In a local calendar so packed that not one weekend is left free, the celebrations of the month of May are surely the most moving, and undoubtedly the truest reflection of the spirit of Priego. Any other festival – Holy Week, the annual fair, a patron saint’s day – will be commemorated in so many other places throughout Andalucía or Spain as a whole. There is, however, nothing quite like the May fiestas: they are so different, and so steeped in our most profound tradition, that we can say without fear of contradiction, that they are the defining characteristic which sets Priego apart from all other towns and their festivals.
The fact that they have been a feature of our lives for nearly four hundred years, the reasons behind them, and the way in which they are celebrated – all merit a study which never fails to throw up surprises. When were the May fiestas first celebrated in Priego? Have they changed substantially over the centuries? What moved the people of Priego to found these festivities?
It is traditionally held that the origin of the May festival goes back to a pledge made by the townspeople to undertake an annual act of worship, in perpetual thanks for the divine intercession which liberated them from the plague and its tragic consequences. This belief became so widespread, that a few years ago, a widely-read newspaper made this brief reference:
“On the Sundays in May, there are festivals with music in the streets to celebrate Priego’s deliverance from the plague: the whole day is an organised hullaballoo, said one local.”
The almost ridiculous superficiality of this sentence nevertheless mirrors the constant references to the sixteenth century plagues as the reason for this combined display of high spirits and religion. Many local accounts from the past hundred years have reaffirmed this belief, but it has to be said that they are often vague and confused -- we must conclude that the reason for the tradition cannot be confirmed by documentary evidence. (1)
If we go back to contemporary sources, it seems that this deep-rooted belief has no substance. The years in which there were outbreaks of plague do not tally with the years in which the pledge of worship could have been made; the records of various church guilds refer to the plague as the reason for the creation of those guilds, but not as the origin of the May fiestas.
The article quoted above suggested a fresh interpretation, according to which, the prayers of May were offered for the rain which was so vital for a good harvest. On analysis of the statutes and records of the cofradias which traditionally celebrate the festivals of May, we note direct references to rainfall as the reason for the fiesta.
On May 21st, 1593 – just one month after its founding – the Brotherhood of Jesús Nazareno paraded the holy image “to pray for rain, so great is the shortage of water today”. In the records of the most ancient of Priego’s hermandades, that of the Holy and True Cross and Lord Jesus Scourged, we see that whenever the May festivals are mentioned, reference is made to the prayers for rain. Take this example, from the records of the church guilds’ high council of January 21st, 1685: “commissioners were chosen to organise festivities and prayers to Lord Jesus Scourged during the month of May, so that through His compassion and infinite mercy He should succour us with good weather to bless the fruits of the earth”.
There is also a specific reference in this cofradia’s constitution, which probably dates from 1673. In Article 5, we read: “thus there shall be a novena of High Mass sung to Our Lord Jesus Scourged in the chapel of that cofradia, or in the high chapel of that monastery, every May of each and every year. The nine days shall end with a sermon, and in the evening, a procession through the cloisters of said monastery, with the presence of all brothers, with the purpose of praying to Our Lord God that he should be bountiful with the fruits of the earth”.
In Article 3 of the constitution of the Brotherhood of Our Lady Mother of God, dated 1692, there is also an instruction to celebrate with “a procession and sermon on the last Sunday of April, to pray for the earthly and spiritual wellbeing of the brothers, for good weather, and the safekeeping of the fruits of the earth….” (2) No reference here, either, to the plague in relation to the May fiestas.
Countering this hypothesis, the argument has been made (3) that the spring festivals of Priego were simply the result of the edicts arising from the Council of Trent. This suggestion is broadly acceptable, but in no way detracts from the demonstrable relationship between Priego’s May celebrations and the prayers for rain: nor does it explain why for more than a century, the origin of the festival has been attributed to the fear of plague.
Given the current state of our investigation, we can go so far as to say that our ancestors founded the May ceremonies with the principal objective of praying to God for rain, without which a harvest would be impossible.
As for the year when the May festival first took place, we could put it at 1642, coinciding with the foundation of the Brotherhood of Lord Jesus Scourged, and its joining with the more ancient Brotherhood of the True Cross. As has been noted, the constitution of this hermandad dictates that there shall be a festival in May: as far as the Brotherhood of Jesus of Nazareth is concerned, we can place the date in 1654, as a resolution was adopted in this year in relation to the celebrations (4): and for the Brotherhoods of Our Lady of Solitude and Our Lady Mother of God, the years 1684 and 1692 respectively, when such resolutions were first noted in their constitutional records (5). The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Charity can also be considered among those which from earliest times have celebrated the festival of May.
It is clear, therefore, that the festivals of May have been celebrated for more than 350 years: given such antiquity, one might imagine that over the course of so many years, their appearance would have changed greatly. Nevertheless, the records of the hermanades quoted above demonstrate the contrary, that the form of the modern celebrations basically follows the original pattern: “nine days of High Mass…..in the brotherhood’s own chapel, or in the church’s principal chapel…..the last one with a sermon and an evening procession”. All this takes place today, although in recent years, the nine days of prayer have become seven, to avoid problems of scheduling between the churches, and there are sermons during the last three days. Also, the order in which the cofradias hold their celebration remains the same, and is only changed in exceptional circumstances: the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Charity in the last week of April; followed in the four weeks of May by the Brotherhoods of Our Lady Mother of God, Lord Jesus Scourged, Our Lady of Solitude, and Jesus of Nazareth.
This, then, is the overall framework of the festivals: it is worth a closer look, however, at some aspects which could be seen as of secondary importance, but which in fact have a profound significance.
Primarily, there is the extraordinary ceremony – the result of meticulous organisation by the cofradias of their long-established rituals, such as the altar displays, the orators, the music, the procession itself, and finally, the methods of funding the celebration. Some of this changed radically after 1865, with the outbreak of rivalry between the hermandades of Jesus of Nazareth and Lord Jesus Scourged, whose desire to add even greater ceremony to the May festivals meant that they became not only a great religious occasion, but also a huge economic burden for the hermandades themselves. New ways of funding were explored, to which only the most well-off part of the community contributed, and from this arose the elitism that has characterised these festivals in the past century.
In the case of the extraordinary embellishment of the altars during the last days of the festival – known as retablos – it was agreed long ago that the days of prayer should take place before the main altar of the church, be it San Pedro or San Francisco, in order to allow greater prominence to the sacred image. The urge to create a retablo each year more spectacular than the last, and more impressive than that of the other hermandades, has led to displays of monumental ostentation, based on floral arrangements, and the widespread use of fabrics, lights, and tapestries, with a sumptuous array of candelabra and decorative vases. At times, the mounting of these diplays has damaged the original baroque altarpieces of the churches.
As for the festival speakers, it must be remembered that in days gone by, it was the custom to adopt a rhetorical and elevated style in the pulpit, which these days is no longer the fashion. During the May festivals, Priego could hear the words of some of the greatest religious orators of the age, generally the Canons of the cathedrals of Córdoba, Granada, or Seville: at times, a sermon would last more than two hours. This tradition of welcoming the finest speakers has left participants in the May celebrations with a taste for lengthy and inspirational addresses.
Thanks to the music that accompanies the festivals, Priego has been blessed with an incomparably rich cultural heritage. The finest choirs of the region have always been – and continue to be – attracted, and local choirs have been formed with the express intention of enhancing the Sunday celebration of each cofradia. The rivalry of a century and a half ago between the brotherhoods of Jesus of Nazareth and Lord Jesus Scourged has expressed itself in the commissioning of musical works, and the two organisations have accumulated an impressive collection of scores composed specifically for their respective festivals. Of particular significance are the Masses written for both groups by the celebrated Córdoban composer Juan Antonio Gómez Navarro: his piece for five voices and orchestra, written for the Brotherhood of Lord Jesus Scourged, is performed every year. The specially-commissioned works Arias and Plegarias are still heard today, sung by well-known tenors and baritones.
The climax of each hermandad’s festival is the procession which takes place on the Sunday evening. Different from Semana Santa, the tone in May is not one of penitence, but of marked celebration: the robes and hoods make way for long lines of women dressed in formal black, wearing the mantilla – the traditional Spanish lace veil. The members of the cofradia walk alongside the icon, decked in splendour on its intricately-decorated dais, and its bearers wear suits. To add to the sense of occasion, thousands of rockets are launched, there are firework displays, and military and civilian bands are brought in to thrill onlookers with impressive musical parades.
Finally, we must mention fundraising, a necessity which gave rise to another of the town’s characteristic traditions – the festival auctions. In the mid 19th century, when the May celebrations gathered greater impetus, the cofradias introduced a voluntary subscription among their members, in such a way that the money spent should not exceed the amount received. Separate accounts were kept for the festival income and expenditure, and occasionally, the amount involved reached similar levels to the organisation’s entire annual budget. It was soon realised that another source of finance – the auctioning of donated items – could produce not only a substantial income, but also would keep the celebrations going once the procession was over. According to official records, in 1845, the cofradia of Lord Jesus Scourged auctioned a basket of artichokes donated by a member (6); the custom spread to the other cofradias, and the early years saw auctions of fruit and vegetables or sweetmeats. Later, the auctions became more widespread and created their own particular rituals, often peculiar to the eyes of the outsider: they could sometimes take place on three consecutive nights, with the bidding going high – something which, although bringing in vital funds for the festivities, alienated the less well-off.
Today, other cofradias in Priego, who celebrate at a different time of the year, but in a similar manner, are trying to substitute the auctions for street parties, to attract large numbers of supporters, and to bring in funds to maintain the organisation.
Given their origins in the far-off times of the Council of Trent, and their likely object of praying for the blessing of rain – and given that this is something commonly found in all parts of the country, not just in Priego – it is truly extraordinary that the May festivals have remained so deep-rooted in the town, and have reached us with all their vigour and ceremony intact. Indeed, it seems certain that, despite the changes necessary to adapt to modern times, they will remain part of our future, and one of the most distinctive traits of the unique community which is Priego de Córdoba.
By Miguel Forcada Serrano, Official Historian of Priego de Córdoba
1.- See the article “La sequía y no la peste fue la causa del voto que dio origen a las fiestas de Mayo de Priego” published in La Columna magazine of Semana Santa 1995.
Vol.2 pp 20-22.
2.- See “La Hermandad de la Virgen del Buen Suceso” by M. Peláez de Rosal, in Fuente del Rey magazine, Vol. 106-107, November 1992.
3.- See the article “Ni la peste ni la impetración por los temporales fueron el origen de las fiestas votivas de Mayo...”, by Rafael Fernández López, in Adarve magazine,
Vol. 499 – 500, p.12.
4.- See “Historia de la Cofradía y Hermandad de Jesús Nazareno, 1593-1993” by M. Peláez de Rosal. Córdoba, 1993.
5.- Alcalá Ortiz, E. “Soledad en todos”. Priego, 1994.
6.- This reference, and others relating to the cofradia of the True Cross and Lord Jesus Scourged, have been taken from the records of the group, which has recently undergone a reorganisation and cataloguing of its archives.