HIGH-HEELED PENANCE—In San Miguel de Allende
By Carol L. Bowman
The one-ton platform carrying the image of the Virgin Mary swayed on the shoulders of the 40 women bearing its burden, as they emerged from the massive doorway of the 500 year-old Templo Oratorio. A tear sliding down Mary’s porcelain cheek, representing her grief at the arrest and death of her son, Jesus, tugged at the hearts of the onlookers. Witnesses jammed El Centro, San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico to experience the most solemn of processions, El Silencio, The Holy Burial. The streets of this colonial gem had been readied for the processions that depict the biblical record of the peak of the Christian Calendar-Holy Week.
5PM, Good Friday. The sun had started to recede and the hush of the crowd awaiting the Virgin of Solitude to pass by them, created a deafening silence. White-gloved women, dressed completely in black with dark lace mantilla veils draped over their heads and brushing their shoulders, carried the larger-than-life figure of Mary as if she were made of glass.
I watched the young, middle-aged and elderly women gingerly move with tenuous steps. My eyes darted down to their feet. They all wore black shoes; some stiletto, some wedged, some platform, but all high-heels. They struggled to lower the float to pass through the arch at the entrance to the Temple. The Mother of Jesus teetered as a gust of wind kicked up and her image wavered from its anchor on the massive platform. The women’s ankles wobbled, as they attempted to regain sure footings. The group staggered forward, conveying the precious image down the steps and onto the uneven cobblestoned streets.
Penance for the faithful comes at a high price. Carrying this heavy load shoulder-high through narrow streets and alleyways for blocks, for hours, exemplifies the spiritual burden of one’s sins. Wearing flat comfortable shoes would not demonstrate sufficient gratitude for God’s forgiveness or show enough atonement. As I watched these female penitents, Las Veronicas, wince with each step, a stiff echo of their devout devotion to the Virgin Mary swept over me.
Processions personifying these religious pageantries have been celebrated throughout the world since the 16th Century. Holy Week observances in Seville, Spain, in Antigua, Guatemala and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico draw travelers from all over the world. They come to see the reenactments of Christ’s final journey, beginning with the Last Supper and ending with the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. One does not have to be Catholic to be awed by the spectacle of flower covered platforms with life-size figures positioned atop, advancing through the streets on the shoulders of the faithful.
In April, 2014, having experienced the drama of Semana Santa ( Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala several years earlier, we decided that San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, awarded the Reader’s Choice ‘best city in the world’ by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine in 2013, should be our next ‘Procession’ destination. Good Friday is devoted to the most solemn, memorable and dramatic processions. Throngs head out on foot, all converging on El Jardin, the ancient plaza,where the orange and pink canterra stone, neo-gothic Parróquia San Miguel de Arcangel steeples rise into the sky. This parish church, its style drawn from postcards of churches in Europe, was erected over the original 1600’s structure. La Parróquia, considered the symbol of San Miguel, throbs as the heart of this vibrant city. Every day, on every hour, the bells ring out from the towers, but eerily, on this one sacred Christian day, the bells remain silent.
After Christ’s mock trial before Pontius Pilate, angelitos, young girls wearing all white, lead the way from the church courtyard. They toss aromatic herbs, chamomile and mint from their woven baskets to make a perfumed carpet for the sacred images to follow. During this procession, the single most emotional moment of the entire week takes place, the Holy Encounter. As the lofted image of Jesus meets the image of the Virgin Mary, with the aid of a mechanical lever, Jesus raises his head to meet the sorrowful eyes of his mother. The crowd’s silent reaction is profound.
The pageantry, the tears of the faithful and the high-heeled penance images make a visit to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico during Holy Week one that will never fade from memory. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
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