Goodness knows what non-Catholics, let alone atheists, must make of it all when visiting Seville. You can’t move in the capital of southern Spain’s quixotic Andalusia region without encountering the striking blend of Catholic suffering and jubilation that Seville seems determined to wear on its sleeve. I couldn’t help noticing it during a month-long stay at a hostel on the thoroughfare of Calle Reyes Católicos in the heart of the city, after my knees and back began telling me it was time to take a break from my extended Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that had hurtled past the 2,000km mark.
The passionate dichotomy finds its culmination during Semana Santa and the city’s festivities accompanying Holy Week. While heavily curtailed this year by the pandemic – there were no processions; one café owner told me that entire street surfaces are usually covered in melted candle wax afterwards – nevertheless on Good Friday, Seville’s streets remained busy with absurdly elegant ladies dressed in black lace mantillas striding toward church. Despite the sartorial panache, they still had to join the queues literally going around the church block as locals waited to venerate particularly grizzly and realistic depictions of Christ’s crucifixion.
After queuing for 55 minutes to get into the small but clearly popular Capilla de Nuestra Senora del Mayor Dolor en su Soledad – Chapel of Our Lady of the Greatest Pain in her Solitude – I was confronted with a stark depiction of the source of Mary’s anguish. Stretched on the cross, Jesus looked utterly spent, his head sunk limply on his chest. Blood from where the nails were driven through his hands trickled along his arms before following the curves of his armpits; the blood from where the Roman soldier’s spear pierced his side ran down his stomach and over the folds of his loincloth.
“Excuse me, sir, but could you keep moving round, we have lots of people we need to get through,” a smartly dressed church attendant said to me in English, my dishevelled pilgrimage wardrobe clearly marking me out at odds with locals dressed in their finery.
“Of course,” I replied, a little vexed as I eyed many venerating with smartphones out taking pictures. “But is there anywhere I could actually pray for a moment?” He considered this wild notion before motioning me to a chamber to the side containing a statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ’s crown of thorns and very clearly in a lot of pain and solitude.
Afterwards, and repeated across the city and its myriad churches, we all made a beeline for the city’s restaurant and bar terraces – from temple to tavern, as one Spaniard put it to me. It was a strange mix of liveliness and frivolity and, all considered, a lot of fun for a sombre Good Friday. The festivities culminated at Easter Mass in Seville’s gargantuan gothic cathedral – the fourth-largest church in the world – with the tomb of Christopher Columbus to my back, a replica of his coffin borne by four larger-than-life figures, each of whom reminded me of the humanoid alien baddie in the film Prometheus.
But it’s not just during Holy Week that Seville embraces this mix of extreme contrasts that non-Catholics find so baffling, if not irritating. All over the city, images of Jesus and Mary are rendered on buildings’ walls in brightly coloured and detailed tile mosaics. It’s rare to encounter a statue of Jesus in which his agony isn’t intricately expressed on his face by the work of the statue maker. All the while, Mary’s tears flow down her face wherever you look. Inside many bars and restaurants, the walls are emblazoned with posters and framed portraits of Christ either carrying his cross or crucified on it, of his weeping mother and various Passion images. The city revels in the suffering alongside living it up.
This fundamental duality that underpins human life gets reenacted with the sacrifice of those fierce Andalusian bulls that so impressed Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, amid the 12,000-seat-capacity 18th-century Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza bullring. It stands by the waters of the Rio Guadalquivir flowing through the city and under its bridges adorned with arabesque designs, the likes of which appear all over Seville due to its Moorish history that, while easy to miss, constantly hovers in the background.
Seville cathedral’s soaring Giralda bell tower that cuts through the cloudless azure sky above the city used to be the minaret for the former mosque that once stood there when the Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of the Moorish invaders. Theirs was a reign that lasted from 711 to 1492 in southern Spain. Today most people are entirely oblivious of Spain having been in the crossfire, even constituting the frontline, of the great battlefield that was the Crusader wars.
“Nay, had they not been checked on the plains of Tours, all France, all Europe, might have been overrun with the same facility as the empires of the East, and the crescent might at this day have glittered on the fanes of Paris and of London,” the American diplomat and writer Washington Irving wrote in Tales of the Alhambra, about his travels through the Andalusian region in the spring of 1829.
From my hostel’s rooftop terrace, I could see Moorish-styled blue and white domes and tiling atop a neighbouring building that looked like a tiny version of an Arabian palace. All across Seville, telling details such as Moorish arches, doorways and enclosed courtyards straight out of The Arabian Nights, while coupled with “the vivifying ardour of a tropical sun,” as Irving puts it, “carries the mind back to the chivalric days of Christian and Moslem warfare.”
In The Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith explains how during the 11th century, Seville was one of the most important taifa kingdoms – the network of independent Muslim principalities that constituted Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula (basically all of it) – especially when ruled by Muhammad al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad. One of the most eminent men of 11th-century Al-Andalus, al-Mu’tamid was the third and last ruler of the Seville taifa and a noted writer of Arabic poetry during the days when, as Irving puts it, the Moors “were a gayer people than they are nowadays” and “thought only of love, of music and poetry”.
After the city was taken in 1248 by Ferdinand III of Castile, Seville remained significant through its geographical importance enroute to the Holy Land. Hence, following the death of Robert the Bruce, the King of Scots who led Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence against England, his great commander Sir James Douglas – better known as The Black Douglas – ended up staying in Seville in 1330. Along with four other Scottish knights, he was en route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem carrying the heart of Bruce in accordance with his master’s last wishes.
Douglas and the knights lodged in style in Seville, having been received by King Alfonso XI of Castile, and ultimately joined his Crusader army. Douglas was slain by Saracens during the siege of the castle of Teba, the so-called Castle of the Stars, on the frontier of the Granada taifa. In 1988, a plaque was erected in the main square of Teba to commemorate where, during his holy mission, Douglas fell victim to those larger forces being played out on the battlefields of Europe.
The heart of Robert the Bruce was brought back to Scotland by Sir Alan de Cathcart – who happens to be an ancestor of the wife of the Catholic Herald editor – and another knight who escaped from the battle. Today, few people know that Bruce’s heart now resides in Melrose Abbey, just as few appreciate how The Black Douglas, one of the greatest Scottish medieval warrior knights, died in Spain during that colossal clash with the Moors that ultimately saw Christian Europe win out.
In perhaps a snide bit of thumb-nosing by the victors, Arabic inscriptions boasting of Moorish power and permanence in Spain adorn the Alcázar palace in the centre of Seville that was built after the Christian reconquest on the site of the demolished Muslim palace. In his Tales of the Alhambra, Irving clearly has a lot of sympathy for the “fiery courage of the Arab” that finally foundered against the “obstinate and persevering valour” of the Gothic conquerors of the North. It finally ended after eight centuries, Irving notes, with Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler, during his final retreat casting back one last look on his domain from the summit of one of the hills surrounding Granada, a moment made famous in song and story as “the last sigh of the Moor”.
One balmy evening during my pilgrimage break in Seville, passing along a narrow alleyway alongside the crenulated walls of the Alcázar, myself and a few other wanderers were brought to a halt as the sun started to set by a shrieking peacock atop one of the battlement’s merlons.
Putting on a display fit for Christian king or Muslim emir, his absurd long tail straight out of an Aldous Huxley LSD-inspired meditation cascading over the side of the crenulations, presumably he was calling out for his mate or in search of one. But he sounded so plaintive and distraught, I couldn’t help wondering if he cried out also for Christ and Mary in their pain and solitude, or for Boabdil in his, or perhaps for all of us.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund