Spain Gears Up for its Characteristic Festival, The ‘Semana Santa de Astorga’

It wants to be recognised as a Festival of International Tourist Interest.
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Spain Gears Up for its Characteristic Festival, The ‘Semana Santa de Astorga'

Some of the curious terms people have given to the main moments of the various processions and performances of the Semana Santa de Astorga (Holy Week of Astorga) are not easy to understand: “El Paso de Cañinas” reflects the moment of the Coronation of Christ; the “Balcony of Pilate” recreates the scene of the Ecce Homo, in which the crowd chose between Christ and Barabbas; the “Borriquilla” (little donkey) remembers the entry of Jesus in Jerusalem and the “Durmientes” (the sleepers) alludes to the praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and to the apostles who were resting there when Jesus was arrested. 

But that’s how things are in Astorga: Full of contrasts, almost contradictions. This city – capital of the Maragatería region, which borders Galicia and León – has seen the passing of Roman legions and the barbarian troops, has been fought over by Moors (the emirs Tariq and al-Mansur) and Christians (kings Alfonso I and Ordoño I) alike; it stands on an important crossroad between the Camino de Santiago and the Vía de la Plata and seems to revel in the strange mixture of old and newer concepts – witness the singular symbiosis of its two main monuments, separated by a few dozen meters: a half Gothic, half Renaissance and Baroque Cathedral which stands almost side by side with an episcopal palace in modernist style, one of the very few buildings erected outside Catalonia by the genius of Antonio Gaudí. 

A city of contrasts in its gastronomy, too: From the popular and soft mantecadasbollas (buns) and rich chocolate, to the rough flavours of the cecina or the cocido maragato – the only one among the many stews in Spain to be eaten backwards: that is, starting with the meat and ending with the soup.

The Semana Santa de Astorga was declared a Festival of National Tourist Interest in 2011 and aspires to be of International Tourist Interest soon. Its cofrades (brothers), roughly half of the 11,500 inhabitants of the city grouped in five cofradías (brotherhoods, some dating since the 15th century), two hermandades and an archicofradía – all of them under the umbrella of the Holy Week Promotion Board of Astorga – its faithful, its protagonists and their followers would not settle for a conventional celebration.

A good example is that among the silence and fervour, between prayers and songs, on the morning of Good Friday laughter and applause suddenly erupt when the Plaza Mayor hosts the Carrera the San Juanín: a group of statues carried by four braceros (some of them descendants of the original author of the sculpture); with their red and green cape blowing in the wind, they run across the square at full speed in search of the Sorrowful Virgin, to announce that they have seen her Son on his way to Calvary. This is a tradition that has been carried out uninterruptedly since 1674; the three beautiful carvings, more than two centuries old, are the protagonists of el Encuentro (the meeting), when Mother and Son stand face to face before the Crucifixion – one of the most endearing and popular images of the Holy Week.

An articulated Christ and 48 pasos

Spain Gears Up for its Characteristic Festival, The ‘Semana Santa de Astorga'

Another of the unique events that characterize this Holy Week takes place during the Holy Burial procession on Good Friday, at dusk: the Desenclavo, celebrated in front of the Cathedral. It is organized by the Cofradía de la Santa Veracruz and followed by hundreds of people who observe how the Recumbent Christ (a carving of great historical value by Gregorio Español, dating from 1613), is taken down from the Cross: its arms are placed on its sides and at the sound of the drums and amid the silence of the faithful the image is slowly introduced into the urn.

But the Semana Santa de Astorga has many other emotional moments: there are more than 15 processions and more than 48 pasos (sculptures or groups of sculptures), among which two carvings preserved from the original processions stand out: the image of the Crucified (dating from 1560), which parades on Good Friday, and the Cristo Flagelado (also from the 16th century).

Semana Santa de AstorgaA very intense week

Spain Gears Up for its Characteristic Festival, The ‘Semana Santa de Astorga'

The emotional moments begin on the Friday of Sorrows, a couple of days before the Holy Week, with a Via Crucis performed by the Damas de la Piedad – a cofradía of women who wear black tunics with white sleeves and sash and a black cape; they escort the Crucified Christ, and on Holy Monday night they parade again carrying their titular image, the Virgen de la Piedad.

Palm Sunday is very special: in the morning there is a procession where many children, dressed as Hebrews, accompany the departure of “La Borriquilla” of the Cofradía of the Entry of Jesus in Jerusalem, who make their triumphal entry into the Plaza Mayor. The braceros of the “Palmas” (the popular name of this cofradía) joyfully carry the paso of the donkey together with the  paparrones, the penitents who wear green and white. In the afternoon, it’s the turn of La Dolorosa (carved by José de Rozas in 1705): the Archicofradía together with the entire city escorts the Virgin with her seven daggers; the farewell Salve reminds us that we must look for the Christ tied to the column of Piedralba, a 17th-century carving – Astorga and its cofradías are characterized by the recovery of their traditions with the neighbouring towns.

The Via Crucis on Holy Tuesday (organized by the Board currently chaired by Raquel Rodríguez Martínez) sees the participation of all of the eight cofradías; each of them, starting from their neighbourhood will gather in the Plaza Mayor at seven thirty in the afternoon and head towards the Cathedral. During the Via Crucis the feelings of emotion will grow in intensity; at the end of one of the most massive and participatory events. each cofradía will then return to its parish.

As the night of Holy Wednesday sets in, the Procession of the Holy Supper starts. On the morning of Holy Thursday, the cofradía of the Cristo de los Afligidos (Christ of the afflicted) riding on horseback, announces that on the morning of the next day, the Pregón de las siete palabras (proclamation of the seven words) will take place in the atrium of the Cathedral.

Spain Gears Up for its Characteristic Festival, The ‘Semana Santa de Astorga'

As the day falls, it will be the turn of the Hermandad de los Caballeros del Silencio (Brotherhood of the Knights of Silence), dressed in white and purple; after taking the vow of silence, behind closed doors, they will watch in silence the procession of the Nazarene, a beautiful carving of Francisco Teran dating from the 18th century. Then the Cofradía de la Vera Cruz, the oldest in the city, will set out in penance and grief to the light of the lanterns, carrying the articulated Recumbent Christ. Accompanied by the deafening sound of the drums and rattles, upon reaching the Romanesque chapel of San Esteban the brothers will nail the image to the cross in an intimate and private act, to return well into the early hours of the morning to their place of departure, where the traditional bollas and a glass of sweet wine will be served.

At half past eight in the morning on Good Friday the Procesión del Encuentro (procession of the meeting), known popularly as the Carrera San Juanín – which we have already mentioned as one of the main events in Astorga. At night, the Procesión de la Soledad (procession of loneliness) sets out to the sound of the Salve sung by the cloistered nuns of Sancti Espíritu.

On Easter Sunday all is joy: From the chapel of the True Cross – the Resucitado – a spectacular carving by Gregorio Español dating from the 17th century – heads out to the Cathedral where, after the mass, will take place the meeting with the Virgen del Amor Hermoso (the Virgin of the beautiful love). The distribution of Easter Eggs to all the children will then conclude the Passion Week.

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