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Every year in Seville, more than sixty life-size replicas of the Virgin Mary are paraded through the streets during Holy Week. The most famous, Our Sublime Mother Mary and Most Holy Lady and Crowned Hope of Macarena, has her very own bustling basilica in the working-class district of Macarena. She was carved in the late seventeenth century by an unknown but clearly inspired artist, and occasions such unrestrained devotion among Sevillians that even they think the neighborhood was named after her, and not the other way around.

Twelve hours before she is scheduled to emerge from her basilica on Holy Thursday, people start taking their places on the street around the entrance. Some Sevillians keep reverently silent before her phantasmagoric splendor, some have tears in their eyes and reach out beseechingly, others shout “¡Guapa!” (gorgeous) then kiss the knuckles of their thumbs and cross themselves. Most hold their smartphones high, flashing and filming away.

The celebration of Semana Santa in Seville is a breathtaking spectacle. From Palm Sunday to Easter morning, the entire city converts into an open-air museum featuring floats of chillingly life-like baroque sculptures portraying scenes of Christ’s Passion. The floats of the Vírgenes follow behind. Some works are over four hundred years old, and the two-to-four-ton floats on which they rest are carried through the teeming streets on the shoulders of religious strongmen who step out in perfect unison to Spanish marches or dirges. Penitents—sometimes up to three thousand—in hoods and robes process in front of and behind the floats. Each procession starts at a parish church and takes a specific route to the Seville Cathedral, where the faithful pay their respects in front of the main altar. The procession may not return to the parish until over twelve hours later.

If you live in the city center, this is a colossal nuisance. You better not cross the street for a carton of milk at an inopportune moment, because the processions will wall you in.

The first time I saw a religious float up close, I had only been in Seville for four months. Suddenly, a procession was blocking me from my front door, twenty-five yards away. I settled in, bracing myself for boredom. But then the float emerged from between two buildings, accompanied only by the sound of its bearers’ traipsing feet. Just like that, I was brought back to a safari I had once taken in Tanzania, when an elephant whisked by our parked Range Rover, not lumbering and shaking the earth as I’d expected it to, but moving as if levitating.

For the next forty-five minutes, as the city’s fiesta detained me, I thought about the ardent crusade of volunteers who were not only willing but yearning to send their priceless and irreplaceable works of art out into the streets, putting them at the mercy of the tumultuous mob, of the fickle spring skies, or of any hater or fanatic who might be lying in wait, to make the Holy Spirit palpable to us.

It was as though the city were saying, Here are our most beloved and prized possessions, both spiritual and material. We entrust them to you, whoever you are, Sevillian or not, believer or not, to love with all your heart and soul, or not. 

My first Easter Sunday in Seville, I went out into the street at noon, curious to see the grand finale. I expected to be floored. But when I made it down to the cathedral, it was shut up tight. The wooden chairs that had been set up all week in rows outside were being stacked and loaded into trucks. The party was over. Then it hit me. The fiesta had finished in the exact moment that, according to the Gospels, Christ’s pain and suffering were lifted, as if the whole flamboyant spectacle had been organized to prevent his ordeal from oppressing the city. 

During Semana Santa in Seville, we’re all fishes swimming in the same sacred sea, locals and foreigners alike. I can’t tell the sinners from the saints. Everyone’s together, everyone’s the same, milling around in the frenzied and chaotic metropolis. God’s palpable and joyous presence seems to hover above what’s happening there.

John Julius Reel is the author of My Half Orange: A Story of Love and Language in Seville.

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Image by Ingo Mehling licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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