirty minutes to an hour of rapturous memories and excitement for this year's processions, ceremonies, and music with strong recommendations about which events not to miss for any reason.

Zamorans participate in a mock funeral procession for the Burial of the
Sardine, Ash Wednesday. Absurdity to kick off Lent.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
This is the first time I will be in Spain for all of Semana Santa (Holy Week). (Yes, Easter lasts a lot longer than one day in Spain.) I was laid low by what I hope is my final bad cold of the year during Carnival, though I was able to see the Burial of the Sardine, the final nuttiness before the strict sobriety of Lent.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Burial was
founded in 1593.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Honestly, Lent in Zamora hasn't seemed that dreary. It's at least partially because everyone's so stinkin' excited about Holy Week! I had to find out more about the origin and meaning of these celebrations! My research included talking to Zamorans, library books that are, for the most part, poems in praise of Holy Week, and a visit to the Holy Week Museum. This is how beloved this "week" is: Holy Week lasts more than one week! It begins on the Thursday before Palm Sunday, known as Passion Thursday, and continues through Easter, and I've even had some inklings that it might go on through the Monday or Tuesday after.

Processional crosses give me a strong medieval vibe.
All photos in the Holy Week Museum 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
In the Middle Ages, the Church sought out ways to get the message to the lay population. How could regular people take part in a text-based religion when hardly any of them could read? In northern Europe, Passion Plays and Mystery Plays took hold because the people put themselves in the holy roles. These traditions survived the Protestant Reformation because there are no images involved, only flesh-and-blood people acting as obvious proxies.

Redención by famous float sculptor Mariano Benlliure, 1931
Holy Week Museum 
In Spain, lay people get involved in reenacting scripture using the images--sculptures and crosses--in their churches. The first evidence we have of Holy Week in Zamora comes from a thirteenth-century text written by Alfonso X's brother indicating that Zamorans had a tradition of "making presentation of Our Lord" on Palm Sunday. What does this mean? It's likely they were already doing what they did yesterday, which was this year's Palm Sunday: carrying a beloved statue of Christ through the streets of Zamora. The first such processions might have been as simple as some of the iconography we see in Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa María: a church official carrying a small image with few adornments, surrounded by clerics and laity, probably singing and dancing.

Christ of the Lagoon, 16th century
Holy Week Museum 
Enthusiasm spread rapidly, and by the fourteenth century, the first cofradías (brotherhoods) were founded. These societies, first formed according to medieval guild occupations, are associated with a church, or more specifically with one of a church's images. On the appropriate day of Holy Week, according to whether they have a Virgin of Sorrows, a Crucifixion, or any number of other saints or scenes, it's the brotherhood's responsibility to take their image out in procession, normally on an elaborate float. The oldest such float I saw in the Holy Week Museum is from 1522.


Gethsemane with realistic leaves that rustle in the breeze
Holy Week Museum
During the busiest days, several brotherhoods can undertake multiple processions at any and all times of day. Most processions leave from their home churches, but some leave from the Holy Week Museum where the float is on display.

The Last Supper, 20th century
Holy Week Museum 
The floats, mobile works of art, can portray any and all Biblical scenes having to do with the Passion, and can have anywhere from a single half-sized statue to a crowded life-sized Crucifixion with thieves, Romans, and Mary Magdalene, to a Last Supper complete with table settings for thirteen. There is usually plenty of room on the sides of the float for candle holders and bouquets of fresh flowers. Some floats have evolved special features such as crucified Christs with articulated arms so that they can be taken from the cross and placed in a tomb. The floats must balance decorative exuberance with the width of the church door and the narrowest street on their processional routes as well as weight distribution.

Underneath the float, neck pads for the float bearers
Holy Week Museum 
Weight distribution is important because the floats are carried on the necks of the brothers (cofrades--women can do it, too, in some brotherhoods). The role of float bearer involves physical strength and sacrifice as well as anonymity because the most spectators will see during the procession are their well-shined shoes.

My WTF face upon discovering that some floats travel on wheels
Holy Week Museum 
Given what I know about float bearers, and the penitent interpretation I gave them, I was disappointed to find, in the Holy Week Museum, that some floats move along on wheels.

The costume of each brotherhood stands next to its float in
the Holy Week Museum. 
There are always more brotherhood members outside the float to accompany it along the route. Here we come to the most potentially disturbing sights of Holy Week. While one Zamoran surmised that because the images are often covered in gore, they might frighten children from other countries such as the United States, I think it's the cloaks and headdresses the members wear that are sure to strike the wrong note with an unprepared American.

Costume of the Brotherhood of the True Cross
Holy Week Museum 
The idea behind the brotherhood costumes was that the members are marching in penitence. If people in the street could see who they were, it would be like bragging, literally taking a "holier than thou" attitude. Therefore, many of the brotherhoods use capes to cover recognizable clothing, and a hood that includes a cone to disguise the wearer's height. A certain radical group in the United States understood the advantages of anonymity as they carried out their acts of violence and hatred and appropriated the costume without permission. Holy Week celebrants all over Spain don't have to change their traditional costume because one notorious group in a foreign country uses it for evil. Even knowing all that, some of the costumes are hard to get used to.

This brotherhood's costume is based on shepherds' cloaks.
Holy Week Museum 
On the other hand, some brotherhoods use cloaks derived from their original occupations in the Middle Ages and early modern times. They often have intricate embroidery, and anyone could say they're gorgeous.

Holy Week Museum
Some special roles in the procession, such as carrying certain crosses, are so desirable that a brotherhood member must put his name down before he's even taken first communion and might be allowed to fulfill that role when he's in his forties or fifties.

Holy Week Museum 
These traditions appear to have survived intact since the thirteenth century. However, Holy Week fell into neglect during the nineteenth century because of a statewide expropriation of Church possessions. It made a spectacular comeback at the end of the nineteenth century because of organizations like Zamora's Pro-Holy Week Society. This society runs the Holy Week Museum and provides all kinds of other support for Zamora's most convivial week of the year.

Veronica at the Holy Week Museum 
King Felipe II (a serious dude who reigned 1556-1598) admonished the Bishop of Zamora against the way Holy Week was being carried out at the time: "There is great disorder in the churches during processions and young people go about with too much ease and disrespect... At the temple doors, in the streets and plazas where most people gather, they spread out delicacies on boards to break the fast... When they come to watch the night processions, some take advantage of the dark to commit dissolute evils, so that these are the days when God is most offended."

A shop displays its Holy Week wares. Note the folding seat
for when you're waiting hours and hours for a procession to come by.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
In spite of the royal warning, and its modern somber appearance, this spirit of fun has carried through to present day Holy Week. Every Zamoran I spoke with thought of it as a time to get together with friends they've had since forever to eat, drink, sing, and have a lot of fun. My anecdotal evidence indicates that a majority hardly treats it as a religious event at all.

Buy your kiwis and get the scoop
on Holy Week happenings.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Hundreds of years ago, the Church was highly successful in getting the lay public involved in Easter. Holy Week turned abstract concepts into tangible acts people could witness with their own eyes and even participate in. One solid sociological theory suggests that community is built through shared ritual. Even if it's lost most of its religious significance, these community bonds are stronger than ever after centuries of wild enthusiasm for these group efforts.

Another shop displays its Holy Week wares.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
The most touching phenomenon I've discovered about Holy Week in Zamora (declared international touristic interest in 1986, UNESCO world immaterial cultural heritage in 2015) again has to do with its many brotherhoods. In other cities, rivalries spring up between brotherhoods and tint the "week" with a competitive (in my mind, negative) streak. In Zamora, no such rivalries exist. Many people are members of multiple brotherhoods. This would be impossible anywhere else, I'm convinced. I'm so proud to be in Zamora for Holy Week. It's sure to be unforgettable.

Recruitment poster for one brotherhood
at a Zamora bus stop
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Happy Easter!