Holy Week in Sicily: the religious rituals not to be missed.
As Leonardo Sciascia wrote: “In every town, in Sicily, the Passion of Christ is represented through heartfelt performances. People or statues turn the streets and squares into the setting for a drama whose elements are betrayal, murder and a mother’s grief“.
The religious rituals in Sicily are the sublime combination of the divine and the human, the sacred and the profane. The strong faith is expressed in a striking and unrestrained manifestation. Religious ceremonies celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ and become a frantic search for life and joy. Let’s discover together the most important festivals of Holy Week in Sicily.
Holy Week in Trapani. The Mysteries Procession
The rites of Holy Week in Trapani are among the most important and popular in Italy. They are a combination of faith, popular culture and folklore. It all begins on Tuesday with the procession of the painting of the Mother Piety of the ‘Massari‘. On Wednesday afternoon, the work meets the paint of the Mother Pity of the People. On Thursday, there’s the setting up of the “sepulchres “. These are altars that recall the Last Supper, adorned with gold, silver and coral votive offerings. The most suggestive and touching moment is the Procession of the Mysteries. It involves eighteen groups of statues recalling episodes of the Passion of Christ and simulacrum of Jesus in the urn and Our Lady of Sorrows. The ‘Maestranze‘ take the statues and carry them on their shoulders. They walk in a procession from 2 p.m. on Friday until Saturday morning. The bearers of the simulacri perform two typical movements during the Procession: the Annacata (rhythmic rocking to funeral dirges), and ‘a Vutata when the statues are turned towards those who belong to the Maestranza or towards the sick.
Holy Friday in Erice. The Mysteries Procession
In the centre of Erice too, during Holy Friday there is a procession of the Mysteries. There are seven groups of statues representing episodes of the Passion of Christ, and the Addolorata, a statue of the Virgin wrapped in a black cloak. The Procession of the Mysteries in Erice is smaller than the one in Trapani (which takes place on the same day, at about the same time), but it is just as impressive. The religious procession leaves the Church of San Giuliano and crosses the streets. The atmosphere is intimate. The prayers of the faithful and funeral music echo through the medieval village. The Via Crucis is a very moving experience for both visitors and devotees.
Holy Thursday in Marsala. The Via Crucis
On Holy Thursday, Marsala changes its look: visitors, believers and photographers pour into the streets of the traffic-free centre, waiting to watch the Via Crucis. Actors in historical costumes play the roles with deep involvement during the procession. The “falls” of Christ under the weight of the cross, repeated several times along the way, have a powerful emotional effect.
Holy Week in Enna
Holy Week in Enna is one of the most spectacular and evocative in the world. The rites begin on Palm Sunday and end on Sunday in Albis, a week after Easter. On certain days and at certain times, the 15 confraternities go to the cathedral for a Eucharistic adoration called ura. On Good Friday, the municipal administration and clergy parade through the town. Together with them are 2500 hooded figures called confrati. The confraternities are based in 16 churches, where the so-called Mysteries are prepared and are taken in the procession. The music band accompanies the parade with mournful notes written by local composers. On the Sunday after Easter, known as ‘in Albis’, the last traditional ceremony takes place, which is called the Spartenza (separation). On this day, the confraternities of the College of the Holy Saviour and the College of St Joseph, regain their fercoli (of the Risen Son and the Mother) and take them back to their churches.
Pietraperzia. Lu signuri de li fasci
The rite of “lu Signuri di li fasci” takes place on Good Friday in Pietraperzia. It is one of the most representative and characteristic religious rituals in Sicily. At sunset, in front of the Chiesa del Carmine, an 8 metres high beam is placed in a cypress wood cubic base, called “Vara”. At the top of the lintel is a circular metal structure, around which the devotees begin to tie hundreds of linen bands (up to 36 metres long) for a total of 200 white bands. Shortly before the start of the procession, a crucifix is placed on top of the beam with an ancient ritual, called ‘a ppassamànu, i.e. from one hand to the other. The confreres place the crucifix inside the Chiesa del Carmine while shouting the short prayer “Pietà e Misericordia, Signuri“.
At 8 p.m., a designated monk strikes three times on the vara then the Cross is raised. It is held in balance by the bands, looking like a high snowy mountain. At the base of Christ on the Cross is placed a globe of coloured glass. It symbolises the world and its diversity under the saving power of Christ.
San Fratello. The Jewish Festival
In San Fratello, in the province of Messina, on Wednesday, Thursday and Good Friday, the festival of the Jews takes place. The origins of this tradition date back to the Middle Ages and perfectly combine faith and folklore. The Jewish multicoloured clothing is as peculiar as their behaviour. The costume is a red jacket and trousers, adorned at the sides with strips of fabric of another colour. On the head, they wear a red hood. From the mask hangs a large tongue of shiny leather. The costume also has a large mouth and two very long eyebrows, giving it a grotesque and monstrous appearance. At their feet, the Jews wear rough leather shoes or ‘fur shoes’, and in their hands, they carry bundles of wide-link chains and trumpets. The Jewish festival begins at dawn on Holy Wednesday and ends on Friday evening. For three days, the Jews blatantly disturb religious celebrations, such as the Procession of the Varette with the Mysteries of the Passion of Christ. They run and shout, blow their trumpets and climb the walls. They walk perilously on the edges of houses and balconies, jump, flee and disappear, creating chaos, sometimes even frightening the tourists.
Easter in Prizzi. The Dance of the Devils
“U Ballu di diavuli” is a folkloristic-religious tradition related to Easter events in the town of Prizzi, in the province of Palermo. The event has medieval origins and preserves traces of pagan celebrations concerning the triumph of life and the rebirth of vegetation in early spring. From the morning of Easter Day, disguised devils (dressed in red) and the Death (dressed in yellow ochre) roam undisturbed through the streets of the village, playing tricks and entertaining passers-by. In exchange for an obolus (money or sweets ) the devils release the victims. The climax takes place in the afternoon when the devils try to prevent the meeting between the statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary in the main town square. The statues are guarded by the angels that fight the devils. This struggle is performed according to precise rhythmic movements and is called the Dance of the Devils. Once the devils are defeated, the resurrected Christ and the Madonna can finally meet and the Good triumphs over the Evil.
Easter in Modica. The Madonna Vasa Vasa
On Easter Sunday, the Feast of the Madonna Vasa Vasa takes place. It is an unmissable event for the inhabitants and the many visitors who arrive in Modica every year. In a procession, the devotees carry the statues of the Madonna and the one of the Christ. The two religious representations seem to be looking for each other along the city streets. At the end of the parade, in the Church of Santa Maria di Betlemme, there is the traditional “midday kiss” between the Madonna and the Risen Christ.
Scicli. Feast of the Man Alive, U Gioia
U Gioia is the Easter festival held in Scicli, in the province of Ragusa. It is one of the most engaging Easter celebrations in Sicily. On Easter Sunday, local young people go through the town and bring the Venerable into the Church of Santa Maria la Nova. It is a very heavy banner made of blue silk. Anyone can carry the statue: there are no rules or confraternities. After the days of mourning during Holy Week, it’s now time to celebrate the rebirth with cries of Joy! Joy! Joy! The last one to carry the banner must bow to the Risen Christ. Then the procession of the Uomu Vivo, or ‘U Gioia, begins. The walk from the Church of Santa Maria La Nova to the Church of the Carmine is short, but the pace, the stops and the “twists” are unpredictable. The parade keeps everyone in suspense. The festival ends late at night. Those who carried the statue are tired, but they continue to shout the word Joy! until they enter the church.
Easter in Piana degli Albanesi
Easter in Piana degli Albanesi is very evocative and is celebrated according to the Byzantine rite. All the rituals reflect the identity and cultural roots of the inhabitants of this area. Albanian customs, traditions and language have been handed down for over 500 years. The typical women’s clothes are richly decorated. The feeling of belonging to the ancient ethnic group and the Albanian tradition in this area is extremely strong.
Holy Week in Caltanissetta
During Holy Week in Caltanissetta, there are many religious events. The processions and rites begin on Palm Sunday. The Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) takes place in the historic centre of Caltanissetta. Here a great historical re-enactment comes to life with actors playing the roles of the Christian tradition. On the evening of Holy Monday, the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples is performed inside the cathedral. On Holy Tuesday, the trial in front of Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin takes place. On the panoramic steps of Via Agostino Lopiano (representing Mount Golgotha), Jesus is crucified and deposed: this moment is called Mortorio or Scinnenza. On Wednesday, the Captain of the Real Maestranza leads the artisan corporations in a parade, each carrying its banner. During the traditional Procession of the Real Maestranza, the Varicedde are brought around. These are 19 small simulacra that represent the Passion of Christ.
On Holy Thursday, we can take part in the procession of the Mysteries. These are the Mysteries of the Passion of Christ represented by 16 groups of statues made by the artists Francesco and Vincenzo Biangardi. The parade winds its way through the streets of the city centre. Only in the middle of the night, in Piazza Garibaldi, the separation (Spartenza) takes place. Each Mystery returns to the church where it is preserved for the rest of the year.
The evening of Good Friday in Caltanissetta is a moment of silence and mourning. The Santuario del Signore della città (Sanctuary of the Lord of the town) is an ancient little chapel in the district of San Francesco. From here begins the traditional procession with a 15th-century wooden crucifix. The crucifix is called “The Black Christ” because of its dark colour: it is a sacred item venerated by all the citizens of Caltanissetta. The story tells that two herb gatherers, called fogliamari, found the crucifix. Nowadays, during the parade, the fogliamari wear a purple tunic and are barefoot while they carry the throne with the black Christ on their shoulders. While walking, they also sing the Ladate, which are traditional litanies in the ancient Sicilian dialect of medieval origin.
The entire Maestranza is dressed in mourning while they pray in the procession. The bishop leads the parade, followed by the clergy, nuns, monks, confraternities and religious congregations. Behind the Black Christ is a large crowd of people. Most of them are barefoot to make a vow or ask for grace.
Easter in Sinagra. “ Saint Leone Race”
A Cursa ‘i Santu Liu (Saint Leone Race) has been a typical feature of Easter Sunday in Sinagra for hundreds of years. The procession starts from the small, rocky Church of San Leone. The devotees take the patron saint statue and carry it on their shoulders in a long, slow parade. As evening falls, they arrive near the bridge that leads to the centre of the village. That is where the pace of the procession suddenly changes with the characteristic final race, ending at the Mother Church. The initial slow pace of the parade symbolises Leone’s hesitation about returning to Catania ( where he was Bishop); the final run, instead, represents his choice to remain with the people of Sinagra. The San Leone Race is a very suggestive event. Many people come every year to attend the celebrations, but just as many are the residents, who honour the patron saint with enthusiasm and extreme devotion. On Easter Monday, there is a procession of the Saint through the town streets. On the same day, don’t miss the typical Easter Monday Fair.
Easter Arches in San Biagio Platani
The Feast of the Easter Arches (or Archi di Pane) takes place at the end of an artistic and handicraft competition that is unique in Sicily. Weeks before Easter, the confraternities of the Madunnara (devoted to the Madonna) and the Signurara (devoted to Jesus) build impressive compositions of bamboo, willow or agave canes. These are frames for magnificent artistic decorations of citrus, laurel and bread in varied shapes and sizes. The artistic works of arches, domes and bell towers are set on Corso Umberto I, the main street of the town. The decorations are very refined and, together with the evening lighting of the streets, turn San Biagio Platani, in the province of Agrigento, into a sumptuous and cosy open-air living room. Easter Day is the climax of the festival when Christ and the Madonna meet in front of the Mother Church.
Easter in Caltagirone. ‘A Giunta
In the streets of Caltagirone, Easter Sunday is a magnificent and heartfelt festival. On Easter days, the city’s historic centre is the stage for the Via Crucis, with actors representing the story of Jesus and wearing historical costumes. In the squares and near the monuments, the sacred play is a source of great emotion. The Way of the Cross ends in the Santa Maria del Monte staircase, where we can see the representation of the most touching moments: Christ’s fall under the weight of the Cross, the encounter with Veronica, the Crucifixion. The climax of Holy Week is Easter Sunday and corresponds to the ceremony ‘a Giunta. It is the meeting between the great statue of St Peter and the simulacrum of the risen Jesus. Both are looking for The Madonna to announce the Resurrection. The event takes place in Piazza Municipio, where the Madonna puts down her black cloak and lowers her head three times to pay homage to her Son. The crowd greets the scene with cheers of joy. After the meeting comes the moment of separation, ‘a Spartenza’, when all the statues leave by different streets.
Easter in Petralia Sottana. U ‘Ncuontru
The most meaningful event of Holy Week in Petralia Sottana is the enactment of the Passion of Christ. Actors perform the Way of the Cross in the beautiful town centre. On Thursday, the devotees can go to pay homage to the statue of the dead Christ, the Madonna and the angels in the Church of San Biagio, also known as ‘Collegio’. The Good Friday procession ends with the Calvary. On Saturday, during midnight mass in the Basilica, the Caduta du tiluni takes place: the Madonna takes off the large black cloth covering the high altar and ends her mourning. On Easter Sunday, three trumpet blasts announce the most joyful and moving moment: the meeting ‘Ncuontru, at the Chianu ‘u Collegiu between the Risen Christ and the Madonna.
The Risen Christ and the Madonna embrace amidst the general emotion of the crowd. Hundreds of people take part in a cathartic ceremony: the two statues are placed in front of each other, looking at each other, and are taken in procession through the old town until they reach the Mother Church.
Good Friday at Barrafranca. U Tronu
The Procession of the Crocifisso du Trunu (the Throne) is the most eagerly awaited moment of Good Friday in Barrafranca, in the province of Enna. At the end of all the masses in the town’s churches, the procession of the Holy Crucifix begins. The Cross is inserted and transported by a machine called ‘U Trunu’ by the locals. It consists of a central part called u’firrizzu, where the mechanisms allowing the vehicle to rise once it leaves the Church, are located. The ferculum is supported by two ‘baiarde’, with numbers from 1 to 100 corresponding to the place of each Cross bearer.
The golden votive offerings given by the believers over the years cover the statue of the Crucifix. The Holy representation is set in the centre of the ‘Spera’, a wooden oval structure. Before the procession, the Spera is joined to the ‘Munnu’. It is a giant sphere placed on top of a trunk about two metres high and represents the Earth. Every year, the faithful give the Crucifix colourful rosettes of fabric and flowers called scocche. During Easter, these gifts cover The Sphere and the World.
The Our Lady of Sorrows and the Urn of the Dead Christ join the Crucifix parade, and together they proceed towards the Mother Church. Once they reach U Trunu, the cortège begins with the Urn of the Dead Christ at its head. The ‘lamentatori’, the ‘Addolorata’ with St. John, the municipal band and finally the Trunu, follow the Sacred Urn in the procession.
Feast of Cristo Lungo in Castroreale
During the Holy Week, a unique festival takes place in Castroreale. The procession ‘U Signuri Longu’ (The Long Christ) keeps everyone in suspense. The ritual is very intense as the bearer of the crucifix endures a tremendous physical effort. The crucifix is made of papier-mâché and was created in the 17th century by an anonymous artist. Today it is in the Church of St Agatha and attracts many believers and admirers of local traditions.
The crucifix is fixed on a cypress pillar. It is about thirteen metres long and weighs about 450 kilograms. On Holy Wednesdays and Fridays, it is carried on the shoulders of sixteen men by a complicated system of wooden poles. The mechanism is handled by members of the Maestranza: they allow the statue to move through the streets of the old town. Seeing the Cross sliding across the rooftops is an unforgettable experience in a blaze of illuminations, band concerts and fireworks.
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