Ablaze with colour, flamboyant ritual and passionate displays of faith, Easter in Quito is a spectacular way to mark the most sombre of Catholic events: the day when Christ gave up his life for mankind. Holy Week is when Catholics from around the country begin to flock towards the capital for the catalogue of ceremonies dedicated to penitence and atonement, culminating in the dramatic Procesión de Jesús del Gran Poder, or the Jesus Almighty Procession in Quito.
Emblematic in its extravagance, the ceremony features masked participants, the Cucuruchos and Verónicas; some wearing morbid purple cone hats, some self-flagellating, some carrying punishingly heavy crosses, some swathed in barbed wire and bleeding, parading slowly to frightening music. All is in aid of exhibiting their devotion and repentance in the most ostentatious ways possible.
Perhaps the most famous and popular Good Friday tradition in the Americas, the procession in Quito’s Old Town attracts some 200,000 people, with more joining their ranks each year. The keen-eyed will notice that though Quito’s parade appears entirely unique – peculiar even – various elements bear a striking resemblance to those of southern Spain, and for good reason: the Ecuadorian capital inherited its traditions from Seville. Seville was the base of a ferocious resurgence of Christian devotion after years of Muslim rule in Andalusia were brought to an end in 1248, and it was here that that the inquisition was founded in 1481, a fervent campaign of Catholic evangelization that overcast the Americas, including Quito. Seville was also the main point of departure for the West Indies. The lavish procession laden with Baroque imagery, both in Seville and Ecuador, was a means of encouraging devotion – Easter in Quito was an exercise in reinforcing the Catholic brand!
For such an iconic procession, it is fitting that the most iconic of Catholic institutions, San Francisco, is at the heart of it. The march begins and ends at the city’s first Catholic church, Plaza San Francisco bursting with devotees dressed in the eerie traditional costumes. Casa Gangotena’s third-floor panoramic terrace offers the perfect viewing platform for the proceedings – without getting caught up in the fervour of the march itself. And with a special buffet laid out for the occasion, the Old Town hotel is ideal place spend Easter in Quito.
The square begins to stir at around 6AM on Good Friday, when people arrive bring bouquets and decorations to put on floats, although they won’t be ready to leave for at least another four hours. The Cucuruchos, Verónicas and other participants accumulate at the back of the San Francisco complex. From 8AM, around 1,000 pre-registered Cucuruchos are handed purple cloaks and head cones. A couple of hours later they head through the Passageway of Anguish, leading into the church. It’s not until 11.30AM that the floats, or platforms, holding religious icons, are carried out to the atrium, where a huge crowd awaits. The multitudes listen in an eerie silence to Pontius Pilate’s sentencing of Christ, before the procession begins: the platforms are marched solemnly around the city, the great weights carried by devotees. Surrounding them are the purple-clad Cucuruchos, the Verónicas with their faces covered, some participants dressed in little but rags and carrying heavy crosses. All of this is accompanied by a nightmarish funeral dirge. The procession returns to Plaza San Francisco at around 4.40PM, from where the bishop conducts the Veneration of the Cross ritual. An hour-and-a-half later it ends, and the participants peel off into their city, heading back to celebrate the rest of Easter in Quito at home.
The Jesus the Almighty Procession is profoundly moving, both for Catholics comprehending the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, and for onlookers witnessing the devotion of the participants. For Christians and non-Christians alike, Easter in Quito is a singular experience, and an extraordinary insight into quiteño culture.