Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Good Friday in Córdoba
In the past 50 years the Anglican Church has been desperately taking itself down-market in order to hold onto an ever-diminishing national congregation. The original 1662 Prayer Book with its rolling phrases and mind-bending metaphors has been replaced by the flat literalism of Series 3. The King James Bible has been successively re-versioned in language deemed more intelligible to the modern ear. Hymns Ancient and Modern have given way to the la-la-bump of evangelical pop. The effect of these sacrificial changes on older clerics who had been drawn into the Church by the beauty of the language could be catastrophic. The amazingly well educated Dean of one of our greatest cathedrals, I remember being reassured by a senior Canon, had gone completely mad – and so indeed in a hyper-civilised way, he turned out to be. The Rector of my own rural village many years ago could not restrain himself at Matins on Christmas and Easter Day – the only times the church was filled with parents and children – from discoursing vehemently on the evils of the times, with frequent references to Fornication and (may he rest in peace) the broadcaster David Frost.

The Catholic Church in Andalusia may suffer similar anxieties in its private moments. But no such reservations are permitted to cloud the clerical mind during Santa Semana – the Spanish Holy week – the week of the great religious processions. And nowhere are those processions more numerous and more powerful in their imagery than in the former great Moorish cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Granada – the latter only seized back and recolonised by the Christians in 1492.

Day by day and night by night during Holy Week, huge candlelit floats carried by dozens of men rock and roll majestically through the city streets, depicting the the events of the Holy Week story from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday through to the deepest depths of grief on Good Friday evening, and then to the brief ecstasy of the Resurrection on Sunday morning – followed by that final sacrament of the Spanish Easter Sunday – in heavily over-crowded bars, cafes and restaurants throughout the city, the long, long, lingering Easter lunch.

But the floats are only one part of the spectacle. Each float heads a long parade of clerics, who in their turn are followed by a much longer train of penitents in black gowns their features masked within tall pointed hats, the whole charivari driven along from behind by a marching band, their instruments thumping, groaning and screeching as though on their way, not to a religious celebration, but to an auto-da-fe – the ceremonial burning of heretics once so favoured by the Spanish Inquisition. As many as eight of these huge processions may be in circulation through the city of Córdoba on a single night, each passing through the city’s central Plaza de Tendillas at a precise time, obedient to a chronology fixed in its final form many centuries earlier.

In Córdoba the climacatic moment comes just as night is falling in the courtyard of the immense Mezquita-Catedral – a former Moorish mosque with room for 8000 of the faithful at prayer in its arched and pillared arcades – into which a Christian Bishop inexcusably inserted a large baroque cathedral during the 17th century. On Good Friday evening a giant moon-faced Virgin Mary in 10-metres of deep blue velvet cloak flashed with gold (the gift of the great bullfighter Manolete of Córdoba) appears outside the gate of the outer courtyard of the Mezquita, a courtyard planted a thousand years ago with orange trees in vessels of raised brick – a configuration still unchanged today. The Virgin peeps through the onion-profiled gateway into the courtyard , bobbing almost coyly at the crowds assembled beneath her, then dozens of invisible feet within the shrouded float propel her swaying down the steps and way off past the crowds to where the doors of the Cathedral are flung open to receive her onto suitably consecrated ground.

Andalusia’s original Celto-Iberians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians have all in turn laid claim to this ancient site of religious worship. Today it remains contested ground. Not long ago the Mezquita was the object of an organised raid from young Muslims equipped with walkie-talkies, apparently bent on claiming the right to recite their Friday prayers within the sacred space. Latterly a zealous new Bishop of Córdoba has sought to de-Islamise the site completely by removing the word ‘Mezquita’ from its official designation, leaving only ‘Catedral’ on the street signs directing tourists to it. This threat to the smooth running of the city’s tourist industry by eliminating the familiar name of the city’s one world-famous monument has generated a furious counter attack from Córdoba City Council, which is now legislating to remove the tourism business of the Mezquita-Catedral from the governance of the Church. Watch this space…

© Nicholas Treslian 2015