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.
Finally, 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.
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.