Story: A packed procession

A living tradition lights up the Magnifico Borgo

The Holy Week Processions are much more than a mere celebration and the city’s attachment to them is something incredible.

At least 270 participants on the Thursday, 700 on the Friday and dozens of assistants, all volunteers. As well as all those who are left out and have to wait to dress up as a legionnaire or one of the three Marys another year. The Holy Week Processions bring history to the stage.

THE CHARACTER

Claudio Fontana, participant in the Processions of Holy Week

Claudio Fontana, participant in the Processions of Holy Week
You get goose bumps when the procession reaches the main square and 800 people turn to watch it.

“You could take Christmas away from Mendrisio, but if you touch Easter, you’ll trigger an uprising.” These words from Claudio Fontana, born in 1986 and technical manager at a regional firm, leaves no room for interpretation.

Here in the Magnifico Borgo, in Ticino’s southernmost district, the historical processions during Easter are an event that goes well beyond religious faith: they attract children and the elderly, locals and tourists, believers and the curious. Created by the Servites in the sixteenth century, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Week Processions comprise the Funziun di Giüdee on the Thursday, which stages the Passion of Christ, and the more solemn Friday procession.

This living tradition has made it all the way to UNESCO.

The nervous horses (around forty on the Thursday evening!), a few tears from the little ones, and the growing tension on the faces of the participants. The sounds (drums, chains, hooves clattering on the paving), the smells (horses and smoke from the torches) and the shouts of those accompanying the cross. The Processions are not a spectacle that leave you feeling indifferent.

“I’ve been taking part in the Processions every year since I was six, only missing one year.” Claudio is very likeable, friendly and cheerful, just as you would imagine a momò (a resident of Mendrisiotto) to be. His pride in being part of the Processions is clear to see.

When the holy fire of the Processions is ignited inside someone, they come back every year.

“To get ourselves into character, my dad and I always grow our beards." Instead of playoff beards, Mendrisio has Procession beards. Claudio keeps up a family tradition by taking part and dresses up as Nicodemus every year, walking alongside Joseph of Arimathea, played by his father.

Despite the audience and other participants, the procession is also an intimate family moment for the pair.

Pro tip
The first written mention of the Processions dates back to 1697, but their official birth was fixed at 1798.
In the past, the person playing him was shut away in the bell tower of the church of San Giuseppe and placed on a diet of bread and water.
Women were able to enter Processions in the 1960s.

It’s a great honour to take part in the Processions. Some of the participants were born and bred in Mendrisio, breathing in the Processions from a very young age, but others come to the Magnifico Borgo especially for the occasion, even from the UK.

Assistance and people willing to carry a trasparente are always welcome.

The role of Jesus Christ is the most sought after. Those who want to put on his robes (and thorns) must already have taken part in the processions through Mendrisio, submit a written application to the historical processions committee and, lastly, be patient and have a sense of fair play. The decision, which obviously rules out lots of aspiring Christs every year, is kept a great secret and we only find out who has carried the cross at the end of the Processions.

There are rumours of husbands having kept this honour secret from their wives, telling them that they would be dressing up as another character.

The Good Friday procession is all about trasparenti. These candle-lit lanterns depict scenes from the Passion of Christ. Hung from the houses and carried by hundreds of participants, accompanied by bands and confraternities, these lanterns bring a particularly solemn touch to Mendrisio. Created to illustrate the Holy Scriptures to the local people, the trasparenti became a way for families to display their wealth. A competition that inspired a certain degree of patronage and made it possible for people to acquire real works of art.

Today, the trasparenti are seen as a priceless treasure and carefully preserved. They illustrate a specific artistic craft, a practice that has been handed down over the centuries and supports this living tradition. Jacopo Gilardi restores them like his ancestors did before.

The exhibits of Museo del Trasparente are dominated by the work of the painter Giovan Battista Bagutti, whose workshop produced the original series of fifty-eight illuminated paintings.

However, the real heart of the Processions is the support and involvement of everyone, from the financial backers to the participants, the assistants and those who work behind the scenes. 

The Processions are organised and promoted by the Fondazione Processioni Storiche, which wants to hand down this living tradition to future generations. 

 “355 Trasparenti that illuminate the streets of the Borgo.”

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