Spanish version

1.- XVth and XVIth Century


statues at San Gines ChurchIn the XVth century, the thought appeared that the sinner could be forgiven by God if he punished his body. This idea was defended by Saint Vicent Ferrer and the Franciscans. This is how the "flagellant" movement became part of the ceremonies that commemorated the Passion.

It was also in this time when the crusaders brought parts of the Holy Cross to Europe (Vera Cruz = real cross) which were venerated by the faithful Christians. During the Holy Week, some parishes organized small processions, in which they followed a little cross. The Franciscans had been entrusted with the custody of the Holy Cross relics, this is why a brotherhood related to tthe Holy Cross started with its activities.

When a brotherhood organized a Procession they were called cofradia.

In the Middle Ages, people started to form associations or brotherhoods  based on their professions. Through these brotherhoods they tried to defend each other against other brotherhoods or the noblemen. Specially in the cities they became very powerful. They wanted to be treated as equals by both, political and religious authorities which, on the other hand, tried to control them with little success. Many years later King Felipe III insisted that they should only be dedicated to their religious activities.

Apart from this social aspect, many brotherhoods also took care of the burials of their statue at San Gines Churchmembers, in those days a very important aspect, as can be read in the article about cemeteries. They also founded hospitals for the poor, parishes or looked after children abandoned at birth. Many believed that just belonging to a brotherhood was enough to asure them their entry into heaven.

The first activities related to the Holy Week in Madrid date from 1424, when Prince Juan started the custom of washing the feet of thirteen beggars and giving them money in order to buy some clothes.

In the second part of the XVth century, they also started to celebrate special ceremonies in the churches during the Holy Week, where the brothers sometimes flagellated themselves.


People living in this age were deeply influenced by religion in all their activities. An important part of their life was dedicated  to prepare their eternal life. To avoid being condemned to hell the solution was to pay for a specific number of masses that had to be celebrated for them, buy chapels for their burials or establish special proteccions for certain images, convents or parishes. Everybody wanted to be saved and consequently many cofradias were founded.

Belonging to a cofradia became a question of prestige.

The Council of Trent was celebrated in this century and it supported all those activies that were opposed to Protestant ideas. One of them was the devotion to images, so they confirmed the religiousness of the processions, specially those dedicated to the Passion of the Christ.

In this century flagellation had a new meaning. The brothers had to show everybody how important it was to save one´s soul through this suffering. They thought this influenced religious devotion and people would behave in a more Christian way. Processions were similar to religious theater plays.


The members of the cofradias taking part in the procession were called "penitentes" (penitents) and there two kinds, "penitentes de luz" - light penitents that carried candles and "penitentes de sangre" - blood penitents that flagellated themselves.  Some of these penitents had their arms stretched out and tied to a piece of wood remembering the Holy Cross. They were called "aspesios". All procession made the same itinerary finishing at the Alcazar, where now the Royal Palace is.

As we can imagine the "Blood Processions" were much more popular offering people a morbid entertainment. There were even some penitents with no religious devotions called "love penitents". They wanted to impress a lady and went to her house whipping themselves more fiercely and offering this suffering as a  token of love. Sometimes they even splashed the lady with their blood! This kind of penance was very much criticized by Lope de Vega or Quevedo.

During this century the Royal family also took part in many of the activities commemorating the Holy Week which made the the cofradias even more important members of the society.

The brotherhoods that had their origin in a profession became now associations of bourgeois. In order to raise money for their activities, they got the permission to build and mange different open air theaters (corral de comedias) where not only religious plays were performed. The cofradia de la Soledad, for example, had rented the famous Corral de la Pacheca where now the Teatro Español is located. This became their main income.


It is in this century when the first images appear at the processions. One of the most important ones was dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude (Nuestra Señora de la Soledad).

When King Felipe II married Isabel de Valois she brought a painting of this Virgin to Spain. It had been given to her father, the King of France, by Saint Francis of Paola.

The painting showed the Virgin Mary, dressed in dark clothes, crying for her dead son.

In those days the monks of Saint Francis of Paola´s order had established themselves in Madrid and asked the Queen for the painting as they were building a church to honor her. Isabel de Valois did not give them the painting but asked a sculptor, Gaspar Becerra, to make an image based on it.

He made two images, but the Queen did not like them and gave him a last opportunity. As the legend goes, the sculptor was very stressed and thought he could not make it. When he arrived home, he fell asleep and dreamt that an angel came and told him to take a log that was burning in the fireplace and use it for the image. The scultor did it and finally made the definitive image.

The Virgin is dressed like a widow of the XVIth century with a white dress and a black cloak. She is carrying a rosary. This iconography influenced many other images of the Virgen .

It was put in the church and a cofradia was founded to encourage the devotion to this image. Even the Queen became a member of the cofradia. This made that many employees of the Royal House also became members. In the first procession in 1568, 2000 light penitents, over 400 blood penitents and hundreds of women belonging to the cofradia took part.


On Easter Sunday a procession with an image of Resurrected Christ took place. Apart from this image they also carried a rag doll (pelele) that represented Judas and was dressed in bright colors. The children used to throw stones and spit on the doll until the procession arrived at Plaza Mayor, where the doll was burnt.

If you want to know more:  XVIIth and XVIIIth century.

@Copyright 2008, 2009 Mª Dolores Diehl Busch. All rights reserved.
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