There really are no limits to the ways one can illustrate devotion to one’s faith.
At yesterday’s annual Good Friday Procession in Quito, that devotion took on a multitude of forms I’ve never witnessed: dozens carried or pulled heavy crosses, others marched with shackles wrapped around their bruised ankles, and still others, bleeding from the barbed wire they wrapped themselves in, self-flagellated with ropes and sticks as prayers and hymns hummed through scratchy speakers that lined the procession route through the Ecuadorean capital’s historical city center.
It was a profession of faith for the several thousand who walked, many of them barefoot, and day-off entertainment for some 250,000 others, according to organizers’ estimates, who lined the streets to watch.
This was the 54th edition of Jesús del Gran Poder, or “Jesus of Great Power”, which in those five decades has grown into one of the largest and most colorful Roman Catholic Holy Week events in Latin America. More than ninety percent of Ecuadoreans consider themselves Roman Catholic, who collectively help make this one of the country’s largest annual gatherings, second in size only to Ecuador’s National Day celebrations.
Beginning at the large Plaza de San Francisco in the heart of Quito’s historical center district, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the route worms its way some 20 blocks north through the city’s narrow and steep cobblestone streets, pauses at the grand Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-gothic Basilica in the Americas, before circling back to the plaza, one built atop a destroyed Incan temple, where a closing mass is celebrated.
The start and finish times are set to coincide with the hour Jesus was condemned to death (noon) and the hour in which he was crucified (3pm). That was the plan, announced and advertised. But things changed.
When I arrived at the sprawling plaza at 11, the procession was already underway. I was told that the volume of those joining the procession was so large that an earlier start was required. “That usually happens,” I was also told. So I followed the sea of purple cones.
There’s a strong theatrical element to the procession, one built upon a foundation of Old World Catholic traditions that date back several centuries.
The central role is played by the Cucuruchos and Veronicas, both garbed, head to toe, in shades of purple. The former (mostly) men, their faces hidden, wear tall cone-shaped headdresses; the latter, named for the woman thought to have offered her veil to Jesus so he could wipe blood and sweat from his brow, are women, their face covered by thin lace veils.
Purple is the color of penitence, and the cones are said to symbolize humility. I have a slightly hard time with the latter; in my experience the only people who hid their faces and wore cones were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The daily El Comercio estimates that 1500 Cucuruchos and about 300 Veronicas participated. I think those numbers veer to the conservative side.
Real blood does flow from the cuts caused by the heavy chains and barbed wire that some penitents are bound with, just as real as the pulpy welts on the backs of those who choose self-flagellation as their penance of choice. But much of it is make-up, painted on the faces, chests and backs of young and old who participate in this passion play before an audience of thousands.
There were Roman soldiers, dozens of Jesuses with really bad fake beards and lots of vendors, too, hawking fruit salads, Jesus portraits, popsicles and water, sweet espumillas, knitted children’s socks, umbrellas and even small plastic chairs — two for five dollars for the latter.
I didn’t buy a chair, but I wanted to get one for a young boy who was visibly struggling with a cross that was his to carry but not his to bear. He looked out of place. There was nothing theatrical about the strained look on his face.
Several more images below, twenty in all. If that’s not enough, I also put together a longer slide show comprised of 66 images.
The soundtrack? Fuath by Fields of Ohio from the album “Without Love We Are Dangerous”.