Thurifer travels to Spain

Holy Week in Spain puts our tepid Catholicism (Roman and Anglo) into perspective. During Holy Week in Malaga, the streets are refulgent with the sweet savour of incense, perfumed with the intoxicatingly powerful scent of thousands of lilies: a heady experience. It hits you with almost physical force. The pavements and roads are covered in molten wax from thousands of candles carried during the week. Sounds also heighten the emotional engagement. The steady beat of drums accompany the funereal processions as they slowly make their way through the city. Shrill, piercing trumpets punctuate the air. Shouts, cheers and applause express the devotions of the spectators as well as the periods of intense silence when quiet overcomes the large crowds. The procession of each confraternity sees hundreds of people, all of similar height, swaying in unison as they carry the two thrones (tronos), several tons in weight, upon which are images from the Passion of the Lord and of his Dolorous Mother, her face stricken in grief. For five hundred years these scenes have been enacted.

The Almeida in Malaga is a broad avenue with two parallel approach roads. The processions come down one side and turn into the Almeida. Monday saw two of the most moving experiences of the week. In the student procession, as the image of Our Lord made its stately way along the Almeida, that of Our Lady was carried down the approach road. As they came side by side both statues were slowly, agonisingly turned to face one another: a manoeuvre which took ten minutes. When completed the students bearing Our Lord lowered the statue to bow to his Virgin Mother. All was beautifully accomplished while the students sang ‘Gaudeamus Igitur.’ Drums beat, the shrill trumpets pierced the night and the procession moved on.

A few hours later the procession of the gitanes moved slowly along the road to the viewing platform of civic and ecclesial dignitaries. By chance the image of Our Lord stopped directly in front of me while the bearers rested. Almost immediately, from a balcony above, a pure solo soprano silenced the already hushed crowd. For a few spine-tingling moments time stood still as the sieta (a passionate ululation akin to Irish keening), a paean of praise and lamentation to Christ and his mother, rose and fell, swooped and soared in controlled abandon. At its conclusion a profound silence fell before the crowd broke into ecstatic applause, and the hairs on my neck prickled.

All the processions are impressive and with their own particularities. One of the largest is the Royal Archbrotherhood of Our Lady of Hope (Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza). There are some 5,000 members, of whom some 600 carry the tronos and process as penitents, hooded and cloaked, some barefooted and some wearing blindfolds as an additional act of contrition. The most popular procession attracts enormous crowds on Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum Sacrum, from the Royal Congregation of Mena. This is the military confraternity and has contingents from the Spanish army and navy. They march singing their military anthem and at several points those carrying the tronos thrust it in the air and loudly declare their loyalty to the Virgin Mother. At the several stations there are displays of intricate, swift and complex arms drills. Rifles are twirled and twisted, thrown and caught with immense skill and concentration.

Although the Almeida and the Tribunal are the principal places to see the processions, one of the real excitements is to witness the processions making their way slowly and deliberately through the narrow side streets. Here you see at close quarters the size of the tronos, the strain of the bearers, hear the orders of the officials, and, with the press of the crowd, feel part of the whole experience rather than a foreign observer. The other extraordinary experience is to see the tronos enter the cathedral, be welcomed by one of the canons, process around the apse and emerge into the narrow calle where a sharp right turn has to be executed to continue the procession. This is done inch by inch, swaying from side to side, with hardly any room for error. Warm applause invariably greeted its successful outcome.

The liturgies in the cathedral were all seemly in their execution, although they may not have satisfied the strictest rubricist. The most impressive was the Stations of the Cross. The canons and bishop processed around the cathedral, with the crucified borne by members of a confraternity and followed by the officials in formal dress: women with mantillas, men in morning coats. It was accompanied by a fine, operatic setting of the Stabat Mater by the cathedral’s Master of the Music, with choir, soloists and orchestra.

Easter Day was, oddly, rather anti-climatic. Not least because our attendance at the Vigil had to be curtailed after hearing the Exsultet (sung by a nun: as my friend commented ‘a nun who once could sing’) and the Gloria, as we had to catch the last train. We missed it. We had consulted the Holy Week timetable but had not realised that Holy Saturday is not part of Holy Week as far at the Malaga transport system is concerned. After a few minutes of panic contemplating a night on a park bench, common sense prevailed and we found a taxi. That was the only glitch in a splendid and moving week. Memorable.