Tuesday, April 15, 2014

¿A que está bonita la virgen?

 We’re pressed into the corner of the bright chapel where you can see the virgin’s face. She is crying. All you can see of her is her face and hands, held before her. The rest of her is covered by a huge triangular dress decorated with elaborate gold embroidery. She stands behind tall white candles and above her the ceiling of her float is a deep crimson velvet. The gold hilt of a dagger protrudes from her bosom where her heart has been stabbed. Little stars stick out around her gold crown that seems also to be a halo.

“¿A que está bonita la virgen?” a woman asks her son, holding him up. “Isn’t the virgin pretty?” He is just old enough to say a few words, but he isn’t saying anything now. Nearby a baby girl makes cooing noises as she points to the gold and silver metalwork around the base of the float. It is the evening before the float will be processed out of the tiny chapel that people are lining up to enter. The Virgin will leave her house at 5pm and won’t return home until after 2am.

She’s not the only one. Nine processions will occur on Palm Sunday alone. Crying virgins dressed in gold and silver will grace the streets of the entire city throughout Semana Santa (Holy Week). This one, La Virgen de la Estrella, will make her rounds from Triana across the river all the way to the Cathedral and back. Drummers and trumpet-players whose practices I have been hearing for the past few weeks will accompany her rhythmic march. 

It is the season of First Communions, when little girls dress in bright white premonitions of their wedding gowns and stand by the river at sunset for their photos to be taken. They smile angelically into the distance with their skirts almost touching the ground. The First Communion marks the Age of Reason, at which the child is able to discern right from wrong, and therefore is able both to sin and to be aware of her sins. But in her white dress, the little girl is perfectly clean of all sin and receives the Body and Blood of Christ with a clear conscience. The girl will grow up, her body will change, and it will be impossible for her to remain free of “sin.” But the photograph will remain in the family album, unchanging, a memory of a time when she was still “innocent.”

Why does the sinless, beautiful young virgin hold such power in Catholic cultures, and especially in Andalucía? The Virgen de los Mareantes, a Renaissance painting by Alejo Fernández in the Chapel of the Admiral in the Reales Alcázares of Sevilla, depicts a tall, luminous virgin in a long, gold-embroidered dress with a dark cape billowing out behind her. Her arms are outstretched as she somewhat superciliously looks down upon the much smaller figures of men at her feet. The ocean, filled with ships, is a puddle before her. The men are famous navigators, many of whom gaze up at her as if in total dependence, their hands clasped in prayer. A few women can be seen, too, but only in the very back, looking pious. Ominous storm-clouds and a fiery sky above her hint at the dangers of the sea from which her cape protects these people—if she wishes. It was my cousin who pointed out to me, upon visiting the Alcázares, the immense power of this woman. Is her power inherent in her virginity, or does it stem from the men’s perception of her? Or is it both? Is she powerful because her body, completely clothed, is hers and hers alone?

The statues in the processions are all “virgins.” They are not “Marys.” They have delicate young, anguished faces with graceful features. But their enormous robes with long trains leave the rest to the imagination. These are indeed powerful figures. People stand for hours in the hot Sevilla sun to watch them. Hundreds of Nazarenos—mostly men—march at her feet, sometimes barefoot. And sweating men carry her for hours in the curtained darkness beneath the float.

* * *

It is six-thirty p.m. on Palm Sunday. I have been standing outside so long that the sun has crossed the street and the shade has come to meet me. Young men in suits hug their girlfriends in Sunday dresses from behind as they wait. Little girls in Mary Janes and matching hair ribbons wiggle impatiently. The Cristo de las Penas passed by a long time ago—a float, or paso, bearing an anguished Jesus with his face upturned in the garden before his betrayal and death. “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays, and said chalice lies in a corner. 

Cristo de las Penas
The music is far away and no longer audible and at least a thousand Nazarenos have marched past, wearing purple velvet pointed hoods. I ask the man behind me if the virgin is going to come out last. He tells me she should be coming out in no time at all. A few minutes later, he points out the incense billowing from the entrance of the church. I stand on my toes and try to see better. Through my sunglasses I can see the white candles of the front of the paso already lit. The music starts up again, and here she is, resplendent in the sunlight against the flawless blue sky. The music is bright and triumphant, and the tassels on the trim around the roof of the paso swing from side to side with its marked time as she turns, little by little, to face forward and head off down the street.

Virgen de la Estrella
She doesn’t get too far before a chorus of shhh hushes everyone and I hear a saeta. That is, someone has started singing to the virgin in a highly controlled voice of anguish that matches the statue’s expression. The procession has stopped and everyone listens. It is a single, mature female voice, but it carries far. The praising lament ebbs and flows, getting louder and softer. It has the gypsy sound of minor chords, like the flamenco tunes so present in this neighborhood. The singer is in no hurry. Nazarenos re-light the candles that have already flickered out in the wind while she sings. There is a trancelike, prayerful quality to the song. And when it ends, everyone claps.

* * *

After midnight, many children are still up. The stream of Nazarenos, with their candles as big as staffs lit now, spans many blocks and snakes through the city. Spectators sit on stoops, yawning. One boy holds out a bumpy ball of wax about the size of a soccer ball and a Nazareno lets the wax from his big candle drip onto the ball. The boy turns the ball so it falls evenly.

The Giralda—the tall Islamic tower of the Cathedral—watches the Virgin as she dances steadily, almost imperceptibly, from side to side to turn a particularly tight corner. Her candles are white and bright against the night. There is the special moment when she is in mid-turn and is directly facing you. And then she has already turned further and is almost facing forward to head down the next street. The music hushes and swells. In a hushed moment, a few men in the front lines by the virgin call out to her that she’s damn pretty—just the way they would to a hot woman on the street, only with more intensity.

A couple of girls chuck their flats into their purses and bring out the platform heels. A tired septuagenarian sits down on the bank of the river, frustrated that she lacks the energy to follow the pasos. A couple argues about whether to push through the crowds on the Triana Bridge to see the Christ-in-the-garden paso.

An hour later, the virgin is finally back in her neighborhood. On her way home she takes her time. She stops frequently. Each time she stops and settles gracefully into place as the men who bear her set her down to rest, someone sings her a saeta. 

An impeccably dressed man beside me begins to complain about the saeta that’s being sung. He wants it to stop. “Que ésta es la Estrella, ¡no la Luz!” he says. “This is the Virgen of the Star, not of the Light!” The saeta ends and everyone claps as usual. I clap softly, having heard this man’s complaints. We’re all watching for the virgin to be lifted and to move again, when suddenly another saeta begins, this time right beside me.

The well-dressed man is singing. I can hear the words clearly this time because I am so close. (From far away, the saetas mostly just sound like floating notes to me. Like flamenco songs, they are sung in a strong Andalusian gypsy accent that eats consonants and changes vowels, making the words difficult for an outsider to understand.) The man compares her to a lily and sings, “¿A qué vienes a casa a estas horas?” “Why are you coming home so late?” His voice is impressive. “Hija de Joaquín…” But they cut him off. The virgin is up again, with a brusque bounce of the float that sends everything swinging but destabilizes nothing, and the band has started up again.

“Thank you for the saeta,” I tell the man as the virgin moves forward again. “I liked it.”

“They didn’t let me,” he says, but he is smiling. He got to sing to his virgin.

At the entrance to her house, the virgin backs up to the door slowly, slowly, like a child who doesn’t want the party to end. “But I’m not tired!” she seems to be saying, with her tiny steps as she sways gently from side to side. And when the music swells, she comes back out again, and everybody claps. We’re all like children who don’t want the party to stop.

This happens once more, and on the third swell of the music, she actually goes in. She’s safely home now in the house of her Father, and her foray into the wild world is all over until next year—when she will still be just as young and beautiful. The last of the candles disappears behind the doorway, and the people clap. It’s time for everyone to go home—at 3:20am.

¿A que está bonita la virgen? Isn’t she pretty?