The time before Easter known as Holy Week, is one of the most sacred times of year for Catholics everywhere. In Italy, this solemn time is called La Settimana Santa and is marked with ancient processions that commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. People from around the world travel to Italy to take part in these elaborate, deeply moving religious ceremonies. Italians celebrate the days of La Settimana Santa with various rituals that are a rich blend of faith, folklore, tradition and community.
La Domenica delle Palme (Palm Sunday)
Palm Sunday, or La Domenica delle Palme, marks the beginning of Holy Week. In towns throughout Italy, worshipers carry crosses made from palm fronds and olive branches as they return from church. Since olive trees are more abundant than palm trees, olive branches are far more common than palms on La Domenica delle Palme. Occasionally priests carry finely woven palm fronds, but most Italians carry olive branches that are handed out at the entrance to the church.
Lunedì Santo (Holy Monday)
On Lunedì Santo, or Holy Monday, a large celebration takes place in Castelsardo, a Sardinian town famous for its elaborate Holy Week celebrations. The faithful mark the day with a ritual called Lunissanti, which begins at dawn and continues through the night. Wearing capes, leather belts and hoods, members of the Confraternita di S. Croce, or Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, assemble at the Holy Maria of Tergu Church, where rites and religious ceremonies are celebrated. When the sun rises, the Mass ends and the procession begins.
Martedì Santo (Holy Tuesday)
In the Sardinian village of Iglesias, the first Holy Week activity takes place on Martedì Santo, with the procession of “The Mysteries.” Seven statues representing various moments of the Passion of Christ are carried around the city streets. A small chair decorated with flowers and olive branches symbolizing the Garden of Gethsemane is followed by Christ imprisoned, Christ scourged, Christ crowned with thorns, Christ walking towards Calvary, Christ crucified and finally, the image of the Madonna Addolorata.
Giovedì Santo (Holy Thursday)
Across Italy, devotees gather in the late afternoon or early evening of Giovedì Santo (Holy Thursday) for the Mass of the Last Supper. In a gesture of humility, priests, bishops and even the Pope himself, recreate Christ’s bathing of the feet of the Apostles, by washing the feet of twelve parishioners.
On Holy Thursday, all church bells, including handheld altar bells, are silenced across Italy until the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday, but that does not mean that all is quiet. In the north of Italy, near the border with France lies Ceriana, the Singing Village. On the afternoon of Holy Thursday, the sound of spiral longhorns made from chestnut bark herald the start of the commemorations. A procession wanders through the village’s alleys with hooded clergymen draped in a traditional dress, each wearing a cape in one of the colors of the four confraternities. Throughout the procession, choral singing makes the ceremony a unique and beautiful event.
Further south in Montalto Ligure, during the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a group of men and boys sing sacred chants to the melancholic, yet mournful sounds of a trumpets and drums as they walk through the old streets of the village.
Also in the region of Ligure is the village of Molini di Triora. Holy Thursday is celebrated following afternoon Mass with a procession and ritual “Visit to the Tombs” at the various churches and chapels of the village. The day ends at the tables with a traditional fresciöi-based dinner (fried breaded vegetables).
In the region of Puglia, a Holy Thursday procession takes place in Taranto known as the Addolorata, or Our Lady of Sorrows. Beginning at midnight, it follows a long route through the town, returning the following afternoon. At five o’clock on Friday, the procession sets out from the Church of St. Mary of Carmel and returns the next morning after another long pilgrimage. The pilgrims, called perdoni, walk bare-footed and cover their faces with hoods. The slow and prolonged march covers about 100 feet per hour.
Venerdì Santo (Good Friday)
Many villages in Italy stage dramatic processions and the Stations of the Cross for Venerdì Santo. The oldest Good Friday procession in Italy is held in Chieti in the Abruzzi region. It features 100 violinists playing Selecchi’s “Miserere.” One of the most beloved Venerdi Santo processions takes place in Savona, in Liguria. The origin of the procession can be traced back to the first festivals of medieval Brotherhoods. Beginning in the 17th century, the procession was enriched by elaborate statues that depicted scenes of the life of Christ. The procession begins with the Croce di Passione (Cross of Passion), followed by fourteen statues, the final being the Arca San Croce (Saint Cross Ark), which contains a sacred relic from the Cross of Christ
In Sorrento, near the Amalfi Coast, there are two Good Friday processions – the white procession in the morning, with participants wearing white, symbolic of Mary’s hope as she searches for her son and the black procession in the evening, where black represents Mary’s sorrow as she beholds her son’s lifeless body.
Further south on the island of Sicily, the most well-known ceremony of devotion is the “Mysteries of Trapani” on Good Friday. Men from the town carry statues through the streets, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross. Thousands line the streets awaiting the arrival of the Virgin Mary “in search” of her son. A similar procession takes place in Caltanisetta on Maundy Thursday.
In Enna, more than 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes march through the streets on Good Friday, while in Trapani, another Sicilian town, the solemn procession lasts for 24 hours. In the town of Ispica in Sicily, processions begin on Holy Thursday with U Patri a Culonna – Christ tied at the column. This includes a parade of the Confrati of Santa Maria Maggiore, wearing traditional red vests. On Good Friday is the U Patri a Cruci – Christ carrying the cross, with a parade of the Confrati of the Annunziata Church wearing blue vests. On Easter Sunday, the two confraternite are reunited for the procession of the Risuscitatu – Christ Resurrected, with the meeting between the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
On Sardinia, the Holy Week rituals in Alghero – Setmana Santa de l’Alguer, are among the most striking. Easter traditions date back to the 16th century and are still organized by the Confraternita della Misericordia (the Brotherhood of Misericordia). The focus of all the rituals is the Santcristus wooden statue of Christ. In the care of the Brotherhood of Gonafalone in the Church of Misericordia, the statue landed in Alghero in 1606, during the shipwreck of the Santa Maria di Montenero that was heading to Genoa. The wooden Christ of Alicante, Santcristus floated ashore and became the most representative symbol of the town. The first procession in Alghero begins on Good Friday. Traditionally, women dressed in black follow the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the town.
Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday)
Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday) is a day of silence and prayer in honor of the dead Christ. Mass is not celebrated and the tabernacle, which usually contains Communion hosts, is left empty and open. After sundown the solemn Easter Vigil begins with the liturgy of fire and the lighting of the Easter candle, which represents the “Light of Christ.” Readings from the Gospels recount the appearance of the angels to the women who came to the tomb in search of Christ. During the liturgy of the baptism, all the faithful renew their baptismal vows.
One of the few Holy Saturday events takes place in Montalto Ligure in Liguria, where residents mark the day with a procession of papier-mâché statues representing the various Stations of the Cross. The Holy Week festivities in the valleys of the Alps of Liguria are marked by their mysticism and their strong sense of tradition. Here lies a concentration of villages where processions of hooded penitents and medieval musical repertoires have been handed down through generations.
Next week for our Easter Edition, the Italian Tribune will visit various places throughout Italy and examine how this special day is celebrated.