Every year on Good Friday, Christians commemorate the death of Jesus Christ. His resurrection three days later is the Church’s greatest feast and, for believers, the defining moment of their faith. For the Maltese, no other event captures the imagination quite as vividly as this annual ritualised cycle of suffering, death, and resurrection.
Nothing can prepare the visitor for the sheer volume of images and rituals crammed into these few spring days. Families go on a special round of seven churches; enthusiasts exhibit sets of miniaturef statues in their homes; and confectioners make special ‘fasting’ sweets. The biggest dos of all are undoubtedly the Good Friday processions which see a growing number of towns and villages transformed into open-air theatres. Space becomes time as hundreds of static actors in period costume narrate the storyline of Jesus’s sacrifice by filing past crowds of spectators to the beat of funerary marches. These tableaux vivants take over our everyday streetscapes. The shops and facades we know so well are transformed into a backdrop for Biblical characters and Roman legions, to dramatic counterpoint.
During Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, a number of sensations converge on the body of the believer. Take the juxtaposition of fast and feast, an element common to many world religions. Or the change in the acoustic landscape, from the church bells that usually pattern our daily lives to the somewhat-macabre sound of the tuqtojta (rattle) that replaces them on Good Friday as a sign of mourning. These elements change, albeit temporarily, the way we experience our bodies -again an important aspect of what religion is all about.
As is the case in any ritual, the meanings of this collective drama seep out of the purely religious. The element of masculine performance is very evident, as is the broader theme of the aesthetics of suffering which has bewitched countless painters and film-makers. All of which makes us wonder how all this blood and agony congealed into such a coherent routine.
For the casual onlooker, especially one (dis-)armed with the commonly-peddled cliché of Mediterranean timelessness, it is easy to think of these practices as ‘survivals’ or collective folk traditions that take us back into the ‘mists of time’. In fact, these traditions contain a lot of history, entrepreneurship, and invention.
Good Friday Processions have a fascinating and very definite history. Their roots are complex and draw upon various medieval Christian traditions. As Joseph Cassar Pullicino notes in his Studies in Maltese Folklore, the idea reached Malta through Spanish and Sicilian influences. By the end of the sixteenth century, the lay confraternity of St.Joseph attached to the Franciscan friary in Rabat was the first to organise such a procession, followed by its counterpart attached to the Valletta friary in 1645. The tradition of dressing up statues in the manner of southern religious baroque originated in the early eighteenth century when merchants and sea-captains from Vittoriosa, impressed by what they had seen in Spain, commissioned a set of statues for the parish church of their home town. The chained and masked penitents, which so spooked us when we were young, have an even more colourful history which takes us back to eighteenth-century Vittoriosa, where baptised slaves and forzati, persons condemned for various reasons to wear chains, took part in the procession.
Rather like Valletta’s Grand Harbour fortifications, which may look seamless but in fact represent hundreds of years of intermittent planning, construction, and demolition, the processions and rituals we witness today are the result of centuries of change. Periods of relative prosperity – and therefore sponsorship and benefaction – such as the eighteenth century and the last decades of the twentieth, generally brought about feverish entrepreneurship and creativity.
This process is an ongoing one. The circles of dilettanti (enthusiasts) that are the lifeblood of today’s rituals do not just accept what is traditional. They circulate from village to village, comparing notes on ideas and technique. It is not unknown for them to take their research to other countries, especially Italy and Spain. The decennial passion play held in Oberammergau in Austria has lent its fair share of inspiration, as have the sword-and-sandal Hollywood epics that serveas models for period costumes. And, in the absence of sea-captains commuting between Vittoriosa and Barcelona, a couple of mouse clicks can work miracles.
Being thus embedded in Maltese history, Holy Week rituals have not failed to attract flak from a number of directions. Maltese social reformers like Manwel Dimech have tended to see them as short-sighted diversions from bread-and-butter issues. The Church on its part seeks to limit their scope in order to encourage people to concentrate on what it sees as the real issue: a collected reflection on the sufferings of Christ. At this point the boundary between urban legend and fact gets murky, but common knowledge has it that some procession organisers, in an effort to avoid rivalry, individually weigh every chain dragged by penitents.
It is this heady mix of suffering, aesthetics, history, and politics, which renders Holy Week in Malta such a wonderful complement to the labours of the birth of spring.