Every year the ancient port of Trapani brings the Passion of Christ to life in La Festa dei Misteri (the Feast of the Mysteries). Over the course of 24 hours, a parade of massive altars, each depicting a scene of Christ’s final days, winds through the town’s narrow streets. The altars, fashioned in elaborate detail in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have survived floods, fires, and Allied bombings in World War II. Squads of muscular men grasp one another’s shoulders, pressing close into a crosshatch of intertwined arms as they hoist each tableau aloft. Sweating and grimacing, they weave in a wavelike rhythm called the annacata, stepping forward and back and side to side.
Two white-haired widows standing next to me provided a running commentary. The men move like the sea, surging in and out with the tides, one explained. The other insisted that the rhythmic dance started because the porters drank so much along the route that they staggered, dropping an altar on more than one occasion.
As day darkened into dusk, I found myself swept into the procession. When I tried to break away, I heard voices calling “Guarda! Guarda! Guarda!” (Look! Look! Look!). Just turning a corner, a little girl, caped in black, led dozens of mournful women carrying candles and rosaries. Inching its way behind them was yet another altar with a single regal statue: La Madonna Addolorata, the sorrowful mother of Christ, draped in velvet robes. A silver heart gleamed in her chest. Above it—suddenly lit by a ray of the setting sun—flashed a sword. I beheld a Sicilian mother, stabbed by grief for her beloved child yet standing strong and resolute.
Finally, on Holy Saturday, the altars made their way back inside their home church. The parish priest gave thanks to the people of Trapani—for their labor, their time, and, above all, their inspiring passion.
On Easter, I once again heard a marching band and rushed outdoors. At the end of a sun-dappled street, an altar carried the risen Christ, tall and triumphant, surrounded by lilies. The crowd cheered. Steeple bells rang. I breathed in the scent of spring flowers and candle smoke. The faces around me glowed with jubilation. When I joined the parishioners admiring the altars on display, a young priest asked what I, an obvious stranger, thought of the procession.
“Bellissimo,” I said, adding that I was touched to see such beauty inspired by pain and sorrow. “No, signora,” he said gently. “You are mistaken. It is not suffering that we celebrate in the Passion of Christ. It is love.”
Indeed it is: the great love that conquered the empire that had conquered the world and gave rise to the largest religion in history. And it is love that endures even now, in this time of silence and sorrow.
Adapted from LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World. Dianne Hales is also the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.