Two 18th-century Holy Week processions
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
The perfume from chamomile and mastranzo (an aromatic herb) and the colors purple and white fill the streets of San Miguel de Allende during the Holy Week celebrations. There are several processions in the city, two in particular that are notable not only because of the number participants but also because of their antiquity. The Holy Encounter was started in 1756 by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro (who also founded the Shrine of Jesus the Nazarene in Atotonilco). The Holy Burial was started in 1713 by Father Juan Antonio Pérez Espinosa. These celebrations, according to Father Josué Alejandro Rodríguez Perales and members of the committee of the Holy Burial, “are full of theological symbols.”
The Holy Burial
According to Father Rodríguez, before 1712 El Oratorio Church was a humble Indians’ chapel, where indigenous residents used to venerate the Virgin of Solitude and the Lord of Eccehomo. At that time, there were in the Villa of San Miguel el Grande, as San Miguel was then called, numerous groups of natives interested in learning about Christ’s life, so on April 10, 1712, Father Pérez Espinosa was invited by his brother to hold some talks about Lent. He was fascinated by the natives and decided to stay in the Villa. He started the proceedings to found the Congregation of El Oratorio, and his petition was granted on May 2, 1712. To explain the meaning of Holy Week to the locals, Father Pérez Espinosa began performing the baroque catechism—religious instruction of the gospel using emotionally compelling, graphically powerful images—to have a greater impact among the indigenous. Father Espinosa used to perform 11 stations of the Way of the Cross, including Palm Sunday, and all the processions were presented just with images. The Holy Burial was adapted to the culture and represents Jesus’ burial.
The Committee of the Holy Burial was formed more than 100 years ago, according to some members, and they have a list of more than 1,300 processionals. The procession leaves from the Oratorio and passes through calles Pepe Llanos, Juárez, San Francisco, Plaza Principal, Relox, and Mesones before returning to Pepe Llanos and ending at the Oratorio.
Stages of the procession
The procession leaves from El Oratorio at 5pm on Holy Friday, when there is still daylight, and arrives back at the same church when night has descended. This has a religious meaning: when Christ died, according to the Holy Scriptures, the sky was filled with darkness because the light—Jesus—was taken from the world and sin brought shadows. The light diminishes gradually as the procession goes on. The procession is headed by acolytes and the Christ of the Inspirations, which is taken down from the main altar from the Oratorio. This sculpture of Christ symbolizes that what is about to happen is God’s will. The second stage of the procession features a legion of Romans who represent the two Roman soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb.
In the fourth stage of the procession young girls dressed in white, who are “angels,” clean the path by throwing chamomile and mastranzo. These herbs, according to Father Rodríguez, represent the painful passion of Jesus Christ but also represent health, because they are medicinal. They can be trampled, as Christ was, but they will always emit their healing perfume that brings peace and tranquility. Following the girls, five small statues of angels are borne aloft. These statues were the original ones used by Father López Espinosa for this procession. In the past they used to carry symbols of the passion (ladder, cross, spear, washbasin and a sponge), but these have been lost. Behind these smaller angels five larger angels appear, carrying the chalice of bitterness, the cilice used for whipping the Nazarene, the crown of thorns made by the soldiers for Jesus, the cloth Veronica used to wipe Christ’s face, and nails and a hammer.
The most important image is the recumbent statue of Christ, which in the procession appears in a glass catafalque. The glass-enclosed coffin is followed by three priests who walk beneath purple and gold canopies (at every stop they pray around the catafalque). Behind the canopies the procession continues with a choir made up of children and an orchestra and a choir made up of men who sing the “Cristus Factus,” among other songs composed exclusively for the celebrations of Holy Week in San Miguel by Father José María Correa. The procession is followed by 24 women carrying the Virgin of Solitude, which has a showy 12-meter-long mantle (which is carried by single women). Behind this Virgin follows St. John, the only apostle who accompanied Jesus to the cross.
The statue of St. John is followed by the Magdalene, the adulterous woman who was released of seven demons (seven deadly sins) by Jesus. The procession ends with the two men who helped to take Jesus down from the cross, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. One of them carries a document, because it has been said that he had power among the Roman soldiers and requested through that document that Christ’s body be handed over.
The Holy Encounter and the Priest’s Passing
This procession was started in 1756 by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro along with the Brotherhood of St. Roque and the Brotherhood of the Santa Escuela of Christ. This reenactment of the way of the cross, because of social, political and religious conflicts, was limited to the interior of the Parroquia of St. Michael the Archangel in the past and in 1985 was restored to its present form. A painting of the original procession held by Father Alfaro was done at the Santuario de Atotonilco by Antonio Martínez de Poca Sangre, and from it we can tell that the procession has been modified over time.
The event takes place on Holy Friday (March 29) and starts with the arrival of pilgrims from Atotonilco, who bring the cross originally carried by Father Alfaro (portraying Jesus Christ). At 11:30am, the first stage is held on the stairs of the chapel next to the Parroquia, la Santa Escuela, where a mock trial takes place at which Pontius Pilate sentences Christ to death. After the judgment Pilate washes his hands, a ritual to signal that justice has been done, declaring, “I am innocent of the blood of this just man.” Jesus is represented by a statue known as the Lord of Eccehomo. After the judgment the procession starts, departing from the Parroquia. After the “trial” a statue of the Sorrowful Virgin Mary is transported from the Parroquia to the Portal de Guadalupe.
The procession is headed by a cross and an image of St. Roque, patron of the brotherhood. Young girls dressed in white follow, throwing mastranzo, chamomile and flowers on the path. Following them, 24 barefoot penitents wearing silicios (rough woven garments) walk, 12 of them with crowns of thorns on their heads and 12 carrying skulls (which represent the path from death to eternal life). These men are guarded by a line of Roman soldiers in the middle. Other men appear carrying the Lord of Eccehomo, and behind comes the parish priest, who carries the cross as Father Alfaro used to do. For this reason the procession is called the “Passing of the Priest.” The two bound thieves, Dimas and Gestas, tied to a post, walk alongside the priest.
Following the priest, 22 men carry a statue of Jesus the Nazarene that dates from the 18th century and was created at the request of Padre Alfaro. The sculpture has a special mechanism that allows the head to move. Also carried in the procession are statues of San Juan, Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and Veronica.
The Holy encounter happens at the end of the procession, when the Virgin of Solitude is carried from Portal de Guadalupe and the Nazarene from the Portal Allende to the center of the Plaza Principal, when they finally meet, and Jesus raises his head three times.