With more than 60 processions and some 50,000 people participating in one procession or another during Holy Week in Seville, you’ll see plenty of people walking in robes on their way to a procession. // © 2016 Greg Olsen
Feature image (above): Nazarenos dress in traditional robes with tall pointy hats and carry either candles or religious statues as they walk through the streets of Seville. // © 2016 Greg Olsen
When you are in Seville, Spain, during the Holy Week celebrations of Semana Santa de Sevilla, chances are you will stumble across a procession at some point. Down a dark side street, a well-dressed crowd had gathered in front of a Catholic Church with one of the longest names I had ever seen on any building. The English translation was “The Valley Church and Shrine of Our Father Jesus of Health and the Crowned Virgin of Sorrows.” My husband and I shimmied through the crowd and slid into an open spot directly behind a family of four who were sitting on lawn chairs near the edge of the curb.
We could hear the somber drum beats of the procession before we saw it, and as the procession drew near, the crowd went still. Even though a brass band was near the front, there was no mistaking this for an ordinary parade. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Behind the band, a large group of Nazarenos moved reverently along. Dressed in traditional robes with tall pointy hats, they carried either candles or religious statues. Each brotherhood or church has distinctive robes, and this group was wearing white robes with a red, blue and gold cross embroidered on the chest, along with red and blue sashes and black pointy hats. A group of the strongest Nazarenos carried an enormous relic into the church, and the crowd dispersed as people followed the procession inside.
My husband and I stood there, not fully understanding what we had just seen. Back at our hotel, we showed our pictures to the concierge, who recognized the robes and identified them as the trademark of The Brotherhood of Gypsies. We had been in the presence of gypsies and had witnessed an act of religious devotion that dates back to medieval times. Sometimes the best discoveries are those you just happen to stumble across.
What Does It Mean?
These Holy Week processions of Semana Santa take place in the week leading up to Easter. Holy Week rites date back to the 14th century and are rooted in storytelling. They were devised in medieval times to help the common man understand the crucifixion of Christ. For North Americans, the traditional garb can be somewhat disconcerting, as it resembles the attire of the U.S. white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan, but the purpose of the robes is to conceal the identity of those who participate. In days past, sinners would perform penance by carrying the heavy statues and relics barefoot through the cobblestone streets, and as such, it was important that participants not be recognized.
Semana Santa de Sevilla
Easter week celebrations are very important throughout Spain, but the processions in Seville are arguably the most spectacular in the world. There are more than 60 processions, and some 50,000 people parade through the city dressed in traditional robes and carrying elaborate religious relics. As many as 1 million visitors travel from across the country and around the world to see the spectacle and experience Semana Santa de Sevilla.
4 Tips for Experiencing Semana Santa de Sevilla
- Semana Santa will take place from March 20 to 27, 2016. The actual route and times of processions are different every year and are decided at a special meeting 14 days before Palm Sunday. The best way to view processions is to watch them as they leave or enter churches or cathedrals.
- Know some basic lingo. “Semana Santa” means “Holy Week,” and “pasos” is the local name for the processions. The pasos are conducted by “hermandades,” or brotherhoods. The men carrying the heavy religious statues are known as “costaleros,” and the people in the pointy hats are called “Nazarenos.”
- Be familiar with some basic rules of etiquette. People wait on the streets for hours to see the pasos, so be sure not to cut in front of someone that was there before you. Be respectful — even if you aren’t religious. The pasos are meant to be viewed in silence, and one should never touch the robes of the Nazarenos as they pass. Most locals dress up to watch the pasos, so it’s a good idea to wear nicer attire.
- Try some of the typical Semana Santa fare, “Torrijas” is a dish similar to French toast made of honey, eggs and white wine, and you will find it in both homes and restaurants in the weeks leading up to Easter.