P l a n e t
P a r t y 

Pain, particularly the self inflicted variety, is considered grounds for celebration in a number of cultures. Examples of festive pain range from the ritual tortures and mutilations that enliven initiation rites in tribal societies to the self denial imposed by Islam on its followers during Ramadan. The celebration of suffering is justified on various grounds. In some cultures pain is inflicted in order to inure their members to hardships, whereas in others it is endured as an exercise in piety, or as a form of atonement for misdeeds. This last class of self chastisement is common in Christian societies, where it travels under the name of penance.

Seville, an elegant city in the South of Spain has made an art form of out of the milder types of penance, where they have been seized upon as an opportunity to celebrate the bittersweet aspects of life. Mourning dress never goes out of fashion within its precincts, and its citizens are masters at weeping sensual tears. These prodigies of melancholy put all their arts to the test during Semana Santa a week long festival that involves feats of penitential endurance, whilst simultaneously transforming self chastisement into an exquisite type of hedonism. For eight consecutive days and nights the melancholy can dress in mourning and weep and grieve to their heart's content, whilst their senses are charmed with doleful music, the scents of candles, incense and orange blossoms, and a spectacle of penance unrivalled since the 14 th century when the cult of the flagellants was at its prime.

Semana Santa is first and foremost a Christian festival, whose purpose is to commemorate the suffering that Jesus Christ underwent on the cross, in order to win a life in heaven for His followers. Whilst this may seem an unpromising cause for hedonism, it has become so refined in Seville as to present the opportunity to indulge in the most exquisite nuances of sorrow. It may be miserable, but it is also magnificent. The festival consists of a series of processions in which floats mounting tableaux of Christ in his agonies, or images of his mother, the Virgin Mary, are carried through Seville upon the shoulders of the faithful, preceded by brass bands, surrounded by flowers and candles and followed by costumed penitents. Together, these constitute a Passion Play, that uses the streets and squares of the city for its stage, and which dramatises the last week that Christ spent as a man in a suitably splendid, and sorrowful manner.

“True connoisseurs of melancholy hold that the emotive force of the festival is concentrated in two of the floats carrying images of Our lady - the Virgin of Hope of Macarena or La Esperanza de Triana. Whilst the images of Christ that are paraded during Semana Santa are complete statues, often naked bar a crown of thorns and a loin cloth, the images of the virgins, beneath their voluminous gowns, are no more that a bust, in the sculptural sense, that is attached to an cylindrical torso along with a pair of articulated arms. This is a stoke of presentational genius, for it means that all that is visible of each virgin are her face and hands, thus focusing attention on her expression and her gesture. In effect, every white carnation, lily, and candle flame, every ounce of worked silver and every square inch of costly brocade on the pasos exist only in order to direct the eye towards not just a face but an emotion.

Every Madonna is depicted in one of two conditions, either Dolorosa (Pained) or Armargua (Bitter). At the risk of being partisan, I shall describe only La Triana, who is Dolorosa. She is dressed in a snow storm of lace, whose embroidery is as intricate as ice crystals. She is crowned in gold and has more jewels than a Duchess. Her emeralds alone are priceless. Indeed, the expensive style in which such images are maintained is a plain, if effective measure of the esteem that they command. She is presented in a tunnel of white flowers and candles, and the profuse decorations of her paso are composed to focus the attention of the spectator upon her expression of sorrow.

Close up, she is as realistic as a wax work. La Triana is a young woman of no more than twenty-one. She has an oval face with symmetrical features. Her dark eyes are almond shaped, her eyebrows pencil thin. She has real eyelashes, and wears mascara. Crystal tears adhere to her cheeks. She has a rosebud mouth, whose lips are swollen with blood. Between them the tip of her tongue is just visible – a little slice of erotic pink. Her expression is simultaneously sorrowful and carnal, and her mystery derives from the direction of her gaze, for her eyes possess an elusive quality, like the Mona Lisa Smile, and are fixed upon a calamity that we cannot see. She is at her most enchanting at dusk, when the candlelight from her paso begins to sparkle in her emeralds and her tears.”