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An Italian experience of Holy Week

An Italian experience of Holy Week

Holy Week in Ruvo di Puglia


In the holy days leading up to the Easter, right cross the Southern part of Italy, villages, towns and cities, people prepare to celebrate the mystery of Easter through a series of religious processions and rituals.  These traditions can be traced back to the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the Southern part of Italy was under the control of the Spanish during the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. For centuries now, the holy week rituals have captured the imagination of the Southern Italians to the extent that any attempt by the Catholic Church to abolish these traditions has been met with fierce opposition from the people; one example that the will of the people can be stronger than the power of the Established Church.


In my hometown of Ruvo di Puglia, on the Friday before palm Sunday, the Procession of the “Desolata” – the desolate one – starts out from the Church of San Domenico. The beautiful statue, a young Madonna standing near a huge wooden cross, mourning the death of her Son Jesus Christ, is proudly carried by fifty men, all dressed in white robes. A great number of devout people, along each side of the streets precede the cortege, carrying candles and reciting the rosary. Near the statue young children are dressed like the protagonists of the Easter story. Boys, aged between 7 and 10 dress in red robes like Jesus, each carrying a small cross, little girls come dressed in pale blue robes in honour of the Virgin Mary, or like Mary Magdalene, wearing their long hair down, covering their faces.

The statue, which is beautifully adorned with thousands of white flowers, is followed by a small crowd of men, headed by the mayor and all the local authorities. The last element in the procession (often around a kilometre long) is the town band.


The highly skilled and celebrated town band follows all of the processions that take place over Holy week, playing music especially composed for these particular processions by the Ruvo born composer Alessandro Amenduni,. The group of musicians, which is always composed of men, ranges from youngsters banging drums, to grand old men playing beautiful brass instruments. The melancholy melodies soar out, filling the streets, creating a beautiful musical atmosphere that supports the public experience of each procession. The music leaves no space for doubt or scepticism; its presence reinforcing the experience of people who already believe.

In the early hours of Maundy Thursday, at 2 am to be precise, the whole town of Ruvo awakes for the Procession of ‘Otto Santi’- the Eight Saints. The procession is named in honour of the splendid statue that leads the procession.

The statue which was made at the end of the nineteenth century by Raffaele Caretta, depicts the carrying of Jesus’ body by Joseph of Arimatea, Nicodemus, and Saint John, also present is the Virgin Mary, gazing up to the sky and indicating the body of her Son, with Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophe and Mary Salomè gathering at the rear end of the statue. The statue (approximately 3 metres in length and 2 metres wide) is truly striking in size, it is astonishing to think that it is made form papier mache.

In the main town square of Piazza Castello, the gathering crowd, loud and restless, suddenly become silent when, from the tiny church of San Rocco, the beautiful statue, featuring the eight saints, is slowly and delicately brought out. The statue, which only very narrowly fits through the church door, requires careful manoeuvring by the 50 (sic) people who are carefully arranged underneath it. The exit manoeuvre taking often as much as 5 minutes, is a truly moving spectacle, especially as accompanied by the Banda’s sorrowful tune. Prayers are said at the exit of the church before the procession moves on, it’s itinerary fixed, street by street, as it travels around the whole town on a journey lasting 8 hours.


Good Friday in Ruvo, sees the longest procession ‘I Misteri’ – The mysteries. At 3 pm, the hour of Jesus’ death, from the Church of Carmine, in the historic centre of Ruvo, the statue of the dead Jesus is taken through the streets to the cathedral to meet his mother, the statue of the Virgin of Our Sorrow; her statue dressed in black lace, a dagger through her heart.


A silent and mournful crowd of worshippers follow the cortege, as it is joined by a series of other statues (9 in all) telling the story of Jesus’ Passion.  The best loved statue seems to be  “The calvary”, the statue of Jesus bearing the cross on his journey to the cross, always followed by a group of devout men and women, bare foot.


On Holy Saturday the last sorrowful procession ‘la Pietà’: from the church of Purgatorio, the Confraternity of St. Maria del Suffragio carrying a beautiful, Virgin Mary, looking almost younger than her Son, holding his bleeding, battered, dead body. When looking at it, it is hard not to imagine that the artist was inspired by Michelangelo’s masterpiece.


On Easter morning the procession of the Risen Christ starts from the Church of S. Domenico, thousands of joyful children waving national flags follow the procession, the banda play joyful, happy tunes, but nothing prepares the tourist to the extraordinary rite of the explosion of “Quarandone”. This unusual rite, sees puppets of old ladies- dressed in black (similar to our guy fawkes dummies) hung up above town squares from the first day of Lent. The old women, often bearing umbrellas, symbolise the denial and sacrifices associated with Lent. On Easter day, these old women are exploded with fireworks; their destruction symbolising the victory of life over death, Spring over the coldness of winter.


Maria Amesbury

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