Salamanca's dreaming spires
Holy Week is celebrated with Andalucian fervour in some otherwise seculansed parts of northern Spain, finds Peter Newsham
That southern part of Spain from which the Moors last departed, the coastal parts of which are bathed by the Mediterranean sea, is
the part which has held on to
the Easter rituals of the Church most tenaciously.
Madrid and places north perhaps have more in common with the cultures of urban Northern Italy and France than with the more rural agricultural south of Spain. It is rather surprising then to discover that Semana Santa, Holy Week, is celebrated with Andalucian fervour in some northerly parts of Spain which have otherwise donned the mantle of a more materialistic northern European secularism.
Throughout Castille and Leon there are towns and cities such as Burgos, Segovia and Salamanca in which the pageant of pain, which is the hallmark of Holy Week throughout the Latin world, is celebrated with a piety and a fervour more redolent of the 16th century than the 21st.
Salamanca, about 200krris west north west of Madrid, is a city of 60,000 people where beauty is the legacy of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Here, on the flat Spanish Meseta, the visitor approaching the city is first struck, not by the banality and even ugliness of some of its modern suburban housing and industrial estates, but by the dreaming spires of its great cathedral elevated on a bluff above the river Tonnes. Salamanca, after all, is said to be the Oxford of Spain with its famous university and the
of its beautiful buildings.
glorious honey coloured stone
The city reached its apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries as an intellectual powerhouse and commercial centre, and many of its most beautiful buildings date from this period.
The soaring "new" cathedral, tastefully integrated with a smaller older one; the glorious Renaissance portico of the medieval university, the facade of which, surely every visitor to Salamanca has intently searched for the frog hiding amongst the ornately decorated figures which adorn it; the exquisite Casa de las Conchas with one wall entirely decorated by sculpted scallop shells, the ubiquitous symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia; the grandiose structure of the Pontifical University reminding us of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain's intellectual life; and, of course, Salamanca's glory — a whole ecstasy of lovely churches and religious houses — all of this glows golden in in the native limestone under the sun's beneficent rays.
Salamanca is such a beautiful city that merely to walk amongst these architectural treasures produces a great adrenaline rush of well being.
Semana Santa, (Holy Week), spent in such a place is an aesthetic, and, for believers, a spiritual experience. The famous Holy Week processions celebrate the Passion and death of Christ on every day from Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) to Domingo de Resurrection (Easter Sunday). The origins of the religious confraternities (Cofradia.s.), each of which organises one or more of the precessions, goes back to 1240.
In that year was initiated in Salamanca a congregation known as Los Hermanos de la Penitencia en Christ° (The brotherhood of penitence in Christ). This confraternity founded a hermitage whose members lived out their penitence by providing succour to the Salamantine neighbourhood of San Francisco.
Their foundation of a hospital for the infirm, of both sexes — rather progressive for the Middle Ages — was part of their acting out of Christ's message in the community. The founding of this discipleship, the oldest in Spain, began the tradition of Holy Week processions. In the early 16th century these were formal i se d and expanded by the creation of the modern Cofradias which today run the religious drama of the re-enactment of Christ's Passion.
To the northern European eye there is in Salamanca a strange amalgam of the sacred and the profane during Holy Week. Alongside what, to the secular world, must seen] like a paroxysm of piety there is the sensuous nightlife found in any northern European city. Sacred and profane are cheek by jowl as the Holy Thursday procession of the Cofradia of the serafica Hermandad de Nazarebos del Santisimo Christ° de la Agonia, members of which carry enormous floats bedecked with flowers and beautiful statues depicting aspects of the Passion, winds by "The Irish Rover", an immensely popular theatre pub where the young and the beautiful dance and drink the night away.
But let it not be thought that a conflict exists here. What we are witnessing is merely a demonstration of two of the many overlapping facets of human existence. Many of those sipping pints of Guinness or dancing to Merle
Feeny in "The Irish Rover" will have been watching earlier the procession of the Cofradia, along with 40,000 others lining its route. Some of the revellers may have been taking part in it, perhaps by helping to bear the burden of Christ's suffering as a carrier of a cross, or communally shouldering the weight of one
of the enormously heavy floats.
This is not a tourist affair. It is an event in which the town's community strongly, reverently and decorously joins together. It has a demotic flavour seeming to embrace the social spectrum and to enlist people of all ages and both genders, including very small children, whether walking in the processions, playing in the numerous bands, bearing the floats, carrying the badges of their cofradia or quietly watching as the sad, triumphant pageant passes by. There is no pushing
and shoving amongst the immense crowds and no bad behaviour of the sort which seems to be taken for granted at many mass gatherings in northern Europe.
The city accommodates itself to this religious celebration: it is the city itself which is celebrating. There is no officious police presence or herding of spectators behind crowd control barriers — in fact, no control at all because none is necessaiy. The policemen and the Guardia Civil are there certainly, but just as likely to be walking in the procession in their uniforms as to be directing traffic.
The relaxed attitude of the civic authorities over the civilised conduct of this great public vent is mirrored by the approach of Spaniards to their religion. There is little selfconsciousness about religious belief in Spain and the young are not institutionally disengaged as they are in Britain. Salamanca's Easter celebrations are a collective cultural expression of the community's solidarity and their significance is not declining. Participation in the processions may not be an unequivocal expression of religious belief but, in a Europe of declining religious practice, it may be an anchor for many who, not conventionally religious, may be seeking spiritual meaning — an idea recently voiced by Cardinal Koenig, formerly Archbishop of Vienna.
The processions take place in an atmosphere of reverence and, as they wind for several hours, often well past midnight, through the largely pedestrianised maze of streets and grand squares of the old city, the rational transatlantic view of religion is clearly swept aside.
Living in a world in which, for many of us,
science has become the new religion, it is hard to come to terms with the notion that, for some people at least, the grandiose, ornate, Plateresque Baroque altars, the soaring beauty of the ancient churches and the exotic extravagance of the processions are the raising up of the heart and mind to God. Offering up to our Maker the best that human beings can achieve may be a deeply unfashionable idea elsewhere but it is still clearly in evidence in Salamanca.
There is an unmistakable Mediterranean flavour about Salamanca despite its more northerly location. The surrounding sodden fields, lying in winter idleness awaiting the call of spring, like the world awaiting the climax of Easter in the Risen Lord, betray its northern European agricultural regime. But there is nothing northern about the siesta, or that delightful Southern institution, the Pasco, in which the town walks and walks together as it ambles along the much used, much loved streets. Nor can even the dull, wet, windy wintry days of a late April Easter overcome the rhythm of a life which is much more nocturnal than in northern Europe.
Here exists a sociable and communal life in which walking is still the preferred and most practical form of locomotion within the city: where
the cult of the individual has not yet eroded the sense of belonging to a community (to the same extent as it has even in Spain's capital city): and in which the citizens take a proprietorial pride in the beautiful legacy of their historic city.
Images that the visitor may carry away from Salamanca are strong and varied: the succulence of Chuleton, a traditional dish of pork steak; the sudden sunlit beauty of the Cathedral striking the senses on emerging from a narrow street; the strains of "Whiskey in the Jar" and the sepia photographs of Oscar Wilde and Daniel Day Lewis, Maureen O'Hara and Richard Harris, Sinead Cusack and Brendan Behan, James Joyce and Joseph Locke in the bar of -The Irish Rover"; the troubadours serenading the prettiest women in the Plaza Mayor; the feeling of absolute serenity in the simpatico new library in the Casa de las Conchas; the animated street market underneath the city walls by the Rio Tormes; the charm of an Anglo-Iberian encounter in the Office of Tourism; the extraordinary and perhaps mildly disturbing pointed hats with their slightly menacing veils, worn by members of the Cofradias during processions; the respectable bourgeois Bar Eleni which transmutes into a raving dance venue at the stroke of midnight; the search, postcard in hand, for Salamanca's moveable post box; the al fresco pleasure of a gentle shuffle on the deck top dance floor of the bark, Cuidad de Salamanca, to the music of a group of elderly French tangoistas; the dignity of the Good Friday procession of the Cofradia "Hermandad de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad" as it issues from the doors of the great cathedral at midnight; the bewitching Art Nouveau museum, La Casa Lis, overlooking the medieval wall and the Rio Tonnes; those terribly Iberian aerofoil shiny plastic hats that the Guardia Civil wear; the abiding memory of a city worth living in.
Yet, a seminal Paschal mystery remains. And it is one which echoes through the Latin world. The pain of the suffering Christ is a mantle worn by Salamantinas in the processions of Soriano Santa. It is a burden shouldered with an Iberian zeal and is a moving testament of Christ's Passion. Yet, at the moment of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the raison d'etre of Christian belief, Salamanca is muted. Why is the town not shouting for joy with the Risen Lord?
Can it be that in the Iberian psyche the celebration of the suffering of the Passion, rather than its whole justification in the ecstasy of the Resurrection, is the real point of Semana Santa?