Lent, Holy Week, and Easter in La Antigua
La Antigua is world-famous for its very elaborate Catholic religious celebrations during the 40 days of Cuaresma (Lent), leading up to the culmination of the season with Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Pascua (Easter) which commemorate the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire city participates in the event, and tens of thousands of visitors – both national and international – flock to La Antigua to witness the dramatic happenings.
Here is a basic guide to some of the sights, smells, and vocabulary of these captivating celebrations.
Velaciones (or Holy Vigils) ornament churches around La Antigua and the surrounding villages throughout Cuaresma (Lent). Each parish’s brotherhood, known as an hermandad, organizes its church’s velación, displaying their religious processional statue in front of or near the main altar. Usually a backdrop is made and a biblical or allegorical scene is created using the parish’s processional image of Jesus, other statues, and additional props. In recent years, many of the more elaborate velaciones have also employed soundtracks and timed lighting displays to add to the spectacle. At the foot of the display lies a vibrant handmade alfombra (carpet) made of brightly dyed sawdust, edged by a huerto (garden), an eye-catching display made of a beautiful combination of flowers, fruits, vegetables, bread, candles, and a large native seed pod with a unique odor that is traditionally evocative of Cuaresma – the corozo.
Each Sunday during Lent, and then during Holy Week itself, different local parishes sponsor procesiones (religious processions) through the streets of La Antigua. Each procession leaves its church and follows a pre-planned route before returning to the church several hours later.
Procesiones generally begin with men dressed as Roman Centurions leading the way (in a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans), then come incense carriers and banner carriers. Behind them is the central attraction of the procession, the anda (a large wooden platform) bearing the parish’s religious processional sculpture of Jesus set amid lavish decoration. Many of these statues were made during the Spanish colonial period and can date back as far as the mid-17th century. The anda is carried on the shoulders of cucuruchos (carriers), who wear purple full-length tunics in the processions up until 3 PM on Viernes Santo (Good Friday), then black in the procesiones after that.
Each group of cucuruchos will carry the anda for a specific distance (a turno or turn) and then a new group will take over. The members of each turn are determined by the carriers’ shoulder height to ensure that the anda is level and balanced. This is important, as the largest of the andas can weigh as much as 7,000 pounds (3,150 kgs) and are carried by as many as 100 cucuruchos at a time.
In the past, the cucuruchos participated solely as a form of penance. Today there is some degree of social status involved, but the principal motivation is still a show of devotion by the carriers.
About a block behind the main anda, women carry a smaller anda with the figure of La Virgen María (The Virgin Mary). These female carriers are known as dolorosas or cargadoras. They also have turnos throughout the various hours of the procession. The women wear black skirts or dresses and also a mantilla (a head-covering, usually lace). Following behind the anda of the Virgin Mary are a funeral band and two additional, very small andas (usually carried by only 4 cucuruchos each) carrying the sculptures of San Juan (St. John) and María Magdalena (Mary Magdalene).
Elaborate and beautifully artistic alfombras (carpets) made of aserrín (sawdust) or viruta (wood shavings) dyed in bright colors, pine needles, flowers such as bougainvillea, chrysanthemums, carnations, and roses, and even fruits and vegetables are constructed during the hours prior to adorn the route of the procesiones. Sand or sawdust is generally used to level the cobblestone street, then the decorative elements are painstakingly arranged on top. The alfombras are made by residents along the route of the procession who invite friends and family to assist them in their construction.
As the procession passes over an alfombra, it is destroyed in the scuffle of feet, leaving nothing but a pile of debris which is quickly cleaned up by municipal cleaning crews that follow the procesión. The fact that the hours of labor and artistic talent that went into the making of the alfombra are wiped clean in a matter of minutes is a reminder that all beauty in the world is transient.