On the Sunday before Easter, many Catholic countries begin celebrating Semana Santa, or Holy Week, an elaborate religious observance that will last until the day before Easter. Among the festival’s many rituals, the solemn street processions held in the main participating cities arrest the eye with their intimidating aesthetics and aura of mystery:
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In the Roman Catholic world, Semana Santa marks the commemoration of the Passion of Christ. The week-long holiday is dedicated to the remembrance of Biblical events, from Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to his burial following the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
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The festival takes place on the last week of Lent, just before Easter. It includes Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
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During Holy Week, religious brotherhoods and fraternities perform penance processions in the streets of observing cities as a spectacular expression of popular piety.Wikimedia Commons
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Most of the Semana Santa traditions and brotherhoods have their origins in medieval times, although a number of them were created during the Baroque period and recent centuries.
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Any Catholic person can become a member or “hermano,” but family tradition has a significant influence on the choice of, and acceptance into, one of the brotherhood circles.
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Most participants in the parades wear the traditional penitential robe, or nazareno.
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The shapes and colors of the garments vary according to the fraternity and procession, although purple is favored in a number of locations.Wikimedia Commons
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The nazareno outfits involve a tunic and a long, conical hood with a pointy tip, called capirote or capuchon.
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In the Middle Ages, the dissimulating robes and masks allowed participants to show penance while concealing their identity.
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The hermanos often hold large crosses to recreate Christ’s ordeal.
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Penitents may also occasionally walk barefoot and wear chains or shackles around their ankles.
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They are normally followed by women dressed in black who carry processional candles.Flickr
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Other members of the processions dress up as soldiers of the Roman Legion.
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The fraternities carry giant floats with Biblical sculptures representing scenes of the Passion, called pasos, on their shoulders.Flickr
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Some of the pasos have belonged to the brotherhoods for centuries, and many are artworks created by renowned Spanish artists.Flickr
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In Spain, the largest and most famous Semana Santa processions are found in the cities of Cartagena, Málaga, Seville, Valladolid, Zamora, and Léon.
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The celebrations in 23 cities around Spain have been declared of international tourism interest, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
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The region of Andalusia is known to host more “glamorous” processions, while those of Castile and Léon generally have a more somber atmosphere.
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Outside Spain, Semana Santa is actively celebrated in Catholic European countries such as Italy, Portugal and Malta, and in Hispanic countries around the world, including those of South and Central America (pictured above: Quito, Ecuador) and the Philippines.
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Men carrying a heavy paso float in Guatemala City.
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In the Philippines, the proceedings take on an altogether more extreme and sinister turn: some participants engage in deep self-flagellation and actual cross nailings, despite those practices being condemned and banned by the church.Boston.com
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