Today, about 90% of the people in Ecuador are Catholic. Holy Week in Quito (Semana Santa) mirrors a week-long string of events. To fully appreciate the grandeur and reverence of these celebrations, keep reading for a bit of religious history and some of the highlights that lead up to Easter in the capital.
The religious history of Ecuador is a tale going back before the Inca to the Cañari people, who worshiped the moon and developed a system and calendar based around on the stars to plan harvest celebrations. The Inca incorporated the Cañari calendar into the Incan culture and converted moon temples into those that paid respect to the sun.
The Spanish ushered in Catholicism, building elaborate and ornate cathedrals across the country. Some of these, like La Compañía and Iglesia de San Francisco in Quito, was built using classic designs-but added Incan and indigenous symbolism to the decor.
In both churches, you can find the sun looking down on people entering the edifices-an effort to draw indigenous people into the fold. Iglesia de San Francisco is built over an Incan temple-the church stands higher than others in the historic center as a result.
Ecuador has its own Holy Week and Lent dish, fanesca-a hearty soup made using harvest time ingredients excluding meat. The soup is found in restaurants and in homes across the city during Semana Santa in Quito. It is made using 12 beans and grains, codfish, potatoes, peanuts, and eggs,-amongst other vegetables like butternut squash, onions, and cabbage.
Tradition says that the 12 beans and grains represent the twelve apostles and that the fish represents Christ. While this may be so, many think that it is another case of Catholicism adopting harvest celebrations of the indigenous cultures that came before the Spanish into present-day religious traditions.
In Quito, major events during the week of March 25th to 31st are attended by crowds normally found in the football stadiums of the city. Cuenca and Guayaquil also draw large numbers during the week. There are more than a few things to see during Semana Santa in Quito where religion takes center stage over politics. In addition to traditional Holy Week events, there are concerts at churches around the city-a part of the XVII International Sacred Music Festival of Quito.
Inspired by Edward Paston, a seventeenth-century English courtier and antiquarian who collected music from all over Europe, John Potter and Ariel Abramovich have created a program focusing on the Sacred Music of England highlighting the lute.
Puéllaro is a small town to the north of Quito that is close to Mitad del Mundo. Each year the town hosts a procession in the early evening that emulates the passion of Christ. Platforms carrying the 12 apostles are led into the main square where thousands gather.
The Mixed choir of Quito has a 25-year tenure in the city as the leading choral group-bringing their voice and spirit to the Holy Week celebration.
They will perform “The Spirit of Nature”, directed by Natalia Luzuriaga-12 pieces that embrace choral music from around the world.
Quito’s Metropolitan Cathedral off of Plaza Grande in the historic center hosts the Dragging of the Capes ceremony on Ash Wednesday. The Archbishop of the city leads a procession of clergy while carrying an impressive black flag adorned with the cross. At the nave before the altar, the brethren lie prostate while the Archbishop waves the banner over their bodies. The Culture Trip reports that the ritual dates back to the Roman Empire when generals would wave their banner over their soldiers to symbolize the passing of the gauntlet.
Ensamble la Sambuca is scheduled to present a program of Renaissance and Baroque music. The Argentinean group brings an internationally renowned cast of players to the stage during the final day of the festival in Quito.
The folkloric dance company Jacchigua gets things moving as Holy Week kicks into high gear. The company members pay homage to the Catholic religion´s most sacred figures while leading a candlelit procession of followers through the cobblestone streets of the historic center.
The grandfather of processions during Semana Santa in Quito is the Procesión Jesús del Gran Poder. A spectacle full of color and sound, the religious ritual finds thousands of parishioners trailing the streets of the historic center while hundreds of thousands look on.
Purple and black-clad Cucuruchos and veiled Verónicas take to the streets in droves, dressed head to foot in long robes and pointed hats. The Cucurchos march barefoot as penance, and the Verónicas’ veils pay homage to the woman who helped Christ from the cross. The story says that she wiped his face with her veil while helping him find a resting place.
The faithful walk barefoot over hot pavement, flog themselves in acts of repentance and carry large wooden crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary and the Saints to the final stop outside the Basilica of Quito.
While the procession starts at noon, people start to gather in the early morning in the Plaza de San Francisco. This is a cultural and religious tradition that needs to be experienced-go early and be prepared for the crowds.
The Procesión Jesús del Gran Poder and the other processions and ceremonies around Quito are events that engage and enlighten-only a part of the charms that draw people in Ecuador to explore the city.