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Photo © Juan Sierra

San Vicente de la Sonsierra seems at first sight to be an inconsequential slip of a place. The village in the Rioja Alta wine region boasts little more than a thousand souls and, on this typically lazy Spanish Sunday afternoon, San Vicente beats to a relaxed rhythm. The village enjoys a dominant hilltop position, affording views to the distant Sierra de Cantabria and, closer to hand, over the surrounding vineyards to the Ebro, here a river of languid loops seemingly in no rush to get anywhere fast. Just like the inhabitants of San Vicente.

Nothing in the quiet village hints of what will soon unfold. For on this particular Sunday afternoon, San Vicente de la Sonsierra hosts a peculiarly lurid festival, an expression of faith, spirituality and culture that will have villagers lashing their own backs in a frenzy of self- flagellation.

I am fascinated by this extraordinary piece of religious theatre. And I am intrigued by the flagellants’ concern for hooded anonymity. All I know is that, for admittance to the Santa Vera Cruz fraternity, a villager must be an adult male in good standing with the Catholic Church.

“It will be best if you come for the September celebrations of the Holy Cross,” suggests Teodoro, a cofrade of the Vera Cruz brotherhood who had convinced me a few months ago to delay my visit and wait for a more appropriate time. It’s hard to understand what constitutes a ‘more appropriate time’ to watch a festival of self-flagellation. But Teodoro explains. “The September procession is much the same as that at Easter, but it’s an altogether quieter affair. It doesn’t pull the tourists and the media. All the elements of the picaos will still be there.”

So I abide by Teodoro’s injunction and make late-summer tracks for the Ebro Valley, there to witness on this September Sunday afternoon the most awful, and yet for many most inspiring, of all penances. It is called Los Picaos de San Vicente de la Sonsierra. The term Los Picaos needs a little unpacking. It’s a colloquialism that refers to one who is pricked or jabbed.

Across much of Europe, the religious rites of yesteryear are fading. But the Picaos does more than merely survive. It thrives and in its Easter rendition has become a staple in the tourist calendar. It feeds on a curious mix of tradition and devotion, aided and abetted by the morbid fascination of onlookers.

In the bar of the main square, old and young are playing cards. This is so standard a sabbatical routine that I do wonder if I have erred in the matter of either date or venue (or both). But up at Santa María la Mayor Church, there is evidence that the preliminaries are underway. Here members of the cofradía have gathered. In a small hermitage next to the church, a number of men are getting dressed in distinctive religious robes. A large wooden cross, a lightly embroidered white stole draped over it, rests against the wall of the building.

Inside the church, a group of children wearing the distinctive armband that denotes some association with the cofradía are busy adorning a statue of the Virgin and playing on a paso — the religious float that will be used in the procession. Two cofrades arrive and take the lead in lifting the Virgin onto the paso. The children are visibly ex-

cited, each and every one of them evidently relishing the chance to take part in the evolving pageant. There is a sudden flurry. Enter stage right three women dressed in black. No ordinary village women, these shadowy figures cloaked in dark velvet, each with her ankles shackled. This is a trinity of Marías — women who each year volunteer to take part in the penitential ritual. There is silence as the children gaze, partly in fear, partly in anticipation, at the trio. That silence is broken as the three move up the transept, the shackles on their feet hitting the floor with every synchronised step.

The dramatis personae are extended as a penitent makes an entrance. Wearing a white tunic and a brown cape with a white cross, he is led into the church by one of the established members of the Vera Cruz brotherhood. The penitent is hooded, two small holes allowing some vision, but his identity is quite concealed beneath his strange garb. The hooded man makes his way towards the altar, kneels down and bows his head. He too is barefoot and wears shackles.

While the principals in this great drama pray in silence, I scan the interior of the church. The decoration, a heady melange of Gothic morphing into baroque and back again, is expressive, powerful, sometimes even operatic in mood. Here, on the sculptured faces of saints and apostles, there are a range of expressions. There is high art and rich colour, all contrasting sharply with the stark simplicity and sobriety of the praying figures devoutly prostrated before the altar. There is a magnetic allure to this scene, accentuated all the more by the nervous sighs of the penitent.

Our cast is not yet complete. Now arrives the parish priest, a move that is evidently the cue for the cofradía who now diligently prepare to carry the paso out of the church. But, as soon as the procession is in the open air, the first heavy drops of rain start to fall.

This heavenly intervention is clearly not in the script, and the bearers are anxious that the valuable and delicate religious ornaments adorning the float are not soaked. They retreat into the cover of the church. The women in shackles and the penitent calmly wait for the rain to abate, seemingly oblivious to the kids, who by now have become restless and excitable and are playing hide-and-seek inside the church. The parish priest rapidly improvises a solution to keep them in check and summons the children.

“Who is the one right at the top?” he asks the children.

“God, our Father,” most reply in unison.

“Very good. And the person next to him?”

“St Vincent.” This time just a few mutter the correct answer.

“There you have him, St Vincent, our patron saint.”

This little exchange nicely recalls the medieval practice of using the altarpiece and other elements of church decoration as educational tools. There is something special about this hypnotic moment which casts back to a preliterate age in this and hundreds of other similar villages around Spain.

And this moment of waiting in the church evokes scenes from the most delicate of Renaissance paintings, a priest and children focusing in unity on the altar, a kneeling man seeking penance, women in shackles quietly attending to their prayers and the cofradía monitoring the rain outside while applying last-minute touches to the paso.

After a short while the rain abates and the procession begins.

Each participant has his or her specific place in the procession — leading the way is a group of cofrades, immediately followed by the remaining members of the brotherhood who bear the float. Five altar boys, carrying processional crosses and lanterns, and the priest follow on. Next in the procession is the penitent, accompanied by the brother assigned to him. Lastly are the three Marías, who have been joined by around fifty villagers by the time the procession has left the plaza in front of the church.

Surprisingly few watch on as the procession tracks an hour-long route passing San Vicente’s main square and continuing up to the Calvary, a small hill outside the village. In Holy Week, the route would be lined by visitors, some sharing the devotional intent of the participants, others mere onlookers, keen to catch a glimpse of this oddball cultural performance.

The procession drips symbolism. Crosses mark the path, each representing a chapter in the via crucis, and the march stops every one hundred metres to allow for the priest to lead a reading and prayer. The penitents and the Marías, who by now are feeling the strain of the dryness and harshness of the terrain, kneel down at each of the stops along this via dolorosa. The path of suffering is never easy.

At the top of the hill, we turn and retrace our footsteps back to the village, now with dusk slipping into darkness. Four more penitents, all dressed in the same distinctive garb as the first, join the procession. There is a palpable sense that the climax is nigh. On the journey out to the Calvary, many villagers blithely ignored the proceedings, but all are gathered to await the procession’s return. All wait in silence, the fall of harsh shackles on the worn cobbles announcing that the cast is returning from the hill.

The procession and the villagers meet and wait for the final member of the cast: the village doctor (clinically labelled by his latex gloves and the small medical case that he carries). Without the doctor, the show cannot go on.

The last act of the drama commences as each accompanying brother removes the brown cape from the flagellant he is assisting, leaving their hood in place. The back is exposed and the shackles are removed from each man’s ankles. Each flagellant is handed a whip, consisting of a tangle of thick threads, resembling a horse’s mane. They grab the whips firmly by the hilt and begin the self-whipping.

Dry, firm, rhythmic. Relentlessly lashing their own backs. Left, right, left, right, left, right.

In a demonstration of vigour, they stand on their tiptoes and arch their bodies forward to obtain more thrust to their lashing. The villagers watch. Even those who earlier seemed bored by the entire venture are now mesmerised by the spectacle. The faces of the mute onlookers reveal a range of emotions. Some are deeply respectful, yet for others the entire episode is utterly inexplicable. All knew what to expect, for all have seen this ritual many times, yet few could properly anticipate the strong emotions that the scene invariably evokes. But not all are so powerfully affected. Parents may be spellbound, but their children play hide-and-seek only just off-stage.

The flagellants are engrossed in self-mortification, each striving for a personal ecstasy, often egged on and encouraged by the watching crowd. I wonder if all this would happen, were it not for the onlookers. Is the spectacle made by the witnesses? Would these men be so inspired, so driven to self-harm, if there were no crowd. Are they doing this because it is expected of them, or is the passion and spirit in their actions solely theirs? Unintentional or not, it is difficult not to regard the public as an influential accomplice as the event unfolds — the public and flagellants locked into feeding off, and needing, each other.

All five flagellants, each separated from one another by about ten metres, continue uninterrupted as the procession slowly wends its way back towards the church. After thirty absorbing minutes of countless whipping, the doctor approaches each of the penitents individually. As the medic approaches, the repenter ceases the self-flagellation, kneels, and waits for the doctor to prick his back with a “sponge”, or rather six sharp crystals embedded into a ball of wax.

Nothing here is a matter of chance. Every move is laced with meaning. The doctor applies each end of each crystal to the back, leaving it punctured in twelve spots, each symbolising an Apostle. By now the crowd has closed in around the scene, increasing the tension and sense of foreboding. A respect for tradition and devotion is permeated by awe, fear and silence. And blood.

None of the five penitents emits a sound during the entire awful process, although one almost faints. If the frenzied self-whipping has anesthetised the pain, the pricking acts as crude reminder of the suffering they are enduring.

With blood rushing out of each bruised back, some penitents resume the whipping to improve its flow and alleviate the pain. Shortly after, the accompanying brothers cover the penitents’ backs, replacing the capes before leading their bruised and bloody charges away from the procession. They disappear into the poorly lit backstreets. By the time the last penitent has left, we arrive at the church. The wooden cross is taken away, and the villagers proceed behind the paso into the church to attend Mass.

With the procession finished, San Vicente relaxes into the normality of the Mass. A Mass like any other. And those of the villagers who have no inclination to attend Mass retire to local bars and cafés.

Who were those men? And who were the Marías? What possessed them to take part in this extraordinary ritual of suffering? What have they done that has led to this display of self-harm? All I know is that they are people with vices and virtues, sentiments and feelings, just like any of us. The questions remain unanswered, which is probably for the best. The surrounding mystery makes it all the more evocative. Nobody will know of the five men’s sacrifice unless they decide to tell.

A silent witness to the anonymous self- imposed suffering of strangers, I leave convinced that all present have participated intensely in a truly intimate moment. I leave back to where I came from, like a penitent, to continue life as normal.

© Copyright - Diego Vivanco