Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Divine Drama



There exists an impression among some Goans that there exists in Portugal an image of ourselves; one that is more elaborate, deeper-rooted, and above all, more enduring. It was perhaps with this impression in mind that the question was posed “Do they have the same kind of traditions in Portugal as we do in Goa during the Holy Week, and especially on Good Friday?” For those unaware, it should be explained that traditional Catholic practice in Goa, is to re-act the passion of Christ over Lent, commencing with the crucifixion on a figure of Christ on the cross, and its subsequent removal from the cross and internment of the normally life-sized image of the protagonist of the Christian story. 

To the question posed, the answer was that my experience was limited to the happenings in Lisbon, I could not speak for the most rural Portugal. This response was necessitated ofcourse because we seem to have these ideas in our heads, that ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ practices inhere in villages for much longer than they do in the city. For the city of Lisbon however, it appears that there are only two churches that go whole hog on Good Friday. The Church of Santa Catarina, and that of Nossa Senhora da Gra├ža, with personal experience being limited between these two to that of the former.

The Church of Santa Catarina has a dramatic Baroque interior, gilded and infused with the smell of incense. Perhaps it is in keeping with this Baroque sensibility that some of the older traditions of the Church continue in this space. For example, when the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle at the high altar, it travels under an umbrella, while the congregation pauses, standing up in respect. And yet, it appears, the Passion Play of Good Friday does not occur in this Church. All that one has, is the service, the adoration of the Cross and the close of the service. Some hours later however, is when the drama actually begins, with the figure of the corpse of Christ being carried in solemn procession through the parish (which it must be pointed out borders on Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s night-life zones, where in the words of the poet Harivanshrai Bacchan, every night is Diwali – there is as such, no space for Lent in that zone).

Solemn may be a difficult word to use in the context of the procession of this church however. Pomp perhaps being a better word.  Whereas in Goa, there is a veritable funereal air to the events of Good Friday, at Sta. Catarina the air is somewhat more celebratory. Banners reminiscent of Imperial Rome, way larger than any one sees in Goa; a band that was definitely not playing funeral marches, and balconies along the route of the procession decorated with carpets or tapestries. The entire experience seeming more like a demonstration of power, complete with representatives from the Guarda Nacional Republicana. This tiny detail seemed extremely out of place, because Portugal is a secular republic, and logically there ought not to be a formal participation by the State in a religious event. But this is a matter for another discussion.

And so there is something of an air of a celebration at this procession, with none of the orchestrated, per force recitation of the rosary that accompanies the  processions in Goa. But what a show. What a grand spectacular show. A show that perhaps reaches it climax when the image of Christ returns back to the church, is lowered into a coffin, after which commences this intense fugue from the organ of the church. The culmination of the drama coincides with the conclusion of the fugue and the slamming shut of the lid of the coffin, the only sounds in the building despite the crush of humanity within the building. The British jocularly refer to Catholic practice as ‘smells and bells’; but it is when one is witness to a performance such as this do you realize, the post-reformation pre-conciliar Catholics really, really knew how to put on a show!

(This post was scripted for publication in the O Heraldo dated  15 April 2012. However due to the Editor's resignation, the format for the Sunday issue changed, taking with it the space for the fortnightly column. Rather than let it go however, I decided to put the piece up anyways, and maintain the frequency until it is picked up again.)

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