The elaborate Catholic beauty of Holy Week processions in Spain is not what I expected to see on my first excursion to the American Bible Society's New York Gallery.
I've known for many years that the society has the imprimatur from the Catholic Church to print Catholic Bibles. (The society distributes some 63 million Bibles yearly.) But this charming and effective exhibition of about 50 photographs and brilliant sculpture — Images in Procession: Testimonies to Spanish Faith — turned out to be a rare treat indeed.
The Hispanic Society of America is a co-presenter of the exhibit, which runs until April 29 in the society's spacious quarters near Columbus Circle.
As old traditions die with the rise of our one-size-fits-all culture, it's encouraging to see these precious moments preserved as living witnesses to the faith. Best of all, it's not only about the past: Even today, at St. Anthony's Church on Sullivan Street in New York, a neighborhood procession for their patron (held in June on his feast day) features his statue on a float, with devotees following him, and in Brooklyn men still carry statues on their shoulders on poles during festivals — but these events continue traditions of Southern Italy and Portugal. Many fervent followers of St. Anthony come from miles around to take part in his feast, but the crowds are more apt to be stunned SoHo residents or tourists with camcorders, thinking Godfather IV is being filmed.
There were no movies and no television when Ruth Anderson, then photographer and curator at the Hispanic Society of America, traveled through Zamora, Villa-campos, Jerez de los Caballeros, and La Alberca in northwestern Spain during the 1920s. Her pictures and words bring that region to life for us. The living tableaux that everyone attended in the plaza in Villacampos (pop. 922 in 1920) during Holy Week brought the priest, the schoolteachers and other villagers together to re-enact Christ's passion on small platforms. Towns people's faces in the photographs show profound dignity and respect for the “performers.” Even the children stop playing as their neighbors solemnly re-enact the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, the Crucifixion and the Pietà. Executioners wear bright-colored, garish costumes, contrasting with the simplicity of Christians.
In towns where the figures were carried about, their progress was not always smooth. As Anderson wrote, “When a paso goes under a telegraph wire … the men crouch down and scrape the corner posts of the paso against the ground.
‘Arriba!’ [Up!] The cramped muscles spring at the word and the crucified Christ rises too far. The wire catches on the nail in one hand … the paso totters and tosses under the efforts of the men to free the cross from the wire. The director perspires and shrieks. Two dozen feet shuffle obediently backwards and forwards with knees crouching. The crowd watches intently as the wire slides off the nail, a few more inches, another foot forward, and the paso is clear, the wire saved.”
The celebrations Anderson witnessed were popular during the Middle Ages, when public and private confessions of faith blended in the drama. Later, during the 16th century, Holy Week processions in Spain developed into two sections: the pasos , or multifigured floats of religious statues designed specifically for the occasion, and the hooded penitents who accompany these figures. Townspeople who belonged to the confraternities, religious brotherhoods dedicated to charitable acts, commissioned the pasos.
In this exhibition, splendid works of art are set at intervals amid the photographs. The Vir gin in polychrome and gold cloth; a charming Corpus Christi figure; a very beautiful Deposition with sorrowful women; the Ecce Homo, in which glass eyes are added to make Christ's pain seem more real — all are exceptional. It's not difficult to imagine mayors and town councils kneeling as they passed.
In a 19th-century Spanish travel book in my collection, author John Hay describes a similar event held in a theater: “The scene lasts nearly an hour. The theatre was full of sobbing women and children. At every fresh brutality I could hear weeping spectators say ‘Pobre Jesus!’ [Poor Jesus!]. ‘How wicked they are!’ The bulk of the audience was people who do not often go to the theatre. They looked upon the revolting scene as a real and living act. One hard-featured man near me clenched his fists and cursed the cruel guards. Apale … girl … fell back, fainting in the arms of her friends.”
This year, in Spain and Sicily, Mexico and points south, towns will join in to see the ancient drama relived through their neighbors, perhaps not as passionately as the pre-television generations, but filled with reverence for the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Barbara Coeyman Hults writes from New York.