April 14, 2006

 Semana Santa and white Lego

Posted by James Wimberly

This is Holy Week in Andalucia, Semana Santa. We went out on Wednesday to see the procession in Vélez Málaga, our local market town. It's quite an experience. First you have the banner-holders, penitentes in embroidered velvet robes and the famous pointy-headed masks, then women in mantillas, and brass bands. Last the serried bearers, in a swaying dead march, slowly advance the huge floats, stopping frequently for a rest or to work the canopy under phone wires. Each guild usually has two floats, the first a semi-realistic scene from the Passion story; ours was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, under a handsome small olive tree sacrificed for the occasion. The second is a stylised Virgin Mary in a gorgeous robe, surrounded by flowers and candles, under a fragile brocade baldequin. It's well organised – each bearer has his name neatly printed on a sticker on the hollow metal beams that carry the float, the robes are cleaned, the silver polished, the candles expensive beeswax.

This raises a lot of questions I'm not competent to answer. Why do you get this here and not elsewhere even in Spain? Why are the clergy absent? But I can make a guess at the numbers. Our procession had say 80 bearers per float, two brass bands of 40 or so, plus penitentes, mantillas, censers, banner-holders and so on: the total must have run to 300 participants, plus an invisible army of stagehands, polishers, and seamstresses. In this town of about. 55,000 there are 17 guilds, that go out on different nights. So at least a tenth of the entire population is actively involved. Popular Christianity must have been like this in Europe in the Middle Ages, except you now see women in the procession and the guild committees. I wonder: is it also what popular Islam was like in this town at the same period?

I also ask myself about the art (continued below the fold)

The guilds compete to put on a good show, so through the year the committees debate improvements, maybe just replacing some robes, maybe lashing out on a new centurion. The market supports specialised workshops in Malaga and Seville that turn out a competent pastiche of what strikes my untutored eye as straight baroque. Judge for yourself from websites on the Malaga guilds and on Diego de Ribera (d.1652). This theatrical, anatomically accurate style is good on human pathos, but its approach to the supernatural is to me without psychological depth or spiritual force. The Christs on the floats are much better than the Marys. Compare this to this (unfair; but it's not just a difference in skill). The scenes have, mercifully, removed any anti-semitic elements (the sneering Jews you find in late mediaeval art). But without antagonists, Roman or priestly, the sufferings of Christ are inflicted by a generic "world" that doesn't include you and me or the penitents. The gently humanised story also loses its metaphysical theology; there's no felix culpa, no triumph from the Cross, as in the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood.

The aniconic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Calvinist Protestantism, usually object to religious representation because of the risk of idolatry: the worshipper prays to the symbol instead of the symbolised, and the icon becomes a magic talisman, even taken into battle. I can't empathise with this temptation. But representation does create a different risk. Images are synchronic and can only represent one idea at a time, unlike words, which are diachronic and can represent a sequence of ideas of arbitrary length. Good images are also expensive. So representational art must distort any complex religious message. The art of Semana Santa makes a very narrow selection from the Passion narratives and their possible interpretations; a harmless one, unlike Mel Gibson's, but impoverished.

The situation is far worse if you look at the whole production of Catholic religious art. Crucifixions are liturgically essential, but most of the ministry of Jesus as an itinerant rabbi is ignored. There are a few paintings of healing the sick; but where are those of Jesus reading the Torah in the synagogue, Jesus teaching the disciples through parables, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus disputing with the Pharisees? And for other actors, Mary answers back at the Angel Gabriel and Peter denies Jesus the third time? Same for the Old Testament. Can anyone find an example of Jonah driven to a breakdown by the repentance of Nineveh or Jeremiah jailed by King Zedekiah for treasonable talk during wartime?

One terrific lost opportunity is the historically very important vision in Acts 10 in which an angel lets St Peter off the Jewish dietary laws, a crucial step in the separation of Christianity from Judaism. The only half-way competent representation to be found on Google is this routine woodcut for a Victorian Dutch illustrated Bible. Think what Rubens could have done with a cascade of freshly licensed pigs, turbot, lobsters, snails, fried grasshoppers, caviar, and eels!

Given that the religious art we have is what conservative patrons have been ready to pay for, we should perhaps rather be grateful that anything unconventional or even slightly subversive has made it under the wire. Here are three lovely works:
- a Romanesque capital of Balaam and his donkey at Saulieu in Burgundy, sympathetic both to the dreamy prophet and his sensible quadruped;
- Raphael's Deliverance of St. Peter in the Vatican – politically OK for the patron because it's St Peter being let out, but remember that at the time the Pope was a secular prince who ran a real prison just down the road in the Castel San Angelo;
- the Anastasis in the late Byzantine Chora church in Istanbul – a triumphant Christ is trampling on a conventional Devil, but mainly on a extraordinary sea of nameless white objects like eroded bits of plastic machinery, a wonderful symbol of existential meaninglessness.

This Passover/Easter, may your donkey keep you clear of the white Lego.

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