HomeJournalLiving the Passion of Seville's Semana Santa
28 Apr, 2024

Living the Passion of Seville's Semana Santa

Author
Joana Taborda
Lisbon native with a rich multicultural heritage, Joana writes about travel, craft beer, hidden gems and artisan tales in Portugal and globally. Her work appears in Lonely Planet, Fodor's, DK Eyewitness, Atlas Obscura and other publications.

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“Cierren los paraguas,” I hear a woman shout next to us. Suddenly, people begin closing their umbrellas one by one to allow everyone to see the procession ahead.

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Adoration

An exquisite paso (float) adorned with revered religious figures, enveloped in flowers and candles. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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Reverence

Amidst the bustling streets and between the juxtaposition of old and new, a paso adorned with golden detail and white blooms moves through Seville, an embodiment of the enduring spirit of Semana Santa. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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Passion

The Virgin Mary, cloaked in blue, overlooks a devoted crowd, framed by a cascade of ivory candles and blooms. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

I’m in Seville for the Semana Santa celebrations, and it’s been raining on and off since I landed. But that hasn't stopped locals from hitting the streets and witnessing the pasos (religious floats) parading through the city. 

I first spotted a paso at the Iglesia de San Gregorio, a small 16th-century church in the Casco Antiguo, Seville’s old town. Lured by the crowds and the smell of incense, I entered the church and was immediately astonished by the size of these floats, with large-scale sculptures of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the apostles standing a few feet above me. I stood there, for a moment, taking in all the details: the huge velvety cloaks adorned with embroideries, the flower arrangements and the ornate gilded surroundings.

paso-at-iglesia-de-san-gregorioAt Iglesia de San Gregorio, a magnificent paso awaits its solemn procession during Semana Santa in Seville, a testament to the city's deep-rooted religious traditions and exquisite craftsmanship. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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Outside, I noticed the balconies draped in red cloth (symbolizing the blood shed by Christ) and the thousands of chairs set up for the audience on the streets.

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At Las Setas

Balconies draped in crimson as a tribute to the sacrifice of Christ juxtapose the contemporary architecture of Las Setas. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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At Plaza de San Francisco

The Plaza de San Francisco in Seville awaits the solemn processions of Semana Santa [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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At Seville Cathedral

Under the watchful gaze of the Giralda and Seville Cathedral, Seville wraps its balconies in red, a silent homage to the passion and sacrifice commemorated during the holy week. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

Semana Santa may be a week-long event, but the preparations start months in advance, with locals coming together to decorate the pasos, harvest flowers and practice the marching songs for the processions. 

As I walked to Plaza del Duque de la Victoria to see the procession, I stopped for a drink at Casa Moreno, a grocery store and tapas bar in the Casco Antiguo. Here, I met Reyes, a born-and-bred Sevillana and skilled 'experience maker', ready to immerse me in the spirit of Semana Santa for the next two days. I was not expecting such a lively crowd in a bar during this sort of festivity, and I was initially baffled by it.

“Semana Santa is rooted in religious traditions,” said Reyes as we tucked into some chicharrones (fried pork belly), “but it’s also about celebrating culture and socializing with family and friends.”

As we spoke, I noticed Reyes’ eyes turning toward a man standing in the center of the room and people pulling out their phones for selfies. Former footballer Joaquín Sánchez, who played for Betis, one of Seville’s major teams, had just joined us.

When we reached the procession on the square later, Reyes gave me the rundown of what I saw. El Carmen and Buen Fin, two local brotherhoods, paraded the surrounding streets in brown robes. Each group carried two pasos, similar to the ones I had seen earlier. From time to time they would stop, interrupting the procession’s flow. “A paso can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. And it can take up to 50 people to carry one,” explained Reyes. “People often need a rest as these processions can go on for hours.”

paso-procession5A paso navigates a tricky turn through the streets of the old town in Seville. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

The devout locals responsible for the transport of the floats are called costaleros, and each of them takes tricky turns in Seville’s narrow streets while holding between 90 and 110 pounds on their necks – a feat that is often applauded by the watching crowds. A man known as the capataz guides the costaleros, who are unable to see anything under the float.

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I met Reyes again the next day, this time inside a traditional Sevillian building with a central open patio.

I’m here to get my mantilla fitting, an ornate headpiece women wear during the Semana Santa celebrations, specifically on Holy Thursday.

As the rain poured into the patio below, Lola, the makeup artist, worked her magic on my face.

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Before I got to try the mantilla, we had a small break for a handmade torrija, pan-fried bread soaked in wine and honey, traditionally eaten during Semana Santa. Then the hairdresser, Carmen, took over, wrapping the bottom part of my hair into a bun and fixing it into place before weaving the comb-like peineta into the top part of my head. She placed a stunning black veil over it, adding hair pins here and there to make sure it wouldn’t move. I’d be wearing it for the following couple of hours, so it had to stick.

Once Carmen was finished, Reyes escorted me to the nearby Iglesia del Salvador, the second biggest church in Seville and home to the Pasión Hermandad, one of the 70 brotherhoods based in the city.

There, we met up with Eduardo, whom she calls the capillita, a name given to the people who feel and know every detail about every hermandad from an early age. I could immediately tell the nickname suited him, as he proceeded to recount the story about each paso inside the church, from what it represents to who designed it.

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Eduardo belongs to a different brotherhood – El Rocío – but he knows details about all of them as he used to present a radio show dedicated to Semana Santa called "A esta es" on Radio Giralda.

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Adorned with Flowers

Amidst the grandeur of Iglesia del Salvador, the cherished Virgin, under the care of the Pasión Hermandad. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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Sea of Candles

A sea of candles lights the solemn face of the Virgin Mary at Iglesia del Salvador. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

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Canopy of Brocade

In Iglesia del Salvador, a figure of Christ beneath a canopy of intricate brocade. [Photo: Joana Taborda]

As we are standing in front of one of Seville’s largest Baroque altars, we are joined by four pasos, including one designed by sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés in the late 16th century. "This is one of the few pasos in Seville adorned with both silver and gold details. There are only two of this kind," said Eduardo. He informed me that due to its incalculable value, it's likely that it won't be taken out in the rain, unlike the other floats.

Contemporary sculptors have added their own mark to the floats, like the coat of arms of a famous football team, Eduardo revealed to me. As he told me this, an elderly lady approached me to take a picture. She’s impressed by the mantilla I’m wearing and encourages me to continue this tradition. Suddenly, I felt like a true insider, experiencing the Semana Santa like a local would.

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Traditionally, the women wore the mantilla, while the men dressed as nazarenos, an attire that consists of a colorful robe (each brotherhood has its own color) and a capirote (a conical hood that may remind of the Ku Klux Klan’s robes, but has been around for centuries).

With only two holes for the eyes, the hood was created to allow penitents to repent their sins while keeping their anonymity.

The Pasión brotherhood has 1,239 nazarenos, but some can have up to 3,000. Of course, the bigger it is the longer the procession takes.

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Reyes once contemplated being a nazareno herself. In the past, women in hermandades were frowned upon, but these days they're slowly being welcomed. The Los Javieres brotherhood was the first to adopt this change and others followed suit. Reyes, of course, has moved on. She has found her passion in designing exceptional experiences like this, that give travelers a unique insider perspective of Semana Santa and other Spanish traditions and festivals. 

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As we moved to the next church on our itinerary, more people stopped me to take a picture with them. I arrived in Seville two days earlier, and it didn’t take long for me to become a part of one of its biggest festivities.

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A PAUSE DURING SEMANA SANTA

A reflective selfie moment.

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ON A STREET IN SEVILLE

Clad in the intricate lace of the mantilla, the writer moves through the streets of Seville, echoing the city's age-old Holy Week traditions.

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IN A SEVILLE COURTYARD

The mantilla's silhouette creates harmony with Seville's architecture.

The rain forced many processions to be canceled, but the gatherings continued inside the city’s churches (there are more than 100) and in the dozens of tapas bars around Seville’s historic center.

Thanks to Reyes and Eduardo, I didn’t have to queue up for hours in front of a church. I was granted instant access inside and had a close-up view of Seville’s richest pasos. At the same time, I got to learn the significance of this event for locals and experience the city from their perspective, sipping manzanilla (a fortified wine typical from Cádiz) at a tapas bar, eating jamón with friends at a Sevillian house and dressing up for the occasion – a memory I’ll cherish every time I look at my mantilla. ||