Semana Santa 2018

A bit late with this, as Seville’s annual religious extravaganza finished ten days ago, but better late than never.

For those who don’t know, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is one of the world’s most important religious festivals, and the celebrations in Seville are probably the biggest and most fervent in Spain, drawing visitors from all over the country and from abroad.

During the course of the week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, more than forty processions make their way from their home churches and along the sacred way to be blessed in the Cathedral before returning home, some of them taking up to 12 hours for the round trip.

Each procession consists of (usually) two “pasos”, or floats, one with a statue of the Christ, the second with the Virgin, which are carried aloft by teams of men (costaleros) concealed beneath them, that are accompanied by brass bands and the penitentes (the guys with the pointy hoods, which are worn to preserve anonymity), and even for the non religious the overall effect is quite moving, with the statues swaying above the crowds as they make their way along their assigned routes.

Although it has changed a lot over the centuries, with the modern version developing in the 19th century, the roots of the festival go back to the mediaeval guilds and “self-help” religious brotherhoods, and these have long inspired considerable devotions. Some of the statues are of great age and artistic importance, the floats ornate, guilded, and in the case of the Virgins canopied and bedecked with flowers.

Definitely worth experiencing at least once, as there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.

The Footsteps of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Seville

Entrance to Las Teresas convent
Entrance to Las Teresas convent

In the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Seville, leading up from the Plaza Santa Cruz towards the cathedral, is the little winding street of Las Teresas. If you live in Seville, or have visited as a tourist, you will certainly have walked along it. You will quite likely also have stopped in at its best-known landmark, the delightful Bar Las Teresas, with its rows of jamón Iberico hanging from the ceiling. But diverting though it is, this is not our topic for the day and reason for being here, which is across the street and a couple of doors down. Here you will find yourself in front of a truly impressive wooden door in an ornate portal set in a rather blank and forbidding wall, with just a few barred windows set high up near the roof. It’s the entrance to the Convent of San José, better known as Las Teresas after its founder Saint Theresa of Ávila.

Santa Teresa is one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent saints and theologians, a mystic, writer and reformer of the Carmelite nuns, and the current interest in her is because next year is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

She was born in 1515 in Ävila, a small town between Madrid and Salamanca most famous for its virtually intact city wall. Her grandfather had been a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith (remember that the last of the Moors had only been expelled from Granada in 1492, and Christianization of the newly created kingdom of Spain set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabela). Her father, however, had successfully integrated into the new order, and Teresa’s mother was a pious Christian who read Teresa stories from the lives of the saints as a child. After her mother died, when Teresa was 14, she developed a romanticised and sentimental obsession with the Virgin Mary and works of popular fiction about mediaeval knights.

Not long afterwards she was sent to be educated by the Augustinian nuns of Ávila, after which, now aged 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastary of the Incarnation, an order enjoined to contemplation and devotion, supposedly founded on Mt Carmel in the 12th century. It was here in the quiet of the cloister that she experienced the ecstatic religious trances for which she is most famous, and developed the mysticism which was her inspiration. At the same time she became increasingly concerned by the lax observance of the Carmelite order in Ávila, and despite some initial opposition set up a reformed Carmelite (the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites) convent in Ávila, the beginning of twenty years of reform and founding of new convents which bring us back again to the starting point of our article.

On May 26, 1575, Teresa arrived in Seville with a few nuns, for the purpose of founding a convent (her eleventh). To begin with they rented a house on Calle Zaragoza, where they stayed for ten years, but the location was never satisfactory. In those days (Seville’s Golden Age at the height of the America’s trade) Zaragoza was one of the main streets leading down to the port, a noisy place full of taverns, sailors and traders. Eventually, with the help of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), they were able to buy the property in Teresas Street which has been their home ever since. Although not open to the public, it included among its possessions the only known portrait of Teresa painted during her lifetime, and the original manuscript of her best known work, Las Moradas, the Dwellings of the Interior Castle.

Teresa herself never saw the order’s new home. In 1582 while travelling in northern Spain she was taken ill and died. By one of those strange quirks of fate or history she died on the night when the Church was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, with the removal of the dates October 5-14 that year. Teresa died either late in the evening of October 4 (Julian), or in the early hours of October 15 (Gregorian). She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, and remains one of the Catholic church’s most popular and important saints.

A Night Tour of El Salvador Church

salvador night visit (1)

If you buy an entrance ticket to Seville’s famous Cathedral, you’ll have the option of a combined ticket that also allows you into the nearby church of El Salvador, the second biggest in Seville after the Cathedral itself. Although not as grand as its big sister, it is nevertheless impressive, both from outside in the Plaza, and from inside, where one is almost surrounded by the huge, ornate shrines and altarpieces, but for me the most interesting things about it are the things that you usually can’t see. For although the present building was only completed in 1712, the site has been in use since antiquity, and beneath its floor is a “layer-cake” of the history of Seville, stretching back through the late Mediaeval period, the Grand Mosque of the Islamic period and the Visigothic church, to the time of the Romans, when the basilica, the most important public civic building in a Roman city, stood on this spot. Over the last ten years extensive restoration work in the crypts has revealed many interesting things related to that past, and I was recently fortunate enough to take part in one of a season of night tours that have given members of the general public the opportunity to learn more about this unique heritage.

The tour gathered in the patio, where you can already see the tops of the original Moorish pillars and arches, and also the old minaret, now a bell-tower, before our guide led us down into the crypts. These proved to be surprisingly un-creepy, as the renovation work had included modern lighting and air-conditioning as well as structural supports for the pillars of the church above us, and we were able to see some of the tiled floors from the mediaeval period (the floor of the present church having been built above these), preserved Roman and Arabic inscriptions, and the alcoves where many hundreds of people, often children, had been buried through the centuries. At the very lowest point we saw the buried stream that had been the source of the problems that had led to the necessity for works beneath the church.

salvador night visit (2)We then had the unusual experience of going into the chamber (the camarín) behind the seated statue of the church’s patroness, the Virgin of the Waters. This can be glimpsed from outside the church through the window where she is placed to watch the Semana Santa processions.

The final stage of the tour took us upwards, by way of one those cramped, tightly curved spiral staircases, first to the balconies inside the church, and then onto the roof. I don’t have much of a head for heights, but the view over the surrounding streets as we did a complete circuit before descending to ground level again was incredible.

All in all it was a really interesting and unusual experience, and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to do this tour not to miss it. The guided night tours (in Spanish) cost 12 euros with a minimum group of 10 people and are available until September 15th (the day tours are available year round). For more information go to the Cathedral Reservations Page.

Festival of the Virgen de Los Reyes

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – Seville is big on Virgins. And on August 15 it’s the turn of Seville’s very own Our Lady the Virgin of the Kings, the official patroness of the city.

The stories of the origins of the image, whose actual sculptor is unknown, are a mix of history and legend. According to some she was carved by the angels and after being found by Ferdinand III, accompanied him throughout the reconquest of this part of Spain from the Moors. More prosaically, it is said that the king saw her in a vision, and that the image was made on his orders. Another story is that she was a gift from Ferdinand’s cousin, Louis IX of France. Since the 16th century she has “lived” in the Royal Chapel in the Cathedral.

The celebrations officially extend from August 4 to 22, with special services in the cathedral and viewing of the Virgin, but the highlight is the triumphal procession on August 15, the day of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. The route is short, the procession leaving the cathedral by the gate in the plaza, and doing a single anti-clockwise circuit of the cathedral before entering again by the same gate. It starts early, too, at around 8am, but it’s worth missing your lie-in to go and watch.

The procession is accompanied by many local church and civic dignitaries, a brass band, the pealing of the church bells, and large crowds in the square and surrounding streets. Nowhere does religious processions better than Seville, and the procession of the city’s patron Saint is no exception.

Justina and Rufina – Two very Sevillana Saints

If you’re in, or have ever been to, Seville, you may have noticed pictures of two young ladies in mediaeval dress, surrounded by pottery and supporting a model of the Giralda tower between them. The picture is most probably a reproduction of the painting by Seville’s favourite artist, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), and the two young ladies are the Saints Justa and Rufina. Although not technically the patron saints of Seville (that honour goes to Ferdinand III, who reconquered the city from the Moors in 1248) they are considered the special protectors of the Cathedral and the Giralda, which they preserved from harm during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and are also patrons of potters and pottery sellers.

justina rufinaAccording to legend they lived in the Triana neighbourhood of Seville in the 3rd century, during Roman times, where they made fine earthenware pottery, a trade by which they supported both themselves and many of the city’s poor. However, they refused to sell what they made for use in one of the city’s pagan festivals, and had all their pots and dishes smashed by angry locals. In retaliation they smashed a statue of the Goddess Venus, and for this crime they were arrested and imprisoned by the Roman prefect Diogenianus.

Unable to persuade them to renounce their Christian faith Diogenianus had them tortured on the rack and with hooks, and then forced them to walk barefoot to the Sierra Morena (a mountain range to the north of Seville). Seeing that their resolve was still unshaken they were deprived of food and water. Justa was the first to die, and her body was thrown into a well. Diogenianus expected that the death of Justa would break Rufina’s spirit, but when it didn’t she was thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre. However, even the lions refused to co-operate and devour her, and Diogenianus finally had her strangled (or possibly beheaded), and her body was burned.

Both bodies were recovered by Sabinus, the bishop of Seville, and given a Christian burial in 287. Their saints’ day is July 19.