Joe Zammit Ciantar writes about his participation in, and reflections on the Good Friday procession organised by St George’s parish in Victoria in the 1950s.
After World War II, my family moved from Sannat to Victoria. In my childhood in the 1950s, only St George’s parish celebrated Good Friday with a procession, and my mother Carmela used to rent a tunic so I could take part in it. Together with other boys (girls were not allowed!) of my age, I would wear this brownish white tunic, hold a small red pillow with a wooden cross on it and walk behind one of the Passion effigies. Later, when I was about 12, I also took part holding a lantern on a stick that my father made, or as a ‘knight’ holding the banner.
I used to go to St George’s church to see volunteers busily putting up the Passion station effigies soon after Ash Wednesday. The skeletons of the sculptures would be placed in between the nave’s side columns. Many youths and men would carry boxes with body parts made of papier mâché and beautiful velvet clothes to complete and dress up the sculptures. I was always impressed by these statues, and used to wonder how they were made so true to life-like human beings.
I loved art. I was enchanted and mesmerised by all kinds of sculptures. And that is why, during a two-month study and practice at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, in 1971, I ‘stole’ some clay to create sculptures which I baked and which today adorn corners in my home. They included statues representing moments in the Passion of Our Lord, especially those of the Good Friday procession celebrated by St George’s parish.
Today, several Good Friday processions start with a large representation of ‘The Last Supper ‘with Christ and the 12 apostles at table. But the 1950s procession at St George’s parish started with the ‘Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane’. In Luke 22: 43-44 we read that “being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”. I once read an article by a cardiologist who interpreted this last line in Luke as representative of a severe heart attack, and he conjectured that Jesus died of another heart attack, this time fatal.
Today I wonder if it is ethical to show these cruel portrayals to young children
Modern scholars interpret Jesus’s death as a result of either a hypovolaemic shock or by asphyxiation, both of which can cause fluid to build up near the heart – hence when “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, …at once there came out blood and water”. [John 19:34]
The second statue in the 1950s procession was that of Jesus tied to a column and beaten. Today, St George’s parish has a wooden figure sculpted by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, son of the renowned Wistin (originally Agostino) Camilleri, which replaced the one I was familiar with, made of the usual paper, cloth and glue mixture.
This statue was followed with a similar Christ, this time wearing a crown made of spiky long thorny branches on his head, a red velvet mantel on his shoulders, holding a silver sceptre-like rod in his hands tied together with a piece of rope. Both are representative of the harsh torture the Romans enjoyed watching in the Colosseum. Today I wonder if it is ethical to show these cruel portrayals to young children.
I never understood why the representation of Jesus carrying the cross is called ‘the Redeemer’. Jesus redeemed mankind with his death on the cross. And yet the artistic figure of Jesus with his face full of blood oozing down from the wounds in his head is one of the images that enjoy great devotion; the ‘Redeemer’ in Senglea comes to mind. Behind this piteous figure of Christ burdened with the cross, young men with faces hidden under hoods pull long, heavy iron chains of diverse thickness tied to their ankles; some do this in thanksgiving for receiving a grace.
Veronica was a woman in Jerusalem who gave Jesus her head cloth to wipe his face as he carried the cross to Calvary. Later in life, I learned that the story of an image of Jesus’s face being impressed on the cloth – hence her name from ‘vera’ + ‘icona’, meaning ‘true image’ – is only a popular legend. But the image of the woman showing the outstretched cloth was always impressive.
The Passion was for me the saddest representations in the procession. How could anybody hammer nails in the hands and feet of a human being? Would the hands be strong enough to hold the body of a man hanging on them? How could the Virgin Mary stand beside her crucified son? How could people ask for a man to be crucified – as I used to cry out in Dun Alwiġ’s script of Il-Passjoni, performed at the Salesian Oratory in 1961 – and enjoy watching it from a distance? Yet, the composition of the crucifixion representation was truly beautiful, imposing, and very emotive.
The artistry and décor of the tomb effigy almost alienate the fact that it represents the burial of Jesus. The large ornamental wooden sculptured case is gilded all over. Red curtains hang from the sides of the interior. It is lit within showing the lifeless body of Jesus laid inside. Behind this procession walked the bishop, accompanied by the archpriest and other clerics, wearing precious colourful vestments.
It was behind the figure of Our Lady of Sorrows – Mary grieving the loss of Jesus – that, dressed as a knight, I had walked solemnly. Many people, mostly dressed in black, some even barefoot, walked behind us. The image of Our Lady afflicted by her son’s death is very striking, especially to women; mothers who bear children can empathise with Mary more than men.
After the procession there was a commotion as the participants removed chains outside and people pushed the statues back to their place. What followed to prepare the church for Easter Sunday is another story.
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