Good Friday in Enna – the impact of a deeply felt tradition …

7 May, 2012

The Good Friday procession at Enna ,  with its rows of silent, eerily hooded figures preceding a blood stained Christ and anguished Madonna through the city’s narrow streets, is so well known and widely publicised that, when I visited Enna at Easter,  I was half expecting to have the feeling that I’d seen it all before.    Instead, I found I was part of an ancient, but living and surprisingly moving, ritual – and that all the images and preconceived ideas  I’d brought with me completely disappeared.

It all started with a chance encounter on the street that morning.  It was a perfect Spring morning, sunny and warm, but the narrow streets of the city were still shaded and we had set out to find somewhere for coffee in the sun.    The young man, possibly a university student,  who gave us directions continued, spontaneously and with irrepressible enthusiasm, to tell us something about the procession that would take place later in the day.  He talked, in particular,  about his church and confraternity which, being  the oldest in Enna, has the honour of carrying the statue of the dead Christ in the procession.  His enthusiasm was compelling and, as he talked, I realised that, unwittingly, he had given me just what I had been looking for –  a way in.  The Confraternity of the College of SS. Salvatore would be my starting point.

Enna is strategically placed in the centre of the island, so high above the surrounding countryside that on a clear day, it is said, you can see the three corners of the island.  It’s an attractive and well-maintained city, with strong links to the past.  Because of its strategic position, there has been a fortified settlement here since prehistoric times, long before the Greeks arrived on the island, bringing with them Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone.   That afternoon, the countryside spread out far below seemed silent, everything fresh and green in the early Spring sunshine, and as I looked down toward Lake Pergusa, I had no difficulty imagining Persephone happily gathering flowers there before being  swept away by the god of the Underworld.

The Good Friday procession, made up of fifteen confraternities and about 3,000 individuals,  leaves the cathedral at 7 o’clock in the evening and wends its way quietly, through the city streets, to the cemetery 3.7 km away on the edge of town.  There, it receives a solemn benediction before making its way back along the city streets, reaching the cathedral close to midnight.  The individuals taking part are dressed in the robes of their confraternity.  Each confraternity has a mantle of a different colour, and all, except those bearing the statues of Christ and the Madonna, wear white hoods that completely cover their heads, leaving only two holes for the eyes.  The origin of much of the procession, including these white hoods, is Spanish – and it may be that the covering of the heads is a sign of mourning.  Everything, every detail, is determined by tradition, from the order in which the confraternities process to who has the honour of bearing the statues of the body of Christ and the Madonna.

 *  Having decided to focus on the Confraternity of the College of SS. Salvatore, I made my way to the church of SS. Salvatore during the afternoon.   It was built in the 13thcentury, but has been much altered over the centuries.  It is a small church, charming, and obviously much loved.  The interior is baroque, but not heavily so, with a fine wooden ceiling and typical Sicilian tiled floor.  The whole place is light and gracious.  In front of the altar, guarded by two members of the confraternity, was the huge glass urn in an ornately carved and gilded wooden frame, containing the life-like body of Christ.  The statue is made of wood, with articulated joints, heavily blood stained, with a crown of thorns resting on real chestnut coloured hair.  The guards were dressed in the robes of the confraternity: a long white vestment under a yellow mantle emblazoned with a red St John’s cross, signifying the confraternity’s connection with the Crusades.

Photo –  Confraternita del SS. Salvatore

I was impressed by both the seriousness and sense of order that prevailed as members of the confraternity set about preparing themselves for the procession, and by the number of young people involved.    The honour of bearing the urn of the dead Christ was conferred on the confraternity in 1672, and is passed on from father to son.  It is an honour that is obviously still being taken very seriously.  One of the confraternity members told us that they would be leaving for the cathedral, with the body of Christ, at 5 o’clock.  We decided to join them.

By the time we got there, well before five, the little street was already crowded.  Finally, the band started playing, and slowly, slowly, over the heads of the crowd, the ornate framed urn moved out onto the street, setting off in the opposite direction.  We met it a little later, as lines of small children, all neatly dressed in the robes of the confraternity and all perfectly behaved, were waiting in a side street.   Finally, the gilded urn appeared and they continued on to the cathedral,  where the figure of the Madonna, and all the other confraternities, would be waiting.

We left them and found ourselves a vantage point in via Roma, not far from the cathedral, to wait  for the procession, which leaves the cathedral at 7 o’clock.  Finally, we hear strains of the band, and the bright red capes of the  Confraternity of the Passion appear at the end of the street.  This is the only Confraternity that does not follow the strict order determined by the date of establishment.  This is because it carries the Mysteries, symbols of the crucifixion, which begin the procession.   They are borne on red cushions in a strictly prescribed order on each side of the street, and include  the Roman soldiers’ dice,  a lantern symbolising the soldiers’ coming to the Garden of Gethsamene to take Christ,  a whip, a crown of thorns, nails of the cross, and, perhaps most curiously, a live, but heavily sedated, rooster symbolising St Peter’s betrayal.   We were told that animal rights groups had complained because, previously, the roosters were sedated by large quantities of alcohol.  I’m not sure how it had been done this year, but there was certainly no sign of life in the rooster as he lay draped across his red cushion.

Then, slowly, solemnly, the procession continues down each side of the street, one confraternity after another.  There is someone at every window, every vantage point, but everything is quiet, well ordered and respectful.  And I couldn’t help noticing that everyone in the procession was wearing black shoes – remarkable, perhaps, only to someone accustomed to the incongruous sight of running shoes of every description taking part in religious processions in Palermo.

Occasionally, there was a figure in the middle of the street, between the two rows; often it was a member of the confraternity with a special role, but sometimes there were tiny girls, dressed as angels or nuns and obviously concentrating so hard on doing everything properly.   Again, I was impressed by the involvement of young people;  it is something that will remain with them always, and it’s probably one of the reasons that the tradition is still very much alive.

Then, at last, the confraternity of SS Salvatore appears, bearing the elaborate urn with the body of Christ.   There must be at least sixty bearers.  They are immaculate, forming a perfect line and using ropes with great skill.  They are worthy of the honour.  They are doing it well.

And finally, the figure of the Madonna!  It is a 6’ high statue (183cm), made of papier mache, and  dressed in a black velvet cape.  Her pose and expression is one of utter grief and anguish as she looks down on the body of her dead son.  By now, daylight is fading and the lights in the tall glass frame that surround her have been lit.   She passes in front of us, swaying from side to side, to the haunting strains of a slow funeral march.

As she moves away and starts descending the hill, the crowd moves in behind her, her cloaked figure continuing to move gently from side to side above their heads in time with the music.  Her figure is a symbol of the deepest grief: that of a mother grieving over the dead body of her son.  By now it is almost dark and all is quiet except for the persistent notes of that slow and sad music.

The city had become a theatre.  But never before, in a theatre, have I been moved in quite this way.

4 Responses to “Good Friday in Enna – the impact of a deeply felt tradition …”

  1. richmondrambles Says:

    your blogs never fail to surprise. what an experience and I loved your comment about the black shoes – not a runner to be seen!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I must admit I did spend quite a lot of the evening ooking at feet! For me, with my Palermo perspective, the black shoes became a symbol of the orderliness and respect that were so much part of the whole event.

  2. Sally Field Says:

    How much of a part did women take in the rituals – you mention little girls dressed as angels or nuns and I see a photo of nuns presumably carrying the Madonna but were there other roles for women or not. To what group did the nuns belong? The reference to the Crusades was interesting – I am doing a summer course on them this year at Marlborough College Summer School.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Interesting! Women don’t play a large part in the ritual at all – at least not directly. As I understand it, they are excluded from membership of most of the confraternities. There are exceptions, but they are few. I don’t have access to my materials at the moment – I will clarify when I do – but I don’t think they were nuns carrying the Madonna – I think that was a confraternity of men only. As for the reference to the Crusades, I was particularly interested in this, but wasn’t able to find exactly what connection the confraternity of S. Salvatore had with the Crusades. Sicily and the Crusades is something I’m investigating further. I’ll be very interested to hear more about your summer course. Many thanks for the comment.

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