The week of Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) is considered the most important cultural and religious event in all of Guatemala. Semana Santa has a long, rich history, which began over 400 years ago as Catholicism spread throughout Guatemala due to the Spanish Conquistadors. Today, Semana Santa can be viewed throughout all of Guatemala, however, there is no city more important during this sacred week than Antigua. It can be argued that Antigua has perhaps the largest, most traditional and famous Holy Weeks in the world. Thousands of tourists flock to Antigua during Semana Santa to witness the spectacular religious processions, alfombras (“carpets”), fabulous floats and vigils. It is said to be an experience of a lifetime.
Unfortunately my trip was timed a month too early. The height of Semana Santa happens the week before Easter. However, little did I know that smaller scale celebrations start on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. Thus during my short stay in Antigua I was able to capture a glance at the magic and sensational beauty of Semana Santa.
Above is a glimpse of a spectacular Alfombra. Alfombras are made of sawdust or sand dyed in brilliant colors and carefully constructed as a work of art.
The first thing my friend Lucy pointed out to me as we walked down the streets of Antigua were the lovely purple and white Semana Santa flags. They were everywhere, decorating the buildings, awnings and churches throughout Antigua. Purple is the color of Semana Santa and represents penitence. Purple is everywhere and can also be seen worn by the men, women and children who carry the large floats during the processions.
There are tons of places throughout town selling Semana Santa gear such as the shop below. The moldings for making alfombras can be seen in the lower righthand corner.
Inside the Catedral de Santiago, I saw my first alfombra and religious statues that would be used on the floats. The sacred statues depict scenes of Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are hand-carved of wood, intricately painted, and are considered a work of art.
What is so amazing about these statues is that they are only a small piece of the enormous floats which are carried around by up to 100 men or women on their shoulders, throughout the cobblestone streets of Antigua during a procession. The floats generally weigh over 3,000 kilos/6,600 pounds and are carried throughout the entire city for hours. Given the enormous weight, each group of churchgoers generally carry the float only one block where the next team of 100 or so people take over for the next block. A single procession can require thousands of participants to carry each float and lasts for hours! (Source: All About Antigua Guides 2012).
Later that afternoon, we were lucky to witness a procession by some of the local children. Here are some of the photos below.
Above is the alfombra cleaner. Each alfombra is placed on the street sometimes moments before the procession arrives and tramples it down. All that work and beauty destroyed in a flash!
The gorgeous, colorful albombras are often a work of art in their own right. Each processional carpet is made with extreme care and artistic imagination. First, the mold is built as per below. Often this is selected several months before the finished alfombra is made.
Next, the colored sawdust or sand is arranged in images and patterns which is typically laid out on the cobblestone streets where the procession will trample. (This photo below of the alfombra is taken from inside of a church Catedral de Santiago and is the first alfombra I saw while in Antigua):
Alfombras are usually decorated with flowers as well as different fruits and offerings. What makes them so unique and amazing is the tremendous amount of work that is involved and the camaraderie among family and friends who create them together. The alfombras are unique to Guatemala and originated back in the 16th century by the marriage of Spanish and indigenous influences.
Later in the day, Lucy and I visited another church where we were surprised to find another alfombra, this one was absolutely striking.
This alfombra above is one of my favorites. The colors were so incredibly beautiful and bright that I had to take several pictures from different angles. It is also well adorned with fruits and flowers, representing rebirth and an offering.
I can only imagine what this weekend has been like in lovely Antigua as the Semana Santa celebrations come to the ultimate climax. I am certain it is an experience one would never forget. I look forward to reading my friend and fellow blogger Lucy’s (of Loca4Motion) next post. I am certain it will be fabulous and show me what I missed.