Great Monday

29 March 2010


The Monday of Holy Week is variously called Holy Monday, Great Monday, or even Great and Holy Monday. In the Protestant tradition it is the focus of little if any celebration, but in the Catholic tradition the whole of Holy Week is celebrated with great and rising religious passion until Easter Sunday. In the world today, the most magnificent celebrations of Holy Week survive in Sevilla, Spain and Quito, Ecuador. It has been one of my long-standing desires to attend Semana Santa festivities in Quito one day, though I don’t know if and when I will be able to arrange this.

The French naturalist Alcide D’Orbigny was in Quito during Semana Santa of 1841 and wrote of the experience:

“A thousand saintly souls led the procession. A cortege of musicians masked and draped in purple robes. a multitude of negroes dressed uniformly in royal blue robes. two lines of nuns. a huge hubbub of individuals dressed in every sort of vestment, armed with sticks, sabres, swords, lances and lanterns to hand. These represented the Jews.”

Alcide D’Orbigny, A Picturesque Voyage Across the Two Americas

While the quiteño historian Alfonso Ortiz Crespo wrote:

“These documents give an idea of the huge size of this procession, in which absolutely the whole of the city of Quito acted or watched. Nobody was left out!”

Alfonso Ortiz Crespo

A religious festival of this magnitude puts one in mind of the role religion once played in Western civilization. I have several times recently quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. Semana Santa in Sevilla and Quito is ritual on a grand scale, probably rising to the level of a Roman triumphal procession. It is difficult to imagine anything of the contemporary world that could match this in spectacle — except possibly the Olympics, but for reasons I cannot yet articulate or make explicit I don’t think that the Olympics are on the same order of ritual.

Until naturalism can produce a public ritual of similar scope and comprehension, a ritual in which the whole population either participates or observes and therefore achieves totality of participation of the founding myth of the civilization in question, the civilization of naturalism — which is contemporary industrialized civilization — will not rise to the level of civilization of medieval Europe. Simply to be able to make this assertion and understand what is meant by it is significant. We think of the Middle Ages as backward and our own time are advanced and progressive, but in terms of cultural achievements there are measures we can readily define in which the still-remaining artifacts of the European Middle Ages outclass anything that the contemporary world can offer as evidence of its cultural achievement.

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