Thursday 25 March 2010

The "Misteri di Trapani", a centuries-old tradition

The Processione dei Misteri di Trapani or simply the Misteri di Trapani (in English the Procession of the Mysteries of Trapani or the Mysteries of Trapani) is a day long passion procession featuring twenty floats of lifelike wood, canvas and glue sculptures of individual scenes of the events of the Passion, a passion play at the centre and the culmination of the Holy Week in Trapani. The Misteri are amongst the oldest continuously running religious events in Europe, having been played every Good Friday since before the Easter of the 1612, and running for at least 16 continuous hours, but occasionally well beyond the 24 hours, are the longest religious festival in Sicily and in Italy.

In the late middle age and early renaissance the phenomenon of the Passion plays had spread in most Catholic countries. Passion plays, also when springing from a sincere religious devotion, were anyway occasionally mutating in farces, a trend which became more widespread in the early 16th century, to the obvious discomfiture of the Catholic hierarchies, who then started to oppose them.

In the late 16th century, religious authorities but also lay authorities ended up to forbid or anyway to strongly limit passion plays in various places around Europe, meanwhile in certain areas, like in parts of the then sprawling Spanish Empire, these started to be substituted by processions of figurative art depicting the various episodes of the Passion of Jesus.

Just like the procession of the pasos in Seville, or the procession of the vare in Caltanissetta or in many similar processions in various parts of the contemporary Spanish Empire, in Trapani at some point during the Counter-Reformation the episodes of the passion of Jesus started to be narrated through sculptural groups who were created from local artists.

The 'Misteri' are therefore an artistic representation of the Passion and Death of Jesus through twenty sculptural groups, including two statues of the Dead Jesus and of the Lady of Sorrows. They were granted in trust, by deeds, by the Brotherhood of St. Michael the Archangel and by the Fellowship of the Precious Blood of Christ and of the Mysteries, the two religious societies which probably instituted the rite and were managing the procession of the Misteri in the early to middle 17th century, to the members of the local Guilds in exchange of the promise to carry them during the passion procession every Good Friday.

As the most famous contemporary historian of the story of the city of Trapani, Francesco Pugnatore, does not mention the existence of the Misteri in its magnus opus, the much detailed 'Historia di Trapani' published in 1594, we can reasonably presume that the procession of the Misteri was not held before at least the latter part of the 16th century. As the Fellowship of the Precious Blood of Christ and of the Mysteries (in Latin Societas Pretiosissimi Sanguinis Christi et Misteriorum), was founded in 1603, and the procession is explicitly referred on a document notarized the 20th April 1612, the deed of trust on which the Guild of the Journeymen was granted the caretaking of the group representing the Ascent to Calvary, we can also reasonably assume that the procession of the Misteri was surely held the first time before the Easter of the 1612, that is almost four centuries ago.

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