It’s Easter weekend here and Semana Santa in Spain

A live statue of Christ carrying his cross stands on a busy street in downtown Madrid in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. BY DENNIS FORNEY
April 6, 2012

The whole country of Spain is celebrating Semana Santa this week, leading up to Good Friday and Easter weekend. In planning a trip to Spain to see sites and friends, we were advised to avoid this week because of the huge crowds that would be gathering everywhere. We did, having just returned last week, so instead of seeing the crowds, we saw the preparations.

In Granada, in the south of the country and beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, this year’s posters advertising Semana Santa showed a suffering Christ with the stiff thorns of his crude crown sending large drops of blood down his face. In Madrid, men dressed in loincloths and crowns of thorns stood motionless on the sidewalks of busy streets with large crucifixes propped against their shoulders.  Living statues, they gathered coins dropped in small boxes by throngs of passersby in the historic downtown area of the nation’s capital city.

Between the crucifixion of Christ, the inquisitions that made Spain a nearly pure Catholic nation, revolutions and the nation’s iconic bull fights, no doubt remains that the dry plains of the Iberian peninsula have been liberally irrigated with blood through the centuries.  A few hours strolling through the galleries of the Prado in downtown Madrid further confirmed the passion of the nation and the Christ story. Huge oil paintings by Goya and other European masters captured some of the dynamic stories of the New Testament of the Bible in graphic detail.  They also mixed those stories with important chapters in Spanish history.

One, for example, showed a busy scene in the court of Spain’s most famous royalty, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  The king and queen kept themselves busy primarily with securing Spain as a Christian – almost exclusively Catholic – nation by driving the Muslims and the Sephardic Jews out of the country. They were particularly busy in the memorable year of 1492 when they completed their conquest of the Muslim stronghold of Granada and also agreed to fund the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus.

This particular painting is interesting because it shows a wealthy Jewish merchant standing at a table before the throned monarchs.  An audio tour segment explained to us that the merchant was offering a great sum of money to Ferdinand and Isabella to allow the Jews to stay in Spain and help fund the crusades against the Muslims.  But at the moment captured by the artist, while the merchant is making his case, a passionate member of the court is throwing a crucifix on the table between the merchant and the monarchs.  The inference is that Jesus was betrayed for a sack of silver coins and that the sanctity of the Christian Spanish state should not also be compromised by an offer of treasure. That sort of sentiment apparently influenced the thinking of Ferdinand and Isabella, who remained unmoved in their commitment to expelling the Jews from their nation.

The story, amazingly enough, has implications for Sussex County.  When the Jews left Spain ahead of the lances of the Spaniards, they headed off in many directions, including the new world discovered by Columbus.  Some of them made their way eventually to Sussex.  It’s believed that the Nuñez family, whose grave markers stand prominently in the front rows of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church cemetery in downtown Lewes, descended from a Sephardic Jewish family that once lived in Spain.  Daniel Nuñez was one of the earliest sheriffs of Sussex County, when Lewes was still the county seat, before Georgetown.

The day before we flew back from Madrid to Philadelphia, Spain flexed its dynamic muscle once again. All of the nation’s governmental workers went out on strike, bringing the schools and impressive public transportation system to a near standstill.  The people were protesting, what else, severe cutbacks in government spending, which they said would lead to the end of democracy, a loss of dignified jobs and weaker public education.

We had planned to train our way back from Granada to Madrid, unknowingly, on the day of the strike.  The day before, at the train station in Granada, the helpful man at customer relations said there would be no trains on strike day.  We had to forgo our plans to make another tapas tour of Granada, sitting in the sun of the south and enjoying Spanish wines with thin slices of cured ham, cheese, melon, fresh bread, chorizo, couscous and bowls of varied olives.  Instead, we exchanged our tickets, hustled back to the Hotel Sacromonte where we had checked in but never sat on the beds, grabbed our bags, and hoofed it back to the station to catch a 6 p.m. train to Madrid, on strike eve, with only the taste of hurry in our mouths.

But the trains of Spain are marvelous.  They leave the station on the stroke of the appointed minute and arrive ahead of schedule.  They’re clean, comfortable, affordable and their big windows offer great views of the Spanish countryside. The rolling landscape hypnotized us with mile after mile after mile of olive trees as far as the eye could see – literally millions of them.

It wasn’t hard to understand why people have been willing to fight so hard over the centuries for that fertile land at the western end of the Mediterranean.