Semana Santa en los Pueblos Blancos

by Andrew Sullivan

Ronda, Spain – In southwest Spain, white-painted towns cluster around canyons and nestle in the shelter of hillsides. This is Andalucía, the sunburned land that has been home to diverse cultures for thousands of years. 

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers painted figures of animals on their cave walls. Romans battled Carthaginian armies to establish the Empire’s western reach. Barbarian Visigoths stormed into the Iberian Peninsula to supplant the Romans until a force of Arab-Berbers fought to create a Muslim caliphate there. They went on to build cultural monuments that have become World Heritage Sites. Civil war within the caliphate exposed vulnerabilities Christian armies exploited, cornering the Islamic culture in Granada. The Muslims held on until their defeat in 1492. That victory enabled the Spanish Inquisition to influence the entire peninsula, creating a homogeneous Catholic culture that led to the expulsion of 300,000 Jews. 

One of the iconic symbols of Semana Santa originated in the courts of the Inquisition. The capirote, the conical hood penitents wear in processions, was first used to humiliate those accused of heresy. Those trials, which involved torture and burning at the stake, were called “acts of faith.” 

Acts of faith are the essence of Semana Santa. Now they involve carrying the weight of a Paso, a large float decorated with wooden statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints, or marching in a procession dressed in a capirote as a Nazareno. Groups of women wear long black veils in the processions as a sign of their devotion.

n Ronda, a town overlooking a 100-meter deep gorge, numerous processions fill the streets as thousands gather to observe from sidewalks and balconies. On the bridge crossing the gorge,a procession stopped while a woman wailed a “saeta,” a religious song indigenous to Andalucía. Its exhortations sound like desperate flamenco, and its roots are thought to be Jewish, Arabic, or Roma.

On Thursday night inside Iglesia de Padre Jesus, incense thickened the air as the brotherhood of “Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno y Nuestra Señora de los Dolores” wrapped cloth tight around their waists, and covered their heads and necks with scarves made of cotton and abrasive sackcloth. The stocky men,  called costaleros, said last-minute prayers, and huddled up to encourage each other for their 4.5 hour procession supporting  about 100 pounds each. 

A marching band played triumphant songs with staccato drumbeats as the men, hefted the Paso down the church’s steps while onlookers applauded. The winding, narrow cobblestone streets challenged each group of costaleros. Despite the solemnity of the week, each feat of strength, teamwork, or act of faith was cheered.

Those weeks are sacred ritual mixed with spectacle. In Puente Genil, a town of 30,000 amid groves of olive, almond, and quince trees, biblical narrative forms its main procession. Almost 600 marchers wear handmade papier-mâché masks, each representing a figure from the Bible. The procession chronologically depicts the Old and New Testament. Cain and Abel, Roman legionnaires, the Apostles, and more climb a long, steep street to arrive at Santuario de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno. It’s a dizzying cavalcade that was first documented in the 17th Century. The mood is festive, and church officials once tried to ban the masked procession, saying it was irreverent. Participants drinking mojitos before the procession stood by the town’s tradition. “Here we celebrate the life, and resurrection of Jesus, more than mourn his death,” said David Reyna, a member of one of the brotherhoods that organizes the procession.

In Setenil de las Bodegas, a town known for building homes and streets into natural rock formations, a costalero stumbled on Saturday carrying one of the large Pasos down a church’s front steps. The front left corner of the structure lurched toward the ground. The man took the weight onto his back as his knees buckled. Anguished cries, gasps, and yells spat out of the crowd. The brotherhood righted the Paso and set it down to regroup. Men pointed fingers and exchanged shouts. A bell rang, the men shouldered the Paso and descended the street to the town below. The costalero who fell no longer stood at the front of his line. He shouldered the weight, second in line, tears in his eyes.



American photographer Andrew Sullivan moved to Mexico to teach and photograph in 2015 after covering breaking news and feature stories for The New York Times for almost ten years. Sullivan relocated to Barcelona in 2020, where he is now working on long term personal projects.


Instagram: @andrewsullivan_bcn


Selection by Alejandra Martinez Moreno – Editor/Burn Magazine.