Thursday, April 13, 2006


Good Friday in Sartene

Tomorrow is Good Friday. Although I'm not a religious person, it's impossible to escape the sombre tone of this day whatever the country you are in.

Three years ago I spent Good Friday in Sartene in Southern Corsica, having heard about the religious procession that takes place there on that day. It is called the Catenacciu. Despite arriving early, we were amazed by the crowds. I reckon that several thousand people were packed into the tiny Central Square, and they were there to see several priests carrying a statue of the crucified Christ, and a penitent in blood-red robes and a pointed hood completely obscuring his head, walking in procession through the streets of the town.

The penitent was wearing heavy chains attached to his ankles and as he walked you could hear them dragging along the ground. It looked tortuously painful and totally exhausting, yet as I understand it there is a long queue of people waiting to take their turn to be the penitent.

I won't be joining this queue, and I think my lack of a Corsican family name would prevent me taking part anyway. It is a very ancient ritual, echoed in several other Corsican towns and villages, and also in other Mediterranean countries. In Mediaeval times, the pentent was a genuine sinner, having thoroughly earned his penance, and the onlookers used to throw stones at him as he walked.

Thanks to a tip off, we got a better look at the proceedings than some. Someone told us that the procession would soon pass a certain very narrow part of the town and we were able to stand on a municipal flower container to get a better view. It felt voyeuristic to this North European, but like so many other things in this wonderful place, it's perfectly normal in Corsica.

I've never been to the Catenacciu, but I have been to the Calvi equivalent many times and will be going again tonight at 21H. The procession in Calvi is called the Granitula. Granìtula is the Corsican word for spiral, but it generally connotes the spiral procession of Good Friday that takes place in Corsican towns and villages. The evening procession is generally led by the prior (priore) of the Lay Brotherhood (Cunfraternità). It represents the progress of Jesus to Golgotha and therefore involves several stops upon the way. The procession is generally accompanied by the chanting of ancient dirges and the cross is carried by an incognito penitent, robed, hooded and walking barefoot. The snail-like labyrinthine procession curls into a tight knot at key points along the way and uncurls again (often with much jostling and shaking of the torches that the brothers carry). It normally winds through the village from the church and back. There are many different ways to explain the symbolic ritual. It can be seen as time enclosing space, with no beginning and no end. There are others who would interpret it as a way going from darkness into the light. Taking place in the Spring, it can be taken as symbolic of the passing of the seasons. It was adopted long ago as a piece of Christian ritual associated with the resurrection. Similarly there are those who take it as a way of expressing birth, death and rebirth. More simply, the coiling and uncoiling procession can be read as yin and yang, or pairs such as intellect and will, or knowledge and love. The processions take place in many places, especially in the north of the island - in Calvi, but also in Erbalunga, Peru Casavechje, Prunelli di Casaconi...
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