Tag Archives: Semana Santa

Easter in León

The Bishop of Leon and other priests during jueves santo mass.

The celebrations of Semana Santa in León are bright and powerful, with fireworks crackling, processions of hundreds, and long masses presided over by the bishop and fleets of priests and altar boys in full regalia.

The energy of the Catholics in attendance defied both the incredible heat of the dry season and the temptation to join half the country on the beach!

On Thursday afternoon I went to the “solemn mass” at the cathedral with my Catholic friend Claudia.  Since I was raised agnostic, everything that takes place in church is, well, Latin to me! Claudia was an excellent guide, explaining rituals and prepping me for photo opportunities.

Women in the choir

The solemn mass was, mercifully, short (unlike the three hour-long Saturday evening mass which culminates in Christ’s resurrection.)  Yet it was full of ceremonial detail: musky incense wafted through the massive marble expanse, the words of the priest echoing with each swing of the censer; a small choir of young women and a handful of young men harmonized over the songs of the flock; women knelt, heads bent in prayer, on the steps around the edges of the altar.

(I’ve included some recordings: click on the links to listen.)

Sounds of the Solemn Mass

Near the end of the mass a dozen men of the community sat waiting in two pews at the front of the cathedral, their bare feet visible beneath brown pant legs.  When the bishop stepped down from the high altar, the crowd drew in to watch as he washed their feet with water from a glass pitcher.

Claudia explained, “It’s an act of humility, and it reminds us of what Jesus did before the Last Supper, washing the feet of his disciples.”

The procession of the seven altars

After the mass the bishop led the congregation to seven other altars, starting with the rarely-open chapel adjacent to the cathedral.

Claudia and I and a couple friends joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets in the dusk.  Though another friend later scolded me, “You’re supposed to go to all seven,” after hours of standing during mass we just visited two churches, the somber La Merced and yellow-trimmed St. Francisco.

Songs of the procession of seven altars

Friday's procession

The bells were silent on holy Friday, the streets mostly empty.  In late morning another procession flowed through the city, with larger-than-life icons held aloft on the shoulders of the congregation.  The bearers dripped with sweat in the midday sun, though they continued singing and praying with the loudspeaker mounted on a pick-up in the middle of the procession.

Maria was borne by several dozen men and women, a bouquet of lilies at her feet.

Bearing Maria

A massive statue of Christ robed in red needed an entourage to proceed it through the streets—men with long wooden poles lifted the electric lines for it to pass under.

The bells found their voices again Saturday night after the mass to mark Christ’s resurrection, the whole city booming with fireworks and ringing with sound.

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Art and Faith during Holy Week

On Good Friday I was immersed in color and tradition in Subtiava, a barrio of León.  I came for Semana Santa, Holy Week, and accompanied my Catholic friends to several masses and processions.  (I’ll write more about those in my next post).  But I was particularly excited to see the colored sawdust paintings that cover the streets in Subtiava, part of a 75 year-long tradition.

Moses parting the waters.

Most of the paintings depicted Biblical stories, while some were images of Jesus or designs with religious symbols.  My Catholic friends helped me understand the meaning—for each painting they identified the story, looking for clues in the characters or props, occasionally asking other people for help.

The narrow “street of the carpets” was closed off all day and flooded with Nicaraguan and international tourists and Leoneses all afternoon.

The paintings range from five by seven feet to six by 10 feet, every inch saturated in color.

Different families design and create the paintings, called “carpets of sawdust” in Spanish for their thickness.  They start in mid-morning and work all day in the hot summer sun to complete them.   But the process starts weeks before, with the design and preparation of materials.

A painting in progress

Sawdust dregs

One artist told me they use powdered clothing dye to get the rich colors of sawdust.  Some artists used paper, twigs, salt, leaves, flowers, seeds, and even glitter in their paintings.

Traditionally, each generation teaches the next the art of alfombras: one man was working with his young daughter to finish his design.

And there were many other kids spreading sawdust.  I joked with this boy, “Jesus needs his beard!”

A teenager I spoke with gestured to the small homes behind him and said those four households of his family work on the mural, including “all the cousins.”  The parents and grandparents sat in rocking chairs on the shady stoop, watching the tradition unfold in the care of new hands.

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