Holy Week in old Ecuador

by
09 April 2020

Tim Wyatt travelled to Quito last year to witness an ancient act of penitence

TIM WYATT

The view from the roof of Quinto’s Cathedral, in the heart of the town

The view from the roof of Quinto’s Cathedral, in the heart of the town

THE drive to Quito from the city’s airport takes a winding route, which squeezes through the volcanoes surrounding Ecuador’s capital. As we begin our descent into the city proper, a bustling metropolis of 2.6 million souls is laid out before us, spreading out like a lake of concrete down a valley surrounded by high peaks. Looming over all is the Virgin of El Panecillo.

I find myself at the feet of this enormous concrete and aluminium statue, whose figure stands some 40 metres tall, atop a globe. She is winged, and her head is crowned with stars; at her feet lies a dragon, representing the devil, in chains.

Since its erection in 1975, the statue has become the symbol and icon of the city, representing and inspiring Quito in the same fashion as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. For a small fee, tourists can enter the building that the Madonna stands on. Passing through a room surrounded by stained-glass apparitions of the Mother of Christ, we arrive at a balcony at the Virgin’s feet and look out over Quito’s stunning sprawl.

 

I AM here in Holy Week, just a few days before Good Friday, and from this vantage point my eye is drawn to a small grid of low-rise stone buildings nestling in the Old Town of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dominated by churches. Ever since the conquistadors arrived in the 1530s and began trying to recreate late-medieval Catholic Spain, laying out a European-style city grid on top of the existing Incan settlement, Quito has been shaped by Christianity.

TIM WYATTThe Archbishop Emeritus of Quito waves a black and red flag during the Arrastre de Caudas service

Many of the Old Town’s 40 churches were founded shortly after the Spanish conquest, built by, and named after, orders of monks, while others were constructed by the state, or pious individuals. Simón Bolívar, who led the fight for independence and is known colloquially as El Libertador, declared Quito the “monastery of the Andes”.

Beginning at the foot of Panecillo, a road tracks straight through the Old Town and leads to another hill, Itchimbia. This is Garcia Moreno Street, a partly pedestrianised thoroughfare better known by its former name of Calle De Las Siete Cruces: the Street of the Seven Crosses. Each of the stone crosses was intended to stand outside a church, and to this day during Semana Santa — or Holy Week — the people of Quito (known as quiteños) walk up and down the boulevard to pray at each cross and church.

But the street also stands as a testament to the Quito lost beneath its Christian veneer: before the Spanish arrived, quiteños worshipped at two temples, one on each hill, dedicated to the moon and the sun. A ravine that ran between the two became a kind of sacred route for locals.

When the conquistadors levelled Quito, to impose the city grid on the undulating valley, they filled in the ravine and built the seven-churched street on top.

 

PLUNGING down into the Old Town, we soon find ourselves at Independence Square, which honours the martyrs of Ecuador’s first attempt to overthrow Spanish colonial rule, in 1809.

On one side of the plaza is the Archbishop’s Palace and facing it is the cathedral. Although a church was first built on this site in 1608, the sprawling whitewashed structure today is the fruit of numerous additions, and frequent post-earthquake repairs. Inside, the sanctuary is alive with activity; during Semana Santa there are masses every day. Large stone vaulted pillars hold up an intricately decorated wooden roof, lit in all directions by harsh spotlights.

TIM WYATTThe Virgin of El Panecillo sculpture, also known as the Virgin of Quito

We shuffle around the outside of the crowd pushing into pews for the service, and skirt paintings of the Stations of the Cross. The cathedral has long represented a potent cocktail of religion and nationalism, and just a few paces apart are the tombs of Antonio José de Sucre, the revolutionary general, and Gabriel García Moreno, an ultraconservative and staunchly Roman Catholic President, assassinated in 1875 outside the cathedral doors by his liberal opponents, angered by his increasing authoritarianism.

Just around the corner, we find the final resting-place of a Bishop of Quito who was murdered for his opposition to anti-clerical reforms in 1877. Supporters of the then-liberal President are said to have murdered the bishop by slipping strychnine poison into the wine used at the Mass of the Presancitifed on Good Friday.

Completing the heady mixture of faith and flag is a large mural of the Last Supper, painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753, in which Christ can be seen eating one of Ecuador’s most favoured delicacies: the guinea pig.

 

EVENTUALLY, we take our seats for the main event: the Arrastre de Caudas (dragging of the capes). In this elaborate traditional ceremony, held each Holy Week, a black flag emblazoned with a red cross is taken in procession around the cathedral. Apparently, the ritual is borrowed from an ancient Roman tradition of dragging the cape of a dead general over his troops, to transfer his honour in death to the soldiers. These masses were once commonplace, but today Quito is the last place to witness the spectacle.

The cathedral is so packed, even 30 minutes before the service begins, that people are waiting in the aisles. Finally, after a long series of processions by robed clergy of increasing seniority, the Archbishop Emeritus, robed in purple and hooded with white fur, takes his seat on a golden and maroon throne in the centre of the chancel, while the enormous black flag is laid across the altar.

The drama is intense: elderly monks lie prostrate on the floor while the Archbishop elaborately censes the flag. A golden crucifix, said to contain pieces of the true cross, is carried around the sanctuary underneath its own special canopy, while a choir sings Latin canticles.

 

AFTERWARDS, the congregation bursts out of the incense-filled cathedral into a ferocious downpour. Standing barely a minute’s walk from the Cathedral, the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is an imposing Baroque structure. Begun in 1605, but not completed until a century-and-a-half later, the façade is a dazzlingly dense array of columns and ornate statues carved in grey stone. The entire interior is covered in rococo gold leaf and statues of the Virgin and other saints fill the walls, all from the Quito School, the artistic tradition that dominated the Spanish colonial period (1542 to 1824).

My guide, Miguel, leads me to one corner, where there is a shrine dedicated to Ecuador’s first saint: Mariana de Jesús. During the early 1600s, when Quito was plagued by earthquakes and epidemics of disease, she decided to consecrate her life, living among the Jesuits as a hermit devoted to prayer. In 1645, she died, having offered herself up as a sacrifice to save her city. She was finally canonised in 1950, and has been declared a national heroine by the state of Ecuador.

TIM WYATTThe Jesuit Compania church

There are also syncretic touches to be observed: local fruits as well as images of the sun and moon feature in carvings around the pulpit.

Despite this blend of Ecuadorian tradition with Christianity, the Jesuits were not allowed to enjoy their church for long. Just two years after the edifice was finally completed, the Order was expelled by the King of Spain, and the Jesuits were forced to abandon the church for more than a century.

A similarly impressive building next door, built by the Jesuits as a university, was also seized by the government, and now acts as a municipal archive and cultural centre.

Despite the ups and downs of Quito’s relationship with Christianity throughout the tempestuous 19th century, the Church won out. The Jesuits may not have got their university back, but they — and the other religious orders who arrived with the conquistadors — still dominated public life. Until 1987, the Jesuits and Franciscans controlled all Ecuadorian public education, and to this day a number of prominent banks, and other institutions, remain in religious hands.

One block around the corner stands the Franciscan church, commonly known as El San Francisco. From the outside, it looks more simple and restrained; it’s no surprise to hear that it’s one of Quito’s oldest churches, having been started in the very year that the conquistadors took power.

But inside it is even more gaudily ornate than the Jesuit church. Every spare inch is covered with either gold leaf, rococo sculpture, or a painting or statue. Around the edge of the sanctuary are recesses with private altars relating to the families who helped to pay for the construction. At the front is a Baroque altar, although Miguel explains that it is unusually festooned with mirrors, because the indigenous Ecuadorians treat them as a sort of relic. There are also many examples of the Quito School of art. It is notable that their Virgins often have dark skin and indigenous features.

A monastery next door functioned as the first fine art school in Latin America, and became a cultural hub, exporting art around the Catholic world.

 

WE RISE early the next morning and return to the Old Town. Our first stop: the San Andres high school, which is run by the Franciscans, and sits behind the church and friary complex. The school, which was the first ever built in Quito, stands behind tall stone walls, and there is already a large scrum of people gathered outside the narrow gates by the time we arrive.

TIM WYATTThe Jesuit Compania church, a short walk from the cathedral

The scene feels more like a sports game than the start of a religious ceremony: police officers struggle to hold back the masses, while many in the jostling crowd hold aloft dog-eared paper tickets.

We push our way through and squeeze past security into the school’s playground. And there we set eyes on the main event — what Holy Week has been building up to — hundreds of penitents, patiently queuing in lines that snake up and down the concrete, wearing purple full-length habits in a vivid, almost episcopal, purple, belted around the waist with a simple knotted white rope, and topped with a conical hat and a mask that covers the entire face, but for two eye-holes.

These are the famous cucuruchos: quiteños who march through the city every Good Friday before statues of the Virgin and the Christ, in a historic and highly visible act of penance. The robes hark back to the attire of pilgrims in medieval Spain — the conic hat a symbol of a reach for the heavens (cucurucho translates literally as “cone”).

We wander between the lines. Many are carrying icons or crucifixes; other men have stripped their robes down to the waist and daubed their naked chests with splashes of red paint, to imitate blood.

I ask Miguel to translate, and try to speak to as many cucuruchos as possible before the procession begins to wind its way up to San Francisco church, and then out into the city, where hundreds of thousands have packed the streets to watch.

“Seven years ago, my mother had cancer,” one woman tells me. “When I prayed, I said: ‘If my mother changed these problems, I will go in the procession all times.’”

An 18-year-old, who has wrapped his bare chest in barbed wire, explains that he has come to “give penance for a miracle”. His brother is in prison convicted of murder, and he is marching to ask Jesus for forgiveness.

We approach an older man who is quietly whipping himself with rose stems. Scratched into his back are the words: “Thank you God, for another opportunity for life.” He explains how seven years ago he tried to kill himself, but was discovered minutes from death by his daughter, who rushed him to the hospital. He now comes every year to join the Good Friday procession.

Many women are dressed in slightly different purples robes, without the conical hood, and I discover that they represent Veronica, the woman said to have given Jesus her veil to wipe his face with on the way to Calvary. One woman, taking part for the third time, tells me that she is here for “for peace in the whole world, and to change the representation of the role of the women”. During the procession, she prays for the poor, and for solutions to global warming.

A handful have eschewed the purple cucurucho robes in favour of homemade outfits. One man is dressed as a Roman centurion and with his cousin, who has come as Jesus, is re-enacting the flagellation. “It is very important to be part of the procession, to continue the good life and positive energy,” he says. “I am very proud to be in this procession, which makes Ecuador famous.”

 

ALL OF a sudden, penitents begin to shuffle out of the playground and towards the church. Inside San Francisco, two statues — one of the Virgin Mary and another called Jesús del Gran Poder — have been wheeled out on platforms, sitting on beds of red and white roses. The statue of Christ, also a product of the Quito School, is only brought out once a year for this very procession, and it is closely guarded by a heavily-armed elite police unit.

Gradually, the church fills with all kinds of people: seminarians in white robes, high school pupils, then the cucuruchos and Veronicas. The face coverings and veils, which give the marchers such an eerie appearance, reflect the history of the ritual, Miguel explains. Originally, the penitents joined the procession to ask forgiveness for particularly grievous sins (and they did not want any of their neighbours, watching from the streets, to recognise them).

TIM WYATTTourists and locals throng the streets of the old town, to watch the cucurucho procession

In the centuries since the tradition was imported from Spain, it has grown into a globally famous event, and, in the square outside, hundreds of thousands of quiteños and visitors are gathered in expectation, despite the steady drizzle of rain. We find a convenient balcony above the route of the procession. There I watch a river of purple streaming towards the two spires of the cathedral, just visible on the skyline.

Among the sombre cucuruchos and Veronicas are more expressive penitents: some whip themselves with chains or belts, others stagger under the weight of wooden crosses; one has even lashed a cactus plant to his back. Street vendors scamper along the edges of the procession, selling postcards of Jesús del Gran Poder for a dollar to people in the crowd.

Eventually, the statue of Mary hoves into view, flanked by at least a dozen police officers on each side. Monks walk close by, holding collection baskets for onlookers to toss cash into. Some hurl bouquets of roses.

Then the climax of the procession arrives. Guarded by police officers wearing camouflage and body armour, Jesús del Gran Poder appears slowly around the corner and arrives on the famous street. A bloodied Christ, carrying a black and silver cross and wearing his crown of thorns, the statue is liberally censed. Just behind, an enormous crowd, numbering tens of thousands at least, recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The procession used to be much longer, Miguel says, as we decamp back to the soggy and crowded streets. Historically, it began well outside the city, and crawled through the Old Town for at least six hours, compared with today’s more tourist-friendly two to three. Nevertheless, as we push our way through the lively hordes back to our hotel, it is clear that Quito has retained almost all its ancient — and distinctvely Ecuadorian — fervour.

 

Tim Wyatt travelled to Quito in 2019 as a guest of Quito Turismo, the local tourist board who are a good first point of call when planning a trip. Direct flights to Quito from the UK are rare, but single-stopover options are widely available from a range of international airlines, with prices starting around £500 for a single-person return. There are dozens of good hotels in the city, many of which are just walking distance from the historic Old Town; try the Vista del Angel boutique hotel, which is around £100 a night per person. For an organised tour over Holy Week 2021, Adventure Life (adventure-life.com) offers a short three-day trip that takes in the famous cucurucho Good Friday procession for £570pp, including flights and accommodation. quitotravel.ec

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