Apr 12, 2009

Traditional Easter week processions

In Sorrento during the Settimana Santa, the city lives in feverish anticipation. The year's pinnacle celebration is the processions which take place in the last days of Lent between Palm Sunday and Good Friday before Easter. The men and boys of each Venerabile Confraternita (charitable religious brotherhoods) depart from their headquarter church and march through the crowded town streets for hours.

The fascinating procession of hooded figures is an established Sorrento tradition. These liturgical processions during Easter are a demonstration of the genuine religious beliefs of the inhabitants of the region, between Sorrento and neighboring towns, in fact 20 different processions mark the Holy Week celebrations.

Holy Week processions are an event that the people of these towns look forward to with enthusiasm throughout the year. The protagonists of this unusual celebration are the lay confraternities and charity groups of devotees who have been reviving the evangelical message and traditions for centuries. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday - in an atmosphere filled with emotion and mysticism - the men with hooded black, red or white gowns (depending on the tradition of the confraternity), slowly pass by in silence in the streets lit up by torches, carrying statues and symbols of the Passion and death of Christ. It is a disquieting image. The first time I saw the white robes and hoods with holes cut for their eyes exit the Church of the Addolorata and silently walk down the narrow alleys in locked single-step footfall, carrying torches and crucifixes, enveloped in the silence and solmenity of their lugubrious frocks, it all immediately brought to mind disturbing images of crosses burning and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Needless to say, there is absolutely nothing that links the Sorrento Holy Week processions to the surreal values of white supremacy fanatism. Except for an unsettling visual similarity.

Photo by Luigi Soldatini

The origins of these processions date back to the 14th century. At first, the parades were very simple, but in the 18th century, under Spanish rule and the influence of the Jesuits, the processions were embellished with torches, the symbols of the confraternities and the famous "Mysteries" or symbols of the bodily injuries Christ suffered during his ascent to Golgotha. Only men parade in the ritual attire, the tradition is passed from father to son, and every male in the family participates, even kids.

On Maundy Thursday we watched the Processione dell'Addolorata, better known as the "white" procession, since the men all wear white robes. It is one involving over 300 people, and it is organized by the Venerabile Arciconfraternita di Santa Monica. It symbolizes Mary wandering the streets of Jerusalem in search of her son, arrested by the Temple guards the night before the crucifixion. The long and silent march exits the church at sunset. The participants wearing the snow white habit - faces concealed by the typical pointed hood - carry torches, crosses and the statue of the Madonna on their shoulders on a raised platform and march it all through town until dawn. The men chosen to carry the statues are envied by their fellow brethren immensely.

Photo by Luigi Soldatini

The other main procession is on Good Friday. It is the procession of the Cristo Morto, the dead Christ, better known as the "black" procession. It is the Holy Week's most solemn event, organized by the Venrabile Arciconfraternita della Morte.

Photo by Gaetano Astarita

The men wearing black robes and silver medallions sporting a grim skull & bones insignia, have the honorable task of carrying the 18th century wooden sculpture of the deposed Christ, that of the mournful Madonna, plus all sorts of symbolic objects linked to the Passion of the Christ. Among these I spotted a replica of the flagellation column covered with blood, the crown of thorns, the dice used to gamble over Jesus' robes, the nails of the cross, the rooster which tattled on Peter before dawn, the crown of thorns, a symbolic model of the spear used to pierce Jesus' chest, the sponge imbibed with vinegar, and the bag of 30 coins Judas received as payment for turning Christ in. During the long march, many of the street lights of the town are switched off., and a band opens the parade playing a somber funeral march. The streets are illuminated only by the parading torches, and the atmosphere is even more evocative thanks to the deep voices of the over 200 men singing the Gregorian Miserere.

Freaky, isn't it?


  1. Nobody can describe things the way you do, amica mia. This is a wonderfully rich and historical compendium of Settimana Santa. Grazie mille and enjoy the sunshine of Sorrento.

    Wish we were all there with you and E.

  2. I can remember seeing a very similar procession in a mountain village in Spain years ago. It was to an English visitor coming across it unexpectedly utterly terrifying.

  3. Those outfits have a TOTALLY different meaning here in South Carolina!

  4. Hi Lola
    thanks for telling us about these processions and rituals.
    Do you think that the recent tragedy has engendered greater religiosity in Italy?

    I find the hooded figures disturbing as they already are embedded in my consciousness and have a very fear producing effect on my psyche.

    Why do the participants need to have their heads covered I wonder.
    Ritual and religion is a fascinating part of the human condition - and much more visibly present in some parts of the world than others.

  5. Lola, these photos are quite awesome. Interesting to learn the background behind these fearsome-looking hooded figures. I am just imagining the sound of the Miserere... evocative indeed.

    Beautiful images in the earlier post, too :)

  6. Enjoy the sun, the sea (and the sea-food.) Such a rich way of describing things you have.

  7. wowwww-I can only imagine but I get shivers all the way over here in your recounting of the events. Amazing photographs. I have a hard time getting beyond the creepy. Even just in thinking of the age of the tradition, the history still being lived as it was hundreds of years ago, I get more shivers. Very impressive. I would like to see it in person, at least once, I think.

  8. Very different yet interesting for me, and little creepy because they dress hooded!

  9. I know, the pointy hoods immediately trigger all sorts of eery mental connections, especially in South Carolina! We're back home, I'm off to catching up on your blogs. Thank you!

  10. Thank you for the history...I didn't know anything about this custom. Very cool! and poignant to the subject of the ceremony. Especially the black robes.

  11. Amazing photos, intriguing history -- I enjoyed this pairing.

  12. Lola have you taken lessons somewhere on how to describe events so that people become enthralled.


    However, if I saw these people it would scare the beejesus right out of me.

    Love Renee xoxo