The Hidden Politics of Holy Week in Spain

So here we are back in Spain after a couple of months (February and March) back in the States.

You might remember that Peggy and I had come here last September to be with the family of our daughter and son-in-law. They had decided to spend the entire school year here in Granada so that their five children (aged 14 to 4) might learn Spanish while broadening their cultural horizons in Europe.

Peggy and I arrived back here yesterday afternoon on a thankfully uneventful seven-hour Delta Airlines flight from New York’s JFK airport. We landed in a rather frigid Madrid and then took a six-hour bus trip from Spain’s capital city to Granada.

There we’re living in the Albaycin neighborhood alongside a mosque within sight of the famous Alhambra, the Moorish walled city built in the 13th century. It’s such a privilege to be here absorbing the rich Spanish culture highlighted in our neighborhood five times a day by Islamic calls to prayer from a minaret right next to our rented apartment.

Our return coincides with Holy Week and the Spanish custom of elaborate processions ostensibly recalling the events of that first Holy Week when the Prophet from Nazareth celebrated his Last Supper with his disciples, was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, was tortured, and crucified by the Romans, and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.

The events however are highly political in both the historical and contemporary senses that might largely escape the casual tourist. In that hidden sense, they are marches against Spain’s original and actual enemies and those of its ideological mentor, the Catholic Church.

Let me show you what I mean.

Holy Week Processions

The processions are spectacular. In Granada they wend their way down the Gran Via Colon, past the city’s monstrous cathedral, and passing before the giant statue depicting the “Reyes Catholicos” (Catholic kings) Ferdinand and Isabella (1474-1504) giving permission to Christopher Columbus to embark on his world-changing voyage.  

The processions feature huge golden floats burdened with dozens of enormous flaming candles and centralizing much larger-than-life statues of a regal, purple-clad Virgin-in-mourning, or of crucified and tortured Savior. Clerical types (including women) walk behind the statues dressed in cassocks and surplices and carrying candles, crucifixes, and thuribles that fill the air with fragrant incense.

Each float is borne aloft by perhaps 30 unseen men whose humble identity is concealed by brocaded veils beneath which they perform their shared demonstration of macho strength and endurance. From time to time along the parade route, the anonymous bearers stop, fall to their knees. Then suddenly they arise as a single body to the delight and applause of the adoring crowds.

Others in the procession include participants whose costumes inevitably remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. However, their pointed hats, veiled faces, and white or red robes are really signs of penitence by sinners admitting their guilt, but mercifully shielding their identities.

Other processors include black-clad gypsy women carrying long, lit candles in their right hands just below their waists.

All of this is accompanied by band after band of drummers, trumpeters, trombonists, and tuba players. They march to deafening rhythmic beats. Here and there, they stop to play mournful dirges in honor of the suffering Jesus.

Hidden Meanings

All of this is quite beautiful and quaint – that is until you analyze what’s really happening in terms of Spain’s history that includes:

·       The emergence of the nation-state under Ferdinand and Isabella.

·        Their project’s unprecedented political goal, viz., the erasure of diverse Andalusian cultures [including Jews, Visigoth Christians, Muslims, Gitanos, pagan naturalists, (think “witches”], and emerging Protestants of various “heretical” descriptions].

·       To that end, the institution of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834)

·       Its infamous persecution of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, gypsies, witches, and “heretics” of all sorts  

·       The folding of all those identities into a single nationalty called “Spaniard,” which had never till then existed.

·       Our contemporary loss of Christian faith and its replacement with the worship of capitalism and its God called “Market.”

In the light of those realities, think about the processional elements earlier described. With their 15th-century historical context in mind:

·       The statue of the regally clad virgin Mary becomes an image celebrating Queen Isabella whose royal robes have nothing to do with the decidedly non-royal mother of the poor construction worker from Nazareth.

·       Those wearing those pointed hats reminiscent of the Klan become persecuted “heretics” wearing “dunce caps” (so named by those ridiculing the 13th century Scottish mystic, John Duns Scotus).

·       The statues depicting the batterers and humiliators of the suffering Jesus become the Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella and whom Christian tradition blamed as “God killers” instead of Jesus’ real assassin, the Roman Empire.

·       As well, Jesus’ torturers include the dunce heretics par excellence, viz., the hated Moors.

·       The black clad women carrying long lighted candles just below their waists become the witches persecuted by the Inquisition. The candles are phallic symbols of their true purpose in life – viz., giving sexual pleasure to men.

·       The processions’ martial war drums become warnings to the enemies of the Reyes Catholicos (again, Jews, Muslims, heretics, witches, gypsies) to be afraid – very afraid. The crown’s Catholic inquisitors will kill you.

·       The unseen statue bearers become the oppressed artisans and workers who have always borne the burden of supporting royalties and church hierarchies of all types.

·       The secular crowds jamming the Gran Via Colon are believers now transformed into mere “Tourists” who represent for Spain a huge influx of cash in service of the only God that matters, the only we’re left with – Capitalism and Market.


When you think about it, Lent and its Easter conclusion represent the ongoing spiritual struggle that involves us all. The season is bookended by Mardi Gras and Holy Week both of which feature political marches masquerading as parades and processions.

Mardi Gras celebrates the human drive towards happiness and community fulfillment – both of which were embodied in that Nazareth construction worker whose first recorded miracle changed gallons upon gallons of water into the finest of wines. Shrove Tuesday’s parades are joyful, drunken, and highly sexualized. Think of those images of dancers from Brazil. Recall Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz.

Happiness, joy, fun.

The second of Lent’s bookends is more somber. It’s what I’ve been describing here – the so-called sublimation of all that’s human and joyful into what’s dark, threatening, serious, churchy, and oppressive. And it’s all performed in the name of religion that contradicts that spirit of water changed to wine at a young couple’s wedding.

Why the change?

The answer’s contained in the politics of it all – then and now. More than anything, Spain’s Holy Week processions are reactionary protests intended to obscure and deny the enriching diversity of human experience. The processions are monuments against variety in national identity, in beliefs, in spiritualities, and cultures. They celebrate the elite. They militate against Jews, Muslims, gypsies, witches, Protestants, workers, artisans, and heretics of all sorts. Their musical background is martial and warlike.  

To the discerning eye, Spain’s Holy Week events are also stark reminders of contemporary culture’s inheritance of Inquisitional intolerance.  Like Ferdinand and Isabella, capitalism and its Market God would flatten out the differences that make us human. No variety called socialism, communism, anarchism, or e.g., China’s “whole process people’s democracy” is permitted. Everyone must conform to the nation-state’s sameness.

When you think about it, that syndrome transforms the crucified and risen Jesus into the patron of oppression.

What a distortion!

Its realization alone might be enough to rescue his message: It’s spring. It’s Easter. Celebrate life, not death. The nation-state is a fraud.    

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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