Holy Week in Antigua
Text and 20 photographs by Eric Pasquier
The high point of the celebration of Holy Week by the Guatemalan Catholics of Antigua is Good Friday. For months in advance, the population prepares the multi-colored sawdust carpets which will be spread in the streets during the night of Thursday to Good Friday. An ephemeral masterpiece over which will pass the extraordinary Easter procession: an enormous catafalque with the statue of Christ, carried by 80 penitents. Eric Pasquier was there to witness this unique occasion.
The former capital of Guatemala, Antigua, is a city of many splendors; not least the extraordinary carpets of colored sawdust which are an essential and magnificent part of its celebration of Holy Week. These works of art are destined to be trodden under foot and destroyed by the men and women carrying the statue of Christ during the Good Friday procession. It is the ultimate homage and a sincere testimony to the faith of the people - sacred art has no price!
The Quinta Avenida is bubbling over with excitement. This year Antigua’s Fifth Avenue is in the limelight; it is to produce the longest carpet ever, measuring 310 meters. From a distance it looks like a superb wool rug rolled out onto the ground. It is not until you get closer that you realize it is made of sawdust. The result is fabulous, an example of faith and patience, especially when you think that the merest gust of wind can disperse the lot in just a few seconds.
Each of the other carpets which will grace streets elsewhere in the city, usually measures 20 to 25 meters in length, sometimes up to 40 meters, and 4 meters in width. They are the work of individuals who decide to make one outside their homes, on the path that the procession will take. But the monster-carpet which will decorate Quinta Avenida takes some extra organizing.
This year the residents of the Quinta Avenida have organized a special committee of 45 families to create the single, huge carpet. The fronts of the houses have been repainted for the occasion.
The creation of this work of art starts at the Gremial de Restaurantes (Association of Restauranteurs), which is involved in numerous projects. Oscar, Leonel and Jaroslav, who all have restaurants on Fifth Avenue, are also members of the special committee. Andres, whose restaurant is on the Avenida Oriente, and who makes a carpet of flowers every year, has not yet decided if he will do so this year. He is not alone in his indecision - other citizens also wait until the last minute before making up their minds. It’s a big undertaking.
Basilicas open to the skies, and disemboweled churches serve as warehouses for storing the mountains of sawdust needed. Antigua is dominated by the volcano De Agua and its twin brother Del Fuego, and between the 6th and 18th centuries Antigua was shaken to its foundations by numerous earthquakes. On 29 July 1773 there was a particularly violent quake that destroyed a great deal of the city, and led to the capital being transferred to its present site: Ciudad de Guatemala. All that remains of the period are the walls of religious buildings that were further damaged by the last earthquake of 1976.
Oscar takes us to the former convent of Santa Catalina, where a ton and a half of sawdust has been deposited for the preparation of the giant carpet. While some people are busy sifting the sawdust, others are dyeing it with natural dyes. Pyramids spring up of reds, greens, oranges, violets and blues, and are constantly sprinkled with water to stop the bright colors fading in the sun. A mountain of sand, some 40m³ in volume, sits nearby; another innovation, it will be spread over the cobbled street before the carpet is laid, to level the surface.
A derelict house close by has been turned into a carpentry workshop where the stencils are made - from plywood, cardboard and metal - that will serve to give the carpet its geometric motifs. It will be the exact replica of a woman’s belt. Some 40 people are to take part in the work, at a cost of 1500 dollars.
The Montiel family were the first in Antigua to begin making these processional carpets, and theirs are always the most beautiful and original. Mr Montiel is a primary school teacher, and in preparation for Good Friday, his courtyard is already overflowing with baskets of sawdust and stencils. “My family has been creating these carpets for 50 years.
The family has never missed a year. He has been at work for the last four months drawing flowers, birds, butterflies and crosses which he will then reproduce on cardboard or wood to make the stencils. This year his carpet will measure 30x4 meters. He went to the sawmills at Chimaltenango, about 20 kilometers from Antigua, to buy pine sawdust that he has dyed 8 colors, with various shades of blue and green. He used rasped pine bark for brown and chalk reduced to very fine powder for white.
The Antiguans begin their carpets on the Thursday evening, the procession beginning at 7 A.M. on Good Friday. The preparations begin at 6 P.M. on the Quinta Avenida. But at 6 P.M. there is nothing but a huge mountain of sand in the middle of the avenue. The neighboring streets are deserted, and a strangely calm atmosphere reigns. Two hours of walking through the city centre, and still not a sign of sawdust anywhere. It is hard to imagine that an extraordinary procession will take place here the next day.
Andres, meanwhile, has finally decided to go ahead with his flower carpet. In his kitchen dozens of bunches of carnations, marguerites, chrysanthemums and lilies lie in water, along with huge branches of corozo (Vegetal ivory) waiting for its nuts to be picked off. The procession is not due to pass his house until around midday, so he has no need to hurry, and will begin his carpet during the night.
By 1 A.M., the traffic has stopped completely and the streets are literally strewn with sawdust. Wooden beams laid out on the cobbled streets mark the dimensions of the carpets. Ladders have been laid out perpendicular to each other, on which those who are to fill the stencils are perched. It is a job that requires infinite patience and precision. The motifs take form little by little - geometric or floral shapes, arabesques and doves, superimposed and intertwined; faces of Christ emerge, alongside quetzals - the bird symbolizing Guatemala - and sun-disks.
At 3 A.M. horsemen and Roman soldiers appear in the streets. Carrying torches and dressed in gleaming helmets and superb red togas, they march through the city streets, checking out the path the procession will take.
By dawn, 50 or more carpets have been completed, and are constantly watered to prevent the first gust of wind from taking the sawdust with it. On average, the carpets took their craftsmen 6 to 8 hours to make. The only one still in progress is the immense red ribbon of the Quinta Avenida; a dozen or more of the avenue’s residents will continue working through the morning, as the procession will not get there until the very end.
At 6 A.M. a vast crowd is already thronging around the church of the Merced. They are all there, men and women from the surrounding countryside gathered together, humble and silent. On and around the square, Roman soldiers and penitents in long purple dresses await the solemn moment, looking for all the world like extras from a Cecil B. de Mille super-production. In all, there are over 3,500 bearers, 750 children who will accompany the procession, 132 Romans and 200 pall-bearers. At the stroke of 7A.M., drum rolls and cymbals resound through the air. At the top of the steps, emerging from the nave of the church, Christ appears carrying his cross, unsteady on his stand, like some strange apparition. And the procession begins.
Along the streets, past the houses, the cohorts of Roman legionaries, between two rows of penitents, keep back the crowds of followers who have come to greet the Redeemer on his way to the cross. Pontius Pilate, followed by two thieves dressed in rags, their hands bound by rope to a cross, walks slowly forward. Huge banners recall the accusations made against Christ. The procession advances slowly and ceremoniously along the carpeted streets in profound silence. It is not a celebration in which the people participate, but a procession they watch with the greatest respect. The music sounds out, sinister and gloomy.
From the midst of the enveloping incense fumes, the enormous catafalque rises out like a ghost ship, resting on the shoulders of 80 penitents, bearers of the statue of Christ. This impressive solid oak stand measures over 30 meters, and weighs around 3 tons. In the middle, in the front row, one of the bearers sets the pace, advancing slowly towards the first carpet that will be trodden underfoot and destroyed in a few minutes by more than 160 feet.
Just behind Christ, carried by 50 women, comes the cortege of the Virgin Mary. She is dressed in a long velvet dress studded with jewels, in the fashion of the Spanish religious statues. The statues’ faces are solemnly beautiful, marked with extraordinary realism. The music picks up again, the men stop, kneel down, and make the sign of the cross. The crowd does likewise. There are no shouts or singing, no noise at all. The men are bowed under the immense weight, effort and heat. Their suffering is a profoundly sincere way of participating in that of their Savior. 2930 Men and 1700 women take it in turns to carry their share of the burden over the 8 kilometers covered by the procession. They have each 10 quetzals (1,00€) to accomplish their mission. Thus, at each crossroads, during the 7-hour-long journey, Christ changes shoulders on his march towards the certitude of his death and the promise of his resurrection.
One by one the carpets are destroyed, reduced to a pile of multi-colored sawdust, and swept aside in passionate indifference. Each year a prize is given for the best carpet. This year was an exception as there was no prize. But no one cares: sacred art has no price.