The Holy Week Processions In Popayán

The Holy Week Processions in Popayán: Get Inspired by the Magic of Sounds, Incense, and Master Woodworking after Full-Year Preparations


The Holy Week in Popayán, Columbia is marked by centuries-old traditions and special rituals.

Known as the Holy Week Processions, this special time of the year brings the local community close together while also attracting visitors from all over the world.

Throughout the entire week before Easter, the locals are expecting the peak of the celebrations – the Lord’s resurrection. Starting from Tuesday, each night between 8.00 pm and 11 pm the processions take place.

But long before the processions begin, the local community is engaged in complex and traditional preparations that last for a whole year.

In 2009 the Holy Week Processions in Popayán became a part of UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Thus, the ancient tradition that is estimated to play a key role in preserving the collective psyche of the natives was deservedly acknowledged as being of not only local but also of global significance.

Currently scattered by conflicts, tension, and still bearing the fame of a country of “Narcos,” Colombia has so many well-hidden layers of beauty that one can find only with an open mind that is willing to explore the pulsating soul of the country. Behind the high rates of poverty and crime, Latin America is a place where so many secrets are still patiently waiting to be discovered.

The Holy Week Processions in Popayán reveal a completely different face of Colombia as if wiping away all the brutal images that have been regularly brought up to the attention of the Western society.

When working with wood we need to go through different phases before we unveil the very heart of the tree in order to bring a second life to it. And so is Colombia a country that can only disclose its secrets and wisdom to those who are willing to dive deeper than what meets the eye at the very first sight.

“There is no better friend than a burden” – Colombian proverb.

Brief Introduction to the History of Popayán

Brief Introduction To The History Of Popayán
Image Source

With an average temperature of 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 Fahrenheit), Popayán is located 1760 meters above the sea level.

The population of Popayán is 258,653 people based on the census from 2005. Interestingly, Popayan was declared a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO because of the unique local dishes that feature a symbiosis between ingredients and techniques brought from Spain along with indigenous native components.

Covering an area of 512 square kilometers, Popayán is a gemstone hidden between the Central Mountain Range and the Western Mountain Range of Colombia.

Video by Erick Edlinger – Beautiful Colombia Part 1 – The Central Andes (Cordillera Central)

Known as the “white city” because of the typical colonial style buildings painted in white, Popayán is the capital of the Colombian department of Cauca.

And indeed, the colonial architecture of Popayán has turned into one of the hallmarks of the city.

But what’s more, Popayán is known for the largest number of churches per capital in the entire country of Colombia.

With this in mind, the local community is also commonly regarded as one of the most religious communities in Colombia.

Some of the famous religious buildings in the region include the oldest church La Ermita, along with the churches Santo Domingo, San José, San Francisco, Belén, San Agustín, as well as the notorious Catedral Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

The town of Popayán was founded by the Spaniards on January 13, 1537. Unfortunately, there are no records of the pre-Hispanic history of the village of Popayán.

But while little is known about the indigenous rituals and the ancient history of Popayán people before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the town became one of the most important colonial spots.

Popayán remained a significant transfer point for gold traveling to Cartagena on its way to Spain even after the discovery of the Pacific Ocean routes.

Sadly, Popayán has been greatly affected by several earthquakes. One of the most recent earthquakes that hit the town was also the most destructive, and it occurred on 31 March 1983.

For more than ten years after the devastating earthquake in 1983, the local community has been slowly recovering from the terrible losses and consequences. Nowadays, it is still possible to come across constructions that have not been rebuilt yet, as if carrying the horror of the earthquake that lasted for only 18 seconds but caused damage for 18 years ahead.

Looking Closer into The Holy Week Processions in Popayán

Looking Closer Into The Holy Week Processions In Popayán
Image Source

The Holy Week Processions in Popayán have been a well-established and well-preserved tradition of great importance to the local community for more than 450 years now.

Interestingly, the tradition was actually brought by the Spanish conquerors. It is similar to religious rituals and special ceremonies that take place in the towns of Valladolid and Seville.

Video by Rick Steve’s Europe – Rick Steves’ European Easter: Palm Sunday in Sevilla

Even though the Holy Week Processions in Popayán are deeply rooted in the traditions and cultures belonging to the Iberian Peninsula, the locals have implemented their most sacred beliefs in the associated customs in such a way that the Holy Week Processions have become unique for the region.

According to chronicles, the earliest processions in Popayán appeared within as little as thirty years after the town was founded. Thus, it is believed that the year 1566 marks the very beginning of the first Popayán processions.

There are five processions that are held within the Holy Week Processions in Popayán. The processions are devoted to Mary, Jesus, the Cross, the Laying in the Tomb, and the Resurrection, following a two-kilometer route that weaves through the center of the town.

Holy Tuesday Procession

Holy Tuesday Procession starts from St. Augustine church. It is from the St. Augustine church that men carrying images of Christ begin walking towards the central streets of Popayán.

Once the men reach the center of the town, they are being welcomed by acolytes in red robes. Incense is spread while chime bells are ringing. In the symphony of aromatic scents and the sacred sounds of the bells, a crucifix is also carried by the red robbed acolytes.

Good Friday Procession

Good Friday Procession
Image Source

The Good Friday Procession is considered the most symbolic one within the Holy Week Processions in Popayán. That’s because it represents the very moments before the crucifixion. Men carrying tools represent those who nailed Christ’s body to the cross.

The symbol of Death is represented by a skeleton. A fine-crafted figure made out of ivory and tortoise shell portrays the resting body of Christ.

Woodworking and Rich Symbolism as Part of the Holy Week Processions in Popayán, Colombia

Woodworking And Rich Symbolism As Part Of The Holy Week Processions In Popayán Colombia
Image Source

Each of the five processions has evolved around the skillful crafting of reliquary floats. Locally, these reliquary floats are referred to as “pasos.”

For the creation of the pasos, the natives follow an array of complex rituals that are also related to the assembling of the floats. Each float is adorned by a wooden statue, and each statue depicts the Easter story.

Once the Holy Procession is over, the participants take back each paso to the churches where it is being carefully dismantled. After dismantling the paso, all of the pieces are stored until the next year’s processions take place.

Popayán residents finish the last preparations of the paso symbols in the local churches right before the evening processions begin. In fact, it is an entire local family that is responsible for the preparation of each paso.

The elders who are the most experienced ones are called sindico. A sindico supervises the decoration of the pasos, making sure that all of the strict rules based on the ancient tradition are carefully and precisely applied.

The ornate wooden statues are also traditionally decorated with flowers, and flowers of different colors are used during each of the processions depending on the symbolism behind the flowers’ colors.

Paso Of The Fallen Jesus
Image Source

For instance, the Paso of the Fallen Jesus is decorated with pink flowers during the Wednesday Holy procession.

Pink flowers are seen as a symbol of the joy of mankind looking towards immediate redemption.

Amazingly, most of these wooden statues date all the way back to the 18th century.

Amo Jesus of Puelenje

Amo Jesus Of Puelenje
Image Source

Amo Jesus of Puelenje is a baroque polychrome wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ that was carved in the 18th century. The devotional image can be found all year round in the church of Puelenje which is a part of the metropolitan area of Popayán.

Intricately connected to the style of 17th-century Spanish polychrome sculptures, the Amo Jesus of Puelenje is a lifelike representation of the Lord.

Video by Getty Museum – Making a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture

The historically and culturally important sculpture was crafted in the style of the Quito School. The Quito School is a Latin American artistic tradition that originated from the the school of Artes y Oficios, founded by the Franciscan priest Jodoco Ricke.

The Quito School style is absolutely incredible for it followed a long process of acculturation between the indigenous people of Colombia and the European conquistadors.

Video by CrashCourse – The Columbian Exchange: Crash Course World History #23

A spectacular technique of the Quito School is called “encarnado” which translates into “flesh-colored.”

Encarnado Flesh Colored
Image Source

After the wooden sculptures were carefully designed, precisely cut, and perfectly sanded, the artisans would apply several layers of gesso along with glue.

Each of these layers was then carefully polished until a beautifully smooth finish was achieved. The next step of the encarnado technique required the application of various colors in transparent layers that create an optical illusion of colors overlapping.

In order to produce this amazing effect, the first colors to be applied were blue, green and/or ocher.

Next, light colors such as white, pink, and/or yellow were applied.

The final colors worked as highlighters – for instance, orange and red were applied to the knees, elbows, and cheeks of the figures.

Meanwhile, dark blue, violet, and green were mixed and applied to highlight the wounds and bruises of the figures.

Another characteristic trait of the Quito School style was the application of watercolor (“aguada”) over silver paint or gold leaf which imparted a one-of-a-kind, distinct metallic sheen over the wooden sculptures.

The Application Of Watercolor Aguada
Image Source

Carrying the Sacred Symbols of Faith down the Streets of Popayan: Pride and Joy Passed on For Generations

Carrying The Sacred Symbols Of Faith Down The Streets Of Popayan
Image Source

In order to parade the ancient religious statues through Popayán’s downtown streets, the local residents use specially designed wooden platforms.

Four projecting wooden bars are placed at the very front, and four wooden bars are placed at the back of each platform.

The participants who are involved in carrying the heavy-weight wooden platforms along with the sacred wooden statues of the saints borne on top of the platforms are called “cargueros.”

Some Of The Platforms Weigh Over 1000 Lbs
Image Source

Some of the platforms weigh over 1000 lbs. For this reason, the cargueros need to work in perfect harmony and coordination as to be able to balance out the weight of the platforms and carry them elegantly, as if “floating” down the streets of Popayan.

Some of the cargueros are traditionally dressed in long skirts.

Due to the fact that the long skirts cover the cargueros’ bodies entirely, an intriguing visual illusion is brought to life, making the wooden statues on the platforms appear to be “floating” on their own as if carried by a mystical, invisible superpower, and especially when viewed from a particular distance.

Platforms Appear To Be Floating
Image Source

The very route that the processions follow is shaped like a cross, taking in the main churches and temples of the city.

“It’s wonderful to participate in the religious acts because it’s a very old tradition and every time I take part I have a better chance of becoming a carrier,” shares a Popayan resident in an interview compiled by AP Archive.

And indeed, participating in the Holy Week Processions in Popayan is a matter of honor, pride, and joy for the locals.

Video by AP Archive – Thousands watch Colombia Holy Week procession

Not only the elders but also the children eagerly wait to become a moving force of the celebrations, meaning that they also participate in the events, and are not merely an audience.

The strict instructions regarding the sacred rituals and full year preparations are passed down to children from the age of five.

The children of Popayan do take the Holy Week Processions events very seriously.

The children’s processions start on Easter Sunday after the Holy Week Processions of the elders have been successfully brought to a culmination marked by Jesus Christ’s Resurrection.

The children’s processions follow exactly the same patterns as these of the elders’, continuing for five days from Easter Sunday to the end of the following Thursday.

This is a tradition that’s been going on for years. Here in Popayan we get prepared from childhood to carry at the processions. It’s a tradition of many years, a family tradition basically,” explains another Popayan resident in an interview for AP Archive.

Final Food for Thought

Final Food For Thought 4

There is a traditional Colombian fairytale penned by Rafael Pombo, and named “The Poor Old Lady.” Much like the Holy Week Processions, this fairytale has been passed on for generations.

The Poor Old Lady” is a story of an old woman who complains she has nothing while she actually has everything.

The old lady has any type of food she could ever want, she has people waiting on her, and she has all the fancy jewels and clothes she could ever wish to wear.

However, the lady keeps feeling unsatisfied with her life, her belongings, and with herself, so she keeps complaining that she is poor until her death.

As she passed away, all of her endless belongings became useless, pointing out to the moral of the story – the always-relevant truth that it is not material things that are the most important factor in life, for happiness cannot be measured in richness or any other merit that people inevitably leave behind once they pass on the other side.

The story of the poor old lady is often told by parents during bedtime but it is also studied in Colombian schools, too.

This traditional story reflects some of the core values of the Colombian people – the values that continue to keep the locals rooted to the traditions of their ancestors and their deep faith in something that extends beyond anything materialistic – just like the very essence of the Holy Week Processions in Popayan.

Each year, a parade marked by beauty, wisdom, and spiritual power rises on the streets of Popayán, where the magic of sounds, incense, and master woodworking keep the ancient traditions alive.