The Semana Santa Penitents

Each Holy Week in Europe there are special festivities to celebrate the passion and death of Christ – the essential Easter story. In Spain this religious holiday is the focus for a weeklong series of liturgical and communal ceremonial processions intended to honour, to celebrate Christian traditions. The processions attract many thousands of observers in cities such as Seville, Granada, Valencia, Toledo and Madrid.

For Easter of 2013 we were in Madrid having driven there from the south of Spain where the Semana Santa festival dominates the cultural and religious life of Seville, Granada and Cordoba.  Easter in Madrid was wet. In fact most of March 2013 was wet – very wet in central Spain.  It was cold too, with icy winds and occasional snow. Happily, the light for much of this month was just grand. Soft, shadow-free, clean with a pearly glow. Ideal conditions for an amphibious photographer!

the penitent priest

The Semana Santa processions in Madrid are by national standards not as grand or as fervent as I am told is the case in other centres. As the national capital I assume it has more important things to do.  Not sure what they could be as frankly, compared with other centres we visited Madrid is simply boring. If it was not for the Prado and a gaggle of art galleries Madrid does not have much to commend it. Well, that was our impression.  Apparently they do have a good soccer team and that could explain a lot!

We canvassed the relevant sources of information about the Semana Santa ceremonies to discover that most of the processions were in doubt because of the rain. Certainly we became aware that two of the bigger events had been cancelled. Then, we discovered a relatively small procession was planned near our accommodation and at a time and place where the rain, if it was to occur the site would allow for considerable shelter. We went and joined the throng. Amazing. Thousands had gathered by the time the music, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the civic and religious leaders had gathered and paraded. A central feature were the penitents in black, green, red or white. Sensible photography was impossible because of the crowds, the pushing, the jostling, the congestion, and the concern for personal safety and for our possessions. Evidently, pickpockets and other wretches flourish in these circumstances.

So, I followed the procession, ducking and weaving, holding camera high and frequently exposing images that were rushed, ill composed and ill conceived and somewhat frantic in collection. It was a scrimmage.  A friend once said to me, “Do not let Christians turn you away from Jesus.” I remembered this advice as I was pushed and shoved by folk carrying various pieces of religious iconography.  There was some truth in my friend’s observation I fear. It was a melee.

Both images have received a significant level of post-production. My fundamental problem was to try and isolate the central penitent from the busy elements caused by crowd, street furniture and the like. So, the main figure was selected and removed to an empty background where I inserted a series of textured layers intended to enhance what I saw as figure that was both sacrificial and a tad sinister. I put one texture in place so as to create the impression that the figure had eyes that looked ahead and to the side. A multi – eyed, all seeing and all knowing but anonymous figure of power. The red was a motif of sacrifice, of blood, of danger of menace. The cross and its symbolism conveyed a sense of sacrifice. The image was cropped to eliminate as much competing material as possible and so have the audience focus on hand and masked face. The penitent, dressed in black, was accompanied by a small girl in virginal white who held tightly to this black-garbed figure’s hand. This was the image that got away….too many people, too much fervent distress, too many people intolerant of the camera.the penitent

I found the whole experience to be one that, whilst it appealed to my sense of occasion, its chaos, rabid chants, processional flavour and related ritualistic movement and blaring music curiously alienating, disturbing, distressing. I guess we all pay homage in different ways according to cultural drivers and related traditions.

The images are better than the memories. I find this often to be the case because, as a conceptual photographer, I find ideas often grow in the telling whereas the actual event captured diminishes as time passes by.

This work and others form part of an exhibition to the theme “homage’ currently being held, until the end of this month at the Incinerator Gallery, Willoughby. This exhibition is shared with three others from the Nebuli group and their work is amazing.