The ‘moving’ saints of Holy Week

There is nothing more riveting depiction of religious history than the sublime drama that is Jesus’ passion (Pabasa), commemorated this Lenten season throughout the Christian world. Christ’s traumatic saga has been sanctified in many artistic forms across the centuries from paintings to literature, films, music, tapestries, frescoes, and drama.

In Paete, Laguna, a small town in Luzon south of Manila, the quiet small-town life of the people shifts with religious fervor on days before Easter amid the flourish and grandeur of the town’s “moving” saints. These are wooden statuaries all decked in rich biblical vestments and staged to re-enact milestones in Jesus’ painful journey to his death. These statues, carved by local craftsmen spring to life for two nights during Semana Santa, tracing Jesus’ steps on streets suddenly turned theater, surrounded by pious parishioners and mesmerizing curious visitors. On other days of the Holy Week, some 55 such images showcase the talent in woodcarving of Paete’s craftsmen that earned the town’s title as the Carving Capital of the Philippines. The other images represent more of Jesus’ life’s events during his ministry.

The pageantry holds spectators amazed in a somber aura even if they get to watch this event over and over again every year without fail. In the tableau, Veronica, a woman witness to Jesus’ trek to Calvary, can be seen wiping Jesus’ bloody face with a piece of cloth  — a brief and gentle pat on Jesus’ face but long enough to ensure precision on Veronica’s part. A male voice droning over hushed murmurs of the crowd provides a plaintive narration, disrupted at intervals by shouts from “Roman soldiers”  and rumbling sounds from the accompanying musical band thrown in for good measure.  

This solemnity climaxes in another part of town with Veronica stretching both arms sideways revealing in the piece of cloth 3 images of Jesus’ face. This is the moment that sends the crowd into a great frenzy. In turn, the Virgin Mary who performs her major acts, raises her head and brings her right hand in blessing, acknowledging that she saw it all.  

The unique mechanism of how parts of wooden images are made to move is held secret in the town, trusted only to a few with this lifelong vow.  

Many towns in the Philippines stage their versions of the passion, with local thespians playing apostles and Roman soldiers with plumed helmets and purple flowing robes. Good Friday funeral reenactments find Jesus laid out in an ornate casket comforted by weeping cherubs carrying the crown of thorns, nails, and other instruments of Jesus’ death. 

In Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the body of Christ lowered from the cross is followed by soldiers marching in a staccato rhythmic cadence. The passion play in Oberammergau in Germany is considered the most spectacular.  It is staged every 10 years in gratitude to God for saving the town from the onslaught of the black death in 1633.   

Soldiers accompany the float of dead Christ in the procession in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Video Credits:  Connie Triggiano

Throughout Christendom, Christ’s death is remembered with quiet contemplation turning to cries of joy come Easter morning. The drama naturally lends itself to folk and serious theater in varying renditions.   Filipinos, especially in Paete are no different. Across generations, they have been spirited, creative, and devout participants in all of them.

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Connie Triggiano is the Board Secretary of Circa-Pintig, a community theater organization of Filipinos in Chicago. Connie graduated BA in English from the University of San Francisco  (California), attended UST Graduate School’s Asian Institute for the Development of Advertising (MS in Advertising), and MS Communications coursework at PUP in the Philippines where she also taught college freshmen. Presently, Connie tutors foreign students to pass IELTS, TOEFL, Celpic, and Pearson Test of English Academic for admission to universities in the US and other countries. She also trains candidates for US citizenship to pass English and naturalization tests in US history, civics, and government.


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