Construction on a Semana Santa carpet, or alfombra, starts in the wee hours of the morning when the cool Antigua air is still chilly on the skin and spotlights light up portions of the street where the alfombras will lie for mere minutes sometimes before the parades slowly shuffle along the cobbled streets, destroying the more than 12 hours worth of careful work and construction.
This video takes a look at the full life cycle of a Semana Santa carpet – from life until sad death:
Conception of a Semana Santa Carpet
These carpets are entirely unique in the world – you’re only going to find these sawdust alfombras during the Semana Santa (Holy Week leading up to Easter) festivities in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, and a few places in Spain. The carpets are masterpieces of artwork – the craftsmanship is truly stunning and families and neighborhoods take weeks and months just to plan out their carpets –the designs are new every year although some family pass down traditional patterns through the generations.
Neighbors and families work together and the carpets are traditionally constructed on the streets right outside their homes –a joint effort between all involved and a shared cost as well…the pigmented sawdust really adds up and the “sparkles” dusted overtop are incredibly expensive considering the scope of use on some of the carpets.
Creative Materials Yield Art
The size and complexity of the carpets also differs as widely as the materials used. Although many of my favorite carpets were designed out of the richly pigmented sawdust that stains the fingers for days afterwards, colorful whole and cut fruits, dully green pine needles, and a range of in-season flowers are just a couple of alternative carpet materials.
In many cases the families collaborate to design a carpet that shows the skills of their trade – this carpet may not be the most complex but the smells of rich chocolate waft for half a block. The chocolatiere’s carpet is not only a Holy Week offering, but a unique expression of his trade. He may not know flowers, he doesn’t dabble in the sawdust, but this man knows chocolate – and his creative display ensured I returned the next for a taste of the delicious smells I longed for in the dark hours of three in the mourning as he put the finishing touches on his carpet.
The Use of These Unique Carpets
The Semana Santa carpets are easily art. They range in creativity and complexity widely, but through it all, there is a passion and devotion in the construction of every single carpet that is awe inspiring. The gawking tourists are just a by-product of these families manifesting their devotion and sacrifices.
Just like offerings of incense and fruits at the alters of other religions, the Semana Santa carpets are a Catholic offering and an integral part of Antigua’s Holy Week. The origination of these carpets is up for debate, but some reckon that the elaborate carpets developed overtime as the religious threw the pine needles to soften the streets for those carrying the load of the major processional floats.
Either way – it likely grew as a competition and it remains that today as well. For all that this is a religious endeavor for many, there is no doubt that a spirit of friendly competition erupts as the streets fill with ever-the-more elaborate and detailed carpets.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
These carpets take anywhere between a couple of hours for the simpler carpets made from pine needles to 18 hours for the more elaborate and detailed carpets. Timing is everything for the designers because the clock is ticking and there is no escaping the inevitable end for one of these carpets:
destruction via feet.
The mourning sounds of the slow procession can be heard for blocks – these processions cover nearly every single street of the city and also last more than 12 hours in many cases. As the procession nears the finishing touches are placed on the carpet.
Then all that is left is to find a high place (families take to their balconies to watch their carpets from above) and the onlookers hold their breath as the footsteps of the procession near the elaborate designs. The actual float-bearers are the only ones to initially walk over the carpets – the floats bear the carvings and statues of Christ in his final days and the carpets are a way of honoring the reenactments and offering up a slice of gratitude, devotion, and service for the Catholics.
Within minutes though the procession has moved on, further down the street to consume more carpets with incense, smoke, and the slow and measured footsteps of the float carriers.
A team of street cleaners follow behind the procession and before the procession has even turned the corner onto the next block, the sawdust has been shoveled and swept, cleaned away. Only faint glimmers of color and dull brown remain in the cracks of the cobblestone.
The Semana Santa carpet has lived it’s lifespan through to completion, sometimes remaining “finished” for mere minutes before facing devotional destruction.
Other Semana Santa carpet action!