Standing atop a hill just outside the historic heart of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary. Although less well known than Rio de Janeiro’s towering Christ the Redeemer, it serves a similar function for the people of Quito – acting as both the symbol of the city and an inspiration for its inhabitants.
I came to stand at the feet of this aluminium and concrete sculpture during a trip to Quito, a few days before Good Friday last year. My guide Miguel explained how the 40-metre statue, which features a winged Madonna – crowned with stars, holding a dragon in chains and standing astride a globe – came to be. In the early 1970s, the authorities decided to put up a statue on Panecillo Hill, just outside the colonial-era Old Town of Quito. But the city had to choose between honouring an Incan general who bravely led the ultimately doomed resistance to the Spanish Conquistadors, or the Virgin.
With a knowing smile, Miguel explains how in the end it was inevitable the quiteños would choose the Virgin. The city, which was built on the ruins of the pagan Incan empire which ruled Ecuador before the conquest, is proud of being more Catholic than even the Spanish who converted them. With more than two dozen churches and monasteries crammed into the narrow streets of the Old Town, Quito has been profoundly shaped by its faith since the arrival of Catholicism half a millennium ago. Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, was so marked by its piety he declared Quito to be the “monastery of the Andes”. And Semana Santa – Holy Week – offers a wonderful opportunity to see this unfold before your very eyes.
Our journey begins inside the city’s cathedral for a special Mass. Once commonplace, the Arrastre de Caudas, or dragging of the capes, is now found in Quito alone and is only conducted during Holy Week. The sanctuary is packed when we find our seats; over half an hour before it begins there are so many quiteños crammed into the cathedral that hundreds are forced to stand in the aisles, dodging the cables and booms of the TV crews who have also arrived to take in the spectacle. After a series of processions, the Archbishop Emeritus of Quito arrives to take his place on the chancel. There he raises a huge black flag, emblazoned with a scarlet cross, and sweeps it back and forth over the prostrate forms of canons and monks clad in black robes. This is repeated several times as the flag is led around the church, so the entire congregation has been able to stand under its shade. Miguel explains quietly that the tradition originated in Ancient Rome, where the cape of a dead general would be lifted over his troops, so they could take on the honour he had earned in death. Now, we saw Christ’s glory from his impending crucifixion transferred to us.
As we force our way out of the crush back onto the street, I notice a stone cross bedecked with garlands of flowers. Miguel says there are seven of these on the same road, which give the street – the Old Town’s main boulevard – its name: Calle De Las Siete Cruces or the Street of the Seven Crosses. Each of the crosses stands outside a church, and during Semana Santa the faithful of Quito pray at each cross after taking Mass inside.
Our next visit is to a much newer structure, but one which still reflects Ecuador’s devotion to the Lord: the Basilica of the National Vow. In the late 19th-century, under the leadership of its fervently Catholic president Gabriel Garcia Moreno, the country became the only one on earth to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart, as an act of national worship. Garcia Moreno, however, was shortly afterwards assassinated by some of his anti-clerical opponents. In his honour, subsequent leaders decided to build the basilica as a permanent marker of the vow Ecuador had taken.
Construction of the neo-Gothic chocolate-box cathedral began in the 1880s but it was not consecrated for use until 30 years ago. It stands alone, slightly uphill and out of the centre of the Old Town, and with its flying buttresses and lead roof it resembles any number of European cathedrals.
As we stand admiring the structure, Miguel notes how closely it resembles Notre-Dame, with two vertiginous clocktowers at the front. But the basilica also unmistakably points to a particularly Ecuadorian kind of faith – a closer look reveals every gargoyle is built into a turtle, armadillo, iguana or other species endemic to the country.
Inside, the stained-glass windows cast a warm, rose-coloured light across the tall nave, around which are 24 side chapels dedicated to the 24 provinces of Ecuador. It’s a noticeably more peaceful building than the gilded and ornate interiors of the older cathedral. But the real highlight is upstairs, where we can climb the bell tower for a few dollars. The perilous journey takes us onto the roof of the nave along a tottering rope bridge, and then up two almost vertical rusting ladders out into the elements.
We finally reach the peak of the tower and can rest, our hearts pounding, but the views across Quito – including the Panecillo Virgin – are worth it. As well as a place for quiet worship and prayer, the still technically unfinished basilica (local legend says its eventual completion will usher in the end of the world) will play a vital role in the next act of Quito’s Semana Santa, as the destination of its most famous Good Friday procession.
That day itself begins early, at a Franciscan secondary school in the Old Town. After pushing our way through the scrum of hopeful penitents outside, we arrived in the playground to a remarkable sight. Hundreds of quiteños were patiently queuing in lines which snaked across the concrete, wearing extraordinary purple robes with tall conical hoods and masks. These are the famous Quito cucuruchos, penitents who for centuries have marched through the streets in their unforgettable purple garb on Good Friday.
As I wandered among the queues I spoke to several cucuruchos, Miguel translating for us. One woman told me she was there to honour a promise she had made to God after he healed her mother from cancer seven years earlier. Another, who had daubed his bare chest with red paint and barbed wire, said he was marching to ask Jesus to miraculously free his brother from prison, where he was serving a sentence for murder. Another man, a cancer specialist at a nearby children’s hospital, said he would whip himself about 3,000 times during the procession so he could feel the same as Christ did on the march to Golgotha.
At last, the long queues began shuffling towards the church of St Francis, the oldest in Quito. There the long procession of more than 4,000 penitents – observed by at least half a million-strong crowds – began making its way through the narrow streets towards the twin spires of the basilica. As we watched, the sight almost took our breath away. As far as the eye could see, in both directions along the Calle De Las Siete Cruces, there was a purple ocean of penitents. Some carried heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders, others flogged themselves with chains or rose stems covered in thorns.
Finally, after several hours of cucuruchos, the climax of the procession arrived: two statues, one of Christ and another of Mary. Each was wheeled past on a bier of roses, flanked by stern-looking police officers. The ten-deep crowd seemed energised by the appearance of these statues, each of which is only brought out of St Francis’s Church once a year for this Good Friday march. I saw several locals hurl bouquets of flowers over the heads of the police onto the feet of the statues, and monks carrying baskets for financial offerings were deluged with envelopes of cash.
After they both passed our vantage point the procession was technically over. But as well as the hordes of visitors and tourists, thousands of quiteños had braved the steady drizzle and were joining the procession from the back, audibly reciting the Lord’s Prayer as they did so.
When the extravaganza finally wound down several hours later, the end of Semana Santa had come, at least for the visitors. But later that evening Miguel took me to another historic monastery church, this time built by the Dominicans, where a smaller and much less famous Good Friday procession was about to take place. After another Mass, the congregation, almost exclusively locals from an unremarkable neighbourhood just outside the walls of the Old Town, filed out of the sanctuary into the night. Unlike the gaudy extravaganza of the morning, this is a silent procession and free of tourists and film crews.
Instead, the few hundred faithful walked behind statues of Christ and Mary, slowly joined by others from bars and restaurants as the procession meandered its way past. Many were carrying small candles, and strategically placed speakers along the route played simple, haunting classical music. Under his breath, Miguel explained this procession was silent so the penitents present could reflect on their sins, before bringing them to Jesus on the night he was crucified. As I walked with them in sombre silence, it felt like the most fitting way possible to conclude my exploration of the ancient yet living piety of this remarkable city.
Tim Wyatt is a freelance journalist
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