Sevillian men don’t wolf whistle – they shout ‘guapa’ (pronounced gwapa) instead, meaning ‘good looking’. It’s regularly bandied about as a greeting between women friends, as well as a sign of appreciation by a man for a woman, and offends no one here. I was somewhat taken aback however, to hear it being shouted at the Virgin Mary. Or, to be more specific, the Virgin Esperanza Macarena, reputedly the most beautiful of all of the effigies of the Madonna paraded through the streets of Seville during Holy Week. Joselito, a famous Sevillian bullfighter in the early 20thcentury, was so enamoured of her, that he bought 5 emerald brooches to adorn her robes, which she still wears today. When Joselito was gored to death in the bullring in 1920 aged just 25, they dressed the Virgin in black mourning dress for a month.
This starts to give you an idea of how the Spanish mix their religion with folklore and sentimentality. Make no mistake, however, their devotion, whether to religion or tradition, is deep and serious, even if some of its manifestations seem strange or trivial to the uninitiated. As the Virgin Esperanza Macarana passed among the crowds of thousands in the early hours of the morning on Good Friday, (known here as La Madrugá) held aloft on a float decorated with church silver, candles and flowers, no one spoke. I’m serious, no one spoke! Normally, even a handful of Spaniards will be so noisy you can’t hear yourself think, but there was silent reverence from the enormous crowd as she passed. Some wept, held hands, crossed themselves or kissed their partners, but all were rapt – from young men with Mohican hair styles to elderly men and women and their young grandchildren. Then, someone in the crowd shouts ‘Macareeena!’ and a nearby group responds loudly ‘Guapaaa!’ – repeated three times, in a bizarre, yet endearing adaptation of three cheers.
There are six processions during the night of La Madrugá. Macarena starts first, at midnight, and doesn’t finish until 2.30pm. That’s 14 hours walking through the streets wearing a hood that covers your face and long robes; some in bare feet, carrying crosses and candles – and it’s not just a handful of people, there were nearly 3000 in the Macarena procession. Pity too the costaleros taking shifts lifting the punishingly heavy float, precariously balancing the precious Madonna, several hundredweight of silver, and lit candles several feet tall.
Another much-loved statue paraded the same night is Jesús del Gran Poder – Jesus of the Great Power, from the church of the same name in Plaza San Lorenzo. Macarena and Gran Poder have a bit of history. In the first years of the 20thcentury the two brotherhoods had a row. The processions are carefully timed because all have to take the same route on the approach to the Cathedral, which every procession passes through. Macarena, a bit of a party girl, kept being late every year, so that the Jesús del Gran Poder procession had to wait an hour or two in one spot until she passed. Tired of this, one year the Gran Poder just went ahead of Macarena and a great dispute followed. In the end, the Macarena brotherhood conceded that Gran Poder could go first – but ever since, they send a band of men dressed as centurions on the day of the processions to the church of Jesús del Gran Poder, to confirm that they can go first. Another astonishing sight in this week of astonishing sights.
The contrast of all this with our focus on Easter bunnies and egg hunts is stark. I haven’t seen one chocolate egg here in Seville – though I’m told mini eggs can be found at Lidl if I get desperate. When I told my parents that Maundy Thursday is a holiday here, because of its particular significance to Spanish people, they responded that it’s important in Britain too, and mentioned a service in the local church which involved washing of feet. Yes, Maundy Thursday is quietly important to church-goers in the UK, but here in Seville it’s a city-wide ‘happening’, not entirely religious in nature. The whole of Seville is out on the streets during the day dressed for the occasion. Women of all ages wear the famous large mantilla hair combs, with black lace veils and fitted black mourning dresses, to remember the imminent death of Christ.
Some of them will have been to church, for others it’s just a tradition nowadays, but all of them were crowded into tapas bars and restaurants, drinking and eating in large noisy groups of family and friends, enjoying the holiday. As one Sevillian friend said to me “Here we can mourn Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection all at the same time”.