Pasqua (Easter) is perhaps the most celebrated holiday in Italy, with La Settimana Santa (Holy Week) rites commencing on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. Sicily and Sardinia are particularly well-known for solemn displays of religious devotion during this period. Local customs blend with Catholic rites to create unique traditions celebrated faithfully each year.
Sicily’s Easter processions and celebrations are famous in Italy. They are the legacy of the 17th-century Spanish domination of the island and still bear a close resemblance to current Easter traditions in Spain.
Holy Week processions feature participants dressed in traditional costumes representing the people involved in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the two men crucified alongside him, and Pontius Pilate. Other celebrants dress as Roman soldiers and the penitent. During the processions there are statues of the Madonna, dressed in mourning black and also of Jesus, which are carried through town in processions that may last hours or even an entire day. Some of the faithful may follow behind the procession barefoot to show their devotion.
The procession of “I Misteri” in Trapani represents the most important traditional event of the year for the local community. The roots of this custom are traced directly back to Spain. During the 17th century, the brotherhood Confraternità del Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo, formed in Spain around the 15th century and established in Trapani in 1602, commissioned local artists to create statues representing various moments of the passion of Christ.
This group later merged with the pre-existing Confraternità di San Michele, which is now called the Confraternity di San Michele Archangel. As costs increased to maintain the statues and the intricacies of organizing the procession, the group requested the assistance of the local Maestranze, a working-class population composed of grocers, fishermen, bakers, butchers and other merchants who have taken on an increasingly predominant role over the years.
Each Maestranze became responsible for a specific statue of the Misteri. It is common for the statue to be named for a specific Maestranza itself. For example, the statue of the deposition scene represents tailors and is taken care of by this specific group. Currently, there are 18 Maestranze involved in I Misteri. On the first Friday of the Lenten period they celebrate the Scinnuta, which in Sicilian means to take something down. They take their statue “down” and outside where the public can admire and praise them. There is strong competition among the Maestranze, so details regarding the procession, such as the final decoration of the statue on Holy Friday, are kept secret until the last minute.
This procession lasts 24 hours and is accompanied by local marching bands. The statues are paraded around Trapani on the shoulders of volunteers, i portatori, who walk with a particular step, where celebrants rock sideways, called ‘a nnacata. If you visit Sicily during Easter you should not miss the chance to see these ancient rituals. If you are not in the area of Trapani, you will surely find a town in the area you are visiting with similar traditions.
On Palm Sunday people walk to church carrying palms of all sizes, shaped into crosses or intricate braids. In the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday it is common to see women sitting along the roadside making these from dawn till dusk.
On Saturday before Easter, kitchens become a bustling center of activity as everyone has their “tuma” of ricotta ready to make cassate. A “tuma” is made of the cheese that falls to the bottom of the pan when Sicilians make ricotta. It traditionally comes in special wicker containers but more commonly now in plastic. This Easter pastry is not the colored ice cream cake “cassata” but is made from a much older and simpler recipe. Feasting begins after Mass; there is pasta of course, a main dish of lamb for most households and perhaps some chicken as well. Afterwards there is fruit; the “colombe” (the traditional dove-shaped Italian Easter cakes) and various desserts. And Easter in Sicily would not be complete without the pastry “cuddura cu l’ova.” The egg baked in this delicious Pascal bread symbolizes life flourishing and nature awakening. It is considered a real work of art of Sicilian pastry making and is called by various different names in different provinces of Sicily as well as those in areas of Calabria with strong Greek influence.
Another favorite culinary delight are artichokes, which are so plentiful at this time of year that you can buy them by the crate at the roadside. They are traditionally grilled for Pasquetta, (Easter Monday) on yet another day of feasting.
On the island of Sardinia, Holy Week is also characterized by traditional processions and ancient rituals. Both devotees and tourists can attend the events organized by the “confraternite” to re-enact the last days of Jesus’ life until the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Sa Chida Santa (Holy Week) begins with sas Prammas, the procession of Palm Sunday. In subsequent days, various moments from the Passion of Christ are represented through special rituals or processions. Good Friday is devoted to the death of Christ. In many towns, the most solemn moments are the ones dedicated to the “Mystery” or s’Iscravamentu, the act by which the nails from Christ’s hands and feet are removed. The statue of Christ is then placed in a coffin and carried in procession.
On Easter Sunday, austerity gives way to celebrating the resurrection. Celebrants applaud, throw flowers and play traditional instruments as the statue of the risen Christ meets with that of the Madonna. Holy Week rituals in Alghero (Settimana Santa de l’Alguer) are among the most striking in Sardinia and are characterized by a strong Catalan influence. Easter traditions date to the 16th century and are still organized by the old Confraternità della Misericordia (the Brotherhood of Misericordia) also known as “Jermanes Blancs.” The historic center of Alghero relives ancient customs that elicit memories of a long-ago past. The darkness of the lanes at night is broken by red lanterns that illuminate the procession as music and the songs of the faithful fill the streets.
The focus of all the rituals is the Santcristus statue. This wooden statue of Christ, which is taken care of by the Brotherhood of Gonafalone in the Church of Misericordia, landed in Alghero in 1606 during the shipwreck of a ship, the Santa Maria di Montenero, that was heading to Genoa. The Santcristus statue was carried to shore by the waves and became one of the most representative symbols of the local historical tradition, as well as religious and cultural identity of Alghero.
Alghero’s first procession leaves on Good Friday from the gothic church of San Francesco, winding through the streets as celebrants sing psalms. This event is also called “de las dames” because, traditionally, women dressed in black followed the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary around town. On Thursday before Easter, Christ’s statue is taken from The Church of la Misericordia to St. Mary’s Cathedral where “l’alburament,” the elevation of the statue to the center of the altar, takes places. The statue is guarded by the brothers for the entire night.
On Good Friday, a mourning liturgy is celebrated in the Cathedral known as missa fugi-fugi followed by the desclavament, the descending from the cross. The statue of Christ is laid in the golden casket renamed “bressol” (crib) and carried in procession through the old town followed by the “Jermans Blancs,” hooded Spanish confrater-nities. The procession is accompanied by folk songs sung by the tenores.
On Easter Sunday, the people of Cagliari gather for “S’Incontru” (the meeting) of the statue of the risen Christ with that of the Madonna. The statues of Christ and Madonna are taken in two different processions until they meet in front of a cheering crowd, outside the Misericordia Church, where a solemn Easter Mass takes place in Catalan.
In Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, the rituals and processions also create an intense religious atmosphere. On Friday before Palm Sunday, the sacred Procession of the Mysteries, organized by the Brotherhood of the Crocifisso, leaves from San Giacomo Square. The procession, with Seven Statues of “The Mysteries,” dates to the 18th century and winds through the city with stops at seven different churches. For Good Friday, the Brotherhood of Solitudine organizes the procession of the dead Christ and the Madonna Addolorata, which are taken to Cagliari’s cathedral.
These types of processions and devotion of the faithful are celebrated across both islands with age-old traditions. It is not unusual to see young men vying for the honor of carrying or walking with these statues in the processions, heavy both in weight and symbolic grief. This is especially true when they are processing through narrow and hilly streets in some of the smaller towns. Celebrants both young and old show their faith in action as these solemn and joyful events continue year after year.