Penitence on Good Friday in San Vicente de Sonsierra, La Rioja – Los Picaos de San Vicente de Sonsierra

During Holy Week throughout the Catholic world many celebrations and rituals are held that retell the final days of Jesus Christ. For many devout Catholics, Holy Week is also a time for spiritual reflection and even penitence – repentance for their sins.

On Good Friday this year I had the opportunity to see the unique procession and tradition of the Picaos in the beautiful village of San Vicente de Sonsierra in the famous world-renowned wine region of La Rioja. The setting for the procession was spectacular not just for the medieval village and its architecture, but also for its striking panorama of sun-drenched rolling hills of vineyards and castles as far as the eye could see.

The procession is organized by the Cofradía of Santa Vera Cruz. A cofradía is a religious guild that is found throughout many Catholic countries and consists of laypeople that work to promote and give meaning to their religious devotion around a particular town or village parish. In San Vicente de Sonsierra various men called disciplinantes, whose identities I was told are kept secret, offer to give penance by walking barefoot (sometimes with chains), masked and dressed in white. After walking and praying during the entire procession to the stations of the cross located in the outskirts of the town, the disciplinantes on their return trip to the church begin the harshest and bloodiest part of the penance, self flagellation. San Vicente is likely the last village in all of Spain that still performs this rite as it was largely banned by the 18th century. This self-inflicted, painful penance begins in the outskirts and ends on the main street of the village for everyone to see. Women also take part in this penance as well. They are called Marias and wear long black cloaks and have their faces covered in a black veil. For their penance they also walk barefoot through the rough cobblestone streets with long chains bound around their ankles.

The entire procession lasts approximately three hours and is a very unique, intense local expression of faith and devotion.

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Recording of the Marias walking barefoot in procession with chains around their ankles

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