Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Tears of Joy for Saints: Semana Santa in Madrid



You either love or hate processions. There is no apathy when it comes to witnessing saints processing through the streets. I, personally, am all about processions. I am enchanted by the way the pasos (which are the platforms on which the saints sit) sway through the streets, mingled with the lingering incense and music floating in the air. I also am enthralled by the exuberant response to these images by the other participants, which helps me to imagine the emotional response felt during the processions that I study in texts. Although I know that you cannot transpose what I see or feel during a contemporary procession, I believe that witnessing these events has helped me to better understand the complex multisensory theatrical productions that are Spanish religious processions. Therefore, I will not ever miss an opportunity to witness a procession in person.

Madrid, being the capital, makes it a little more cumbersome to find and watch processions. This is because there is no one overarching procession in which all of the saints (and confraternities or parishes) participate, but rather a plethora of processions organized individually. According to the guide book for Semana Santa 2016 there were in downtown Madrid at least 5 different processions with the majority all starting at 7pm. Since a few overlapped in the same district of La Latina, I headed straight there to see what I could find. Around 6 pm I strolled into the Colegiata, where I saw a steady stream of people coming out of the church. I just happened to be standing next to the barricades, when the police started to clear the street and so I erroneously believed the procession was about to commence. We in fact had another two hours to wait until Jesus of the Cross would come out, and even longer, until the famed Magdalena made her appearance. Nonethess, I was fortunate in having very interesting companions on either side of me, which made the two hours fly by. To my left was a couple who live in the outskirts of Madrid, Rosa y Edu, and had traveled for the first time to see the Magdalena to whom had answered their family’s prayers this year, behind them was a family of veteran processional attendees, who knew exactly where to stand for each one and generously shared all of their information, and to my right was a couple whose son was a costalera (one of the many carriers of the virgin), who provided me with all of the technical ins and outs of moving a paso.



IMG_0677IMG_0680IMG_0687IMG_0695Finally, the band began to play solemn music and the crowd went silent. A statue of Crist on a gilded platform emerged and all started to shout in a call and echo form “CHRISTO. VIVA. CHRISTO. VIVA. CHRISTO. VIVA. VIVA.VIVA”. People were rather excited that he had arrived into the streets, which only heightened the anticipation for the titular saint. The processions move very slowly because the pasos are extremely heavy. Costaleras begin practicing as early as January, every Saturday, by carrying the same weight as the paso the entire route of the procession. A typical procession can last five hours and so they take turns between two groups of costaleras, so that not one group is under the paso for more than an hour (all of this information was given to me by the mother of the costalera). The movement also is not direct from point a to b, but rather the pasos sway as they take two steps left one forward, two right one forward, which also hinders rapid progress. There is also another reason why they do not want to rush through the streets, which has nothing to do with the weight of the paso, which is that they want to provide an encounter with the saint in the streets for all of the spectators, which implies that the saint must be present long enough for everyone to have a good look. From watching the Christ paso, I quickly learned that I was in a prime position for watching and was almost able to touch both pasos as they turned onto the street.IMG_0703IMG_0719IMG_0721IMG_0728

After Christ was completely out of view, the band began to play once again, this time announcing the presence of the Magdalena. The front of her paso was ethereally lit, visually proclaiming her arrival. The crowd went crazy upon seeing her. People to my left and right began to cry tears of joys, clamoring a version of the first call and echo “MAGDALENA. GUAPA. MAGDALENA. GUAPA. MAGDALENA. GUAPA. GUAPA. GUAPA.” I have tried to upload a video of her coming out of the church portal, but it doesn’t seem to work (I am rather technologically challenged so it is probably my fault), but email me if you would like to have access to the video. Her side to side movement was even more pronounced by the swaying of the canopy draped over her head. When she had finally turned the corner and began moving the barricades were removed and people began to process with her throughout the streets.


According to our friends, Magdalena and the Christ Child would meet for the first time in a corner nearby and so Rosa, Edu and I bought some potato chips and water and waited where our friends told us we would have the best view. By 10:30 everything was in motion but Christ was for some reason not coming down the hill, we were pretty cold and tired and so we decided to walk up the hill to the Plaza Mayor and meet him where he was. And thus ended my first experience with Madrid’s processions.


Given my experience the night before, I decided that I did in fact need to be early to the procession at Las Descalzas Reales. This procession dates back to the 16th century and formed an essential part of the collective Corpus Christi celebration in Madrid. This procession is important because the sculpture of Cristo Yacente is carried throughout the cloister. This statue received a Papal Bull in the 16th century to be allowed to carry the host, even though it is Good Friday (when no hosts should be displayed in custodians), which forms the basis of its devotion.

I knew that there was still access to the procession; however, I could not find any information online, or by visiting the tourist offices about when it would begin. Therefore, I went as early as 2 pm to the convent to see if I could learn anything new. When I arrived the Church was open for visitors, as was the door to the secular cloister and so I walked around a few times, snapping photos of the various tapestries on display. The majority form part of the donation of Isabel Clara Eugenia, titled the Triumph of the Eucharist. These same tapestries formed part of the celebration in the Early Modern era, dating from their incorporation in the monastery treasury. (They were also recently on display in both the Prado and the Getty as part of the exhibition: Spectacular Rubens).


Upon talking with a few guards I learned that Mass was to be held at 5 pm and then would lead directly to the procession within the secular cloister. Both guards warned me that many people wanted to visit but that there was not room for everyone, and so, I decided that I needed to be inside the church by 3:30 at the latest. When I entered the church the nuns were performing a responsorial psalm, whose communal response was rather muddled due to the lack of unison. It reminded me of the importance the nuns of my manuscript stress on being in perfect timing so as to be well understood.

As I sat in my pew towards the middle of the church I contemplated the diverse reasons that my companions and I found ourselves in this temple. For me I am here purely out of academic curiosity, or at least that is what I tell myself. I do not share the fervent emotion of my companions, and regardless of how beautiful the ceremony, I am not moved to tears. Yet I am comforted by seeing so many people moved to such extremes, which is a feeling I cannot identify. Quickly the Church began to fill up and I was more than thankful that I had come early to stake out my seat.


Per usual, I made friends with the elderly woman who came to sit next to me. Her name was María and I jokingly told her that I had saved the seat particularly for her. We then got to talking and she attends this service every year in order to be close to the splendor of the church. Later she admitted that some years there are so many participants that she could not enter the cloister and watch the statue process. This year we had a little luck, and we met up with three of her friends in the third corner of the cloister – a prime spot for watching the procession.

Since this portion of the convent is outside of the cloister perimeter the nuns do not process with their statue. Instead, they are present through the statue, for all participants know that it belongs to them, and also by their voices as they sing the chants of the procession. Therefore, they are present, but not seen. This procession was in fact rather quick and finished within half an hour, with the majority of the time spent in a commemoration speech in the church. Although it was very different than I imagined, it still was an incredible moment of watching how a tradition that I read about in manuscripts has survived to present day.



I was not planning on visiting any other processions that afternoon, but as I left the convent I came upon Berta and a few of her friends and as we walked towards a spot to get drinks, happened to come across our first procession of the night. Berta was rather aghast that they were pulling the sculpture instead of carrying it. But thankfully, we happened across another procession of the Virgin (Still not sure which one) whose woeful music and swaying body incorporated precisely what she believed a procession should be. Thus concluded, my processional attendance in Madrid, surrounded by friends, new and old, watching the saints continue to march onwards.



A Little Tourism in Madrid


Since I decided to stay in Madrid and keep training, I thought I would celebrate by being a tourist in my own city.

I started off my five days of celebrations with a trip to the Biblioteca Nacional España, not in order to study like I do most days, but rather to see the two temporary exhibits that they have currently on display. Most days when I walk into the library and am in a rush to consult a specific book, and althougth colored posters are enticing, I have always put off the visit to the temporary exhibits, saying Tomorrow I will have more time…  Now that I have the “Time” I decided, that the first order of buisness was to visit the Library of Garcilasco de la Vega.

Garcilaso was a mestizo author wrote the both the History of Florida and the Royal Commentaries of the Inca in the early 17th century. He was an avid reader, as the references in both of his works attest, and collected one of the most extensive libraries (188 entries) of his time. Therefore, the exhibition sought to shed light on his diverse interests by displaying the many different sources of his studies, from dictionaries and maps to sculptures and other precious objects. Through the various pieces, the museum was able to capture an image of the mestizo humanist, giving context to one of the most important seventeenth century chroniclers of the Spanish occupation of Peru.


Marco Vitruvio Polión, De arquitectura, dividido en diez libros, traducido de Latín en Castellano por Miguel de Urrea, 1582.


Antonio Ricardo, Arte y vocabulario en la lengua general del Perú llamada Quichua, y en la lengua Española. El más copioso y elegante que hasta ahora se ha impreso, 1586.


Double Vase depicting two people dancing, Chimú-Inca Peru, 1000-1470.

The other exhibition, dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, objectively speaking had more success than the mestizo writer, given that there were at least twofold more people in this exhibition hall than the other. Part of this might have been my timing, but I do believe that this is more interest in general, for the Spanish author. Cervantes is best known for his The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, which was written while he was imprisoned in Algiers. He, personally, believed that his last novel, and The works of Persiles and Sigismunda was his best and would propel him to eternal fame, not his story of the errant knight from La Mancha. However, one cannot always pick one’s fame. So ubiquitous in national culture are the characters of Don Quixote, that it is understandable why so many people preferred to visit this display.

The aim of the exhibit was to demystify the figure of Cervantes, by exploring three different directions: first, by understanding Cervantes as a man of his time, who worked as a soldier which allowed him to travel across most of the known world, constantly in search of the “merced” from the Spanish Monarchy, whether for his feats on the battlefield or his writings; secondly, by focusing on the representation, both pictorially and literarily; and finally, by examining the construction of civic monuments to Cervantes in various parts of Spain, particularly the fountain of Philip II in the Plaza de España in Madrid.


Letter written by Cervantes


Anonymous 17th century portrait of Miguel de Cervantes


Antonio Muñoz Degraín, Cervantes writing the dedication of his work to the Count of Lemos, 1916


Salvador Dalí, Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes, 1965.

With so many people present in the dim lit rooms, it was rather hard to get close and read the various books and pamphlets that were on display. However, through the three portions a clearer picture of the “prince of wits” emerged.

The following morning I headed off to see a different type of collection at the Fundación Banco Santander. Although it was located far outside the city, a friend highly recommended the exhibit of “Looking at the World around You. Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums”. I set off with high hopes after seeing the online preview of the display (seen here). Unfortunately for me, this online preview was all that I was able to see, given that the exhibition was closed on Thursday for Holidays (which is not mentioned anywhere online…). The kicker was that I was dying to use to restroom after almost two hours on the metro. When I asked the clerk if I could use his restroom, he replied that for security reasons I could not. The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere and there was not a restaurant or public building in sight. When I arrived at the train stop, I saw that I had another thiry minutes before the train arrived. I honestly thought about popping a squat somewhere in one of the bushes, but there were security cameras everywhere and I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down, literally. And so I waited. As I boarded the train, I asked the young couple next to me if there was a restaurant at final stop where I could use a restroom and they both told me no, but maybe I could try the McDonald’s, which was found three stops before the end. Looking back I do not think that I would have made it to the final stop, seeing as I ran out of the train at the McDonald’s stop. After relieving myself, I realized that if I were to take another train, I would have to wait at least 30 minutes, and so I decided it would be faster to walk the rest of the route. The good news, is that I learned how to use the light metro; however, I do not think that I will be making another trip out to the center anytime soon.

As I headed back into the city, Hernán invited me to have lunch with him and we spent the sunny afternoon eating out on the patio of one Madrid’s few boulevards. It was a delightful meal, followed by a visit to the Mapfre photography collection of Julia Margaret Cameron, which was displayed nearby. It was incredible to see her transformation as an artist and her use of family members as historical biblical models. As Hernán astutely mentioned, her calligraphy clearly demonstrated her confidence and exuberant personality, which also translated into the photographs, especially those which portrayed the Virgin.


After lunch, I headed to the district of La Latina to witness my first procession in Madrid. For the sake of this post, I will dedicate the following post specifically to the many processions I attended.

Interspersed with my attendance at processions, I gave a walking tour of Madrid that helped me trace the entire city and talk about my favorite historical figures. I was also able to spend Sunday morning with a few friends perusing the antiques of the Rastro and eating tapas in one of my favorite traditional bars. All in all, I would say that I successfully enjoyed my week in Madrid as a tourist! Although I am back to regular life, it’s hard to forget how fortunate I am to live in such a lively, vibrant city.

Spanish Olympic Trials


This Photo is taken from the Offical Rfen page

Last week Anne Mills competed in her last Spanish National Meet in Sabadell, Spain. Although everyone on pool deck – from fellow athletes, coaches to the staff running the ready room – calls me Kate, according to the Spanish Announcers I am Anne (pronounced an-nae) Mills Katherine. Thankfully, only in Madrid do they announce the Katherine at the end.

This meet was the Olympic Trials for the Spanish National team, and there were many butterflies on the pool deck before the first session began. Unlike our Olympic Trials, where the object of the game is to win your event, in Spain the goal is to get a certain cut, called a “mínima”. Therefore, someone could potentially win an event, and even break the National Record, and not accomplish the time standard set by the federation, which has in fact happened. Each federation has their specific way of testing how athletes compete under pressure. Having only truly competed in one system, I am not sure if I can state whether one system is better than the other. The only thing that I know is that in order to make it on any national team, the swimmer must overcome a significant amount of pressure to compete well. In the end, those circumstances are what prepare the swimmers to excel in international competition. Twelve Spaniards punched their tickets to Rio (three of whom are teammates) and a few others will have another shot in May (see here for a list of results).

Although my ticket to the Games in Rio was not on the line during this competition, I too felt the pressure of the meet. I wanted to go as fast as possible to put myself in a good position for Omaha, and also, if I am honest, wanted verifiable proof of the hard work we have put in this year. I did go a few season best times and was able to swim decently well, but not quite as fast as I wanted. I learned a lot about myself and had an amazing talk with Taja to put everything in perspective and am looking forward to the next few steps in our preparation for June. It is rather strange to think that I will not be at the next Spanish National meet. It is even harder to think that I will not be seeing all of my friends on a regular basis, but I know that I will be coming back to Spain, and that we will see one another again, perhaps next with a little less chlorine, and so it is not an “adios”, but rather an “hasta luego”.


The Convents of Henry IV


Almost everyone has heard of Isabel, the Catholic monarch who with her husband Fernando united Spain under one monarchy, drove the heretics (Jews and Muslims) out of Spain, and sent Columbus to the New World. Less universally known is her older brother Henry IV. However, Henry’s history provides the lynchpin for how Isabel gained power of the Castilian crown.

Henry was crowned King of Castile in a tumultuous time. The mid 15th century Castile found itself in the midst of civil strife with different ducal powers vying for power and a weak king who could not unite them all under his rule. To make matters worse, he did not have a heir because of supposed impotency. His first daughter Juana la Beltrana, was given her last name due to the rumor that her father was actually the King’s favorite Beltrán de La Cueva. Given the mounting evidence against the fact that the Queen had been unfaithful, a particularly the damning incident where she became pregnant by a bishop’s nephew, Juana was legally proclaimed to be illegitimate. Whether this entire history is accurate is hard to prove; records and histories were both written and revised throughout Isabel’s reign. Since Isabel was granted the throne by her brother after his death, it was of utmost importance that she and her historians maintain that she rightfully received the throne. By the time we reach the modern age, she and Ferdinand had already become legendary myths, proving the legitimacy and greatness of the Spanish kingdom.

As fascinating as this story is, at this point, you may be wondering why I am going into so much detail about this particular facet of Spanish History. Unbeknownst to us, Henry IV and his succession was the common unifying thread of our visit to Segovia last weekend. A professor mentioned that before I return to the US I should try to visit in person as many convents as possible and on the top of the list was the Monasterio de San Antonio Real in Segovia. And so, I asked two friends from my masters, Ana and Carlos, to travel with me to Segovia to visit the convent and enjoy the day in the city.


San Antonio Real was only open in the morning for visits; and therefore, we set out early in the morning by train. When we arrived in Segovia it was blanketed in a thin layer of snow, which would unfortunately melt throughout the day and turn into slush. Using the Roman Aqueduct, the main attraction of Segovia, as our guide, we walked along to its beginning where we found the monastery.


Mass had just finished by the time we arrived and the nuns were praying with a few parishioners in their choir. Since the Host would be on display throughout the day, one of the nuns would stay in the choir praying during its public demonstration. Walking through the church we arrived at the cloister of the Franciscan nuns. Henry IV founded the convent in 1455, which was originally destined to be a recreational palace. It was transformed into a monastery in 1468. Part of the royal foundation included the construction of a pantheon where Henry desired to be buried, which was never fully finished nor is it included in the tour of the convent.


Although the convent originally consisted of many diverse spaces, throughout the years many of the extra spaces have been annexed or converted to other uses. For example, the vicars’ cloister is currently a hotel and restaurant. Yet the main cloister and its patio have remained intact and allow a glimpse of the sumptuous religious life offered to these nuns. The ceilings made of interlocking polychromed wood highlight the spirit of the era. These are some of the few polychromed ceilings in Spain that remain in their original location and have not suffered the effects of war (bombs) or fire.

Of interest many of the walls are currently white, without “extra” decoration. Given the brilliance of the ceilings, the decoration of the refectory, and the fact that it was a royal convent inhabited by the daughters of the elite Segovians, I have a hard time believing that these walls were always so white. There are many transformations that occur within convent’s decorations, especially when the convent still has active members. Each generation of nuns transform small details of the space in order to suit their current needs. Our guide kept reiterating that it was a “simple” convent, but it would be remiss to equate their religious vows of the Order of Saint Clare with its decoration style. The high quality pieces of art, such as the moveable retables from Utrecht, and multiple relics hint that it was anything but a “simple” convent. However, without diving into the convent’s archive, this is just my speculation.

I have included below a few photos that give a global picture of our visit to the Monasterio San Antonio Real. There are examples of the distinct types of chapels that are found, along with the many ornate devotional objects housed within the chapels.


The original Sacristy 


Detail of the ceiling to the Sacristy 



The Door that leads to the Dormitory


A detail of  a Niño Jesús sculpture and his clothing


The Cloister Patio


One of the cloister’s chapels filled with many devotional objects


Corridor of the Cloister




Detail of the mural decortaions (Refectory)


Pulpit from where the Saint’s lives were read


Recreational Room 


Chapter Room 


Sculptures in the Chapter Room 


Ceiling of the Chapter Room 


Another view of the Ceiling of the Chapter Room

The sumptuous and intricate decoration of the cloister is also reflected in the embellishments found in this small church. Supposedly the entire ceiling was originally made out of interlocking pieces of gilded wood, which now only adorns the chancel. The altarpiece was commissioned during the Baroque period, with its golden columns and ostentatious design reflecting the aims of the period. Along the side wall in the nave of the church is a sculptural representation of Christ on the Hill of Golgatha. From the back of the church, the nuns have a privileged view of all of the main events that occur, either in the lower choir or the upper one, depending upon the event. Throughout the early modern period the two choirs would have demarcated the status of each nun, either a black or white veil, with the more prestigious nuns given the privilege of praying in the upper choir. However, due to age and the size of the community, they now pray together in the lower choir for better accessibility.




Christ on the Hill of Golgatha 


View of the nave from the main Altar


Detail of the Lower Choir

After touring the convent, we headed back out into the blustery Segovian streets. We stopped for a coffee in order to orientate ourselves before heading any further. We decided that since the other convents that we wanted to see, those that had seemed appealing online, were on the other side of the city outside the medieval wall, that we would stroll through the city center and look for a place to have lunch and then see the other sites later in the afternoon. Below are a few photos from our stroll.


Church of San Miguel with the view of the Alcázar Palace in the Background


The Cathedral 

We looked at about a dozen different restaurants, comparing their menus and tripadvisor ratings to decide where to eat. Segovia is known for their cochinillo, which I wrote about here when Andrew and I visited.

We were looking for a holistic meal, and finally stumbled upon the Convento de Minimos. The nave of the convent church has been repurposed to serve as the restaurant’s dinning room. The modern art that fills the walls serves to fully break with its religious past. That being said, it felt fitting that in a trip where we were primarily visiting convents, we ate in one as well. The food was absolutely delicious and we left extraordinarily full and satisfied.


Restaurant Convento de Minimos

From here we headed over to see the Alcázar palace, which is one of the most frequented sites in all of Spain, according to our tour guide at the Monastery San Antonio Real. We did not enter into the palace, which all of us have seen many times, but rather enjoyed the expansive views from its plaza.


Plaza of the Palace


Another view from the plaza of the palace


Ana in the plaza of the Palace

We then descended the “mountain” and crossed the river to gain access to the Monastery of Santa María Parral. The monastery was also founded by Henry IV in 1454. The monks of Saint Jerome resided in the convent until the desamoritzation carried out in the 19th century when many religious communities lost both their land and monastic complexes. In 1925 the Hieronymus Order was granted the right to re-establish a community in the monastery.


Carlos enjoying what was left of the snow


The view of Segovia from the other side of the river


The climb to Monasterio Santa María Parral 


Monasterio de Santa María Parral

Unfortunately, we slightly miscalculated our trajectory and missed the only tour of the day to the interior cloister. We were able to access two parts of the cloister: the first which was is a small courtyard with a pond overlooking the palace; the second was the first interior patio, which had many different lion shaped fountains. The lion is one of the main attributes of Saint Jerome, which explains this choice in decoration. We were extremely fortunate that the porter decided to give us a brief tour of the main church.


Ana and Carlos in front of the pool 


The view across the pool to the Palace


A lion head fountain

The main church is filled with many different tombstones, either lining the walls, or placed on the floors commemorating all of the wealthy benefactors who donated to the church. The two patrons of the church Juan Pacheco, camarero mayor to Henry IV, and his wife are placed on either side of the main altarpiece eternally praying to Virgin and Child. Prior to Henry’s death, Juan desired to augment the fame of his church by providing the space for the burial of the king. Much discussion arose, as many of the Segovian nobles did not favor the king and did not want him in the church. In the end, according to our guide, the roads were far too dangerous, filled with snow and ice, as is common in winter months and they chose to bury the king in Madrid, where he died, alongside his mother, and did not bring him to either Segovian monastery.


The main altarpiece


The many tombstones of the Nave of the Church


Part of the Altar decoration 


The tomb of Juan Pacheco


The Tomb of his wife 

Despite all of his own efforts, and those of the members of his court, Henry IV was never buried in Segovia. Nevertheless, he left behind two phenomenal convents. As such, his story reminds us of the desire to build commemorative structures within religious settings that became part and parcel of the Spanish Monarchy, and the lack of control that monarchs had over their final earthly destination.