In Granada late on Good Friday I watched a paso or float of the Mater Dolorosa making its ponderous way towards the cathedral. The life-size statue was dressed in a black and silver robe. She was swaying gently from side to side and looked like a beautiful beetle with the many legs of the men carrying her (the cuadrilla) sticking out from the black curtain underneath her. Their load was so heavy that they had to stop and swap out for a fresh crew every few hundred metres. The float was accompanied by a marching band, candle bearers, incense-bearers, the women wearing mantillas and black lace, the teenagers in chorister’s robes. Around the float were the nazarenos or penitentes who wear caperuzas – tall, tapering hooded masks – and often carry wooden crosses. The similarity to Klu Klux Klan garb is coincidental; the nazarenos’ hoods point symbolically towards the heavens.
The processions take place in cities across Spain throughout Holy Week; every cofradía (confraternity) carries its icon through the streets. There are records of cofradías from the 15th-century, but the rite is much older than that. The Peregrinatio Etheriae, a fourth-century account by a woman from Galicia of her pilgrimage to the Middle East, describes a theatrical Easter procession in Jerusalem. The membrane between theatre and liturgy has always been permeable; non-classical drama in the Christian West grew out of the Easter liturgy. ‘Quem quaeritis?’ (‘Whom do you seek?’) 10th-century congregations would ask on Easter Sunday, in a dramatic re-enactment of the encounter between the angel and Mary Magdalen at Christ’s empty tomb.
People are drawn to the Holy Week processions for many reasons: faith, social occasion, the costumes. (There is a derogatory word, capirotero, for nazarenos who only take part for the fun of dressing up.) There’s often a carnival atmosphere. Rounding a corner in Granada’s small medieval streets, you smell the incense before the sounds of rippling applause and music reach you. The crowds that line the streets snap the processions on their smartphones. As the Virgin passes they shout: ‘Guapa! Guapa!’ (‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’) Two years ago I watched children running from candle to candle during a break in a procession while a new cuadrilla swapped in. They were collecting the dripping wax into balls. A man went up to one of the candle-bearers, pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and disappeared into the crowd.
Granada’s most famous procession is the one from the parish of San Pedro y San Pablo. It begins at midnight as Maundy Thursday turns into Good Friday. Liturgical time - the alternative temporal structure of the liturgical year - takes over, and binds the penitents in the silent procession to the supposed moment of the crucifixion. The nazarenos wear hoods and walk with chained feet. Every street light and house light on the route is extinguished. The darkened roads are lined with a silent crush of people. There is no music, no cheering – only the beat of a single drum.