Mystery Play of Elche







Mystery Play of Elche, El Misterio de Elche (Misteri d'Elx in Valencian)

Spanish city of Elche is the only place where the medieval religious play is performed annually in the Basilica since the fifteenth century. The part of the stage is impressive ancient aerial devices; it all looks like a theatre on chandelier

Elche is a small town near Alicante, known for its orchard of over 200.000 date palms. If you are around in summer, it is worth visiting it during the festivities dedicated to its patroness saint, the Virgin of the Assumption (Virgen de la Asunción). They include parades and battles of Moors and Christians, commemorating the Christian Reconquista of the city in 1265; amazing fireworks and street parties. But the culmination is the Mystery Play, the medieval religious theatre that is played by volunteers on 14th and 15th August in the Basilica de Santa Maria almost continuously since the fifteenth century.

We will never know who wrote it and when, but there are two legends about its birth. According to the first one, the play is related to the aforementioned Reconquista, period when Christians returned to Elche. According to the second one, in 1370 a soldier found a casket in an ark on the sea, which contained an image of the Virgin Mary and the music and libretto of a play dedicated to her. After the news of the discovery on Tamarit Beach (now Santa Pola) spread, the people of Elche, Alicante and Orihuela met there and all claimed the work. Finally, they put the boat on a cart, pulled by oxen, led them to the crossroad and covered their eyes. Without hesitation, the animals headed to Elche and stopped in front of the Saint Sebastian's hermitage, where the Virgin Mary's statue was placed. Hence, it was decided.

According to recent research, the origins of the play date back to the second half of the 15th century. The spectacle was first organized by noble families; later by a fraternity. At the end of the 16th century, there was no money and the mystery was in danger of disappearing. Because of grief over the deceased noblemen, they didn’t even perform it twice and when the city was subsequently hit by storms and hail, people of Elche were convinced that it was a divine punishment. At the beginning of the 17th century, the City Council assumed responsibility for financing and preparation.

In 1632, the bishop of Orihuela prohibited the performance inside Christian churches. But the City Council didn’t give up; they sent the concept to Pope Urban VII, who, after reading it, issued a Papal Bull permitting the play to be performed inside the Basilica.

In 1924, the Festivity Protection Committee was established and in 2001, UNESCO declared the Mystery of Elche one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is the only play of medieval religious theatre that has been preserved in Europe to this day, and of course, the inhabitants of the palm metropolis are very proud of it. Three hundred volunteers take part in its preparation, all performers are non-professional singers. It is even said that "who prepares the holiday does not die in an accident", because even if the mishaps occurred, people miraculously survived without a serious injury...

The festivity begins on the evening of 13 August. The Night of Dawn, Nit de l'Albà, is a reminder of those who are gone forever, but also the light-sound offering to the patroness. At 11 pm, fireworks are launched from the roofs of houses and terraces. They are not made by professionals, but by individual families. They launch rockets, petards, firecrackers, Roman candles, there is banging and rumbling everywhere and colourful stars and silver snakes rain from the sky... The night turns into day, the air smells of gunpowder. This lasts an hour.

Before midnight, the city becomes quiet and the lights are turned off. At exactly 12 pm, as the bells ring, the "Palmera de la Virgen" is released from Basilica Santa Maria; a palm leaf shaped fireworks created by three thousand rockets. It lights up for about 25 seconds, then slowly disintegrates and dies down...

Deeply moved inhabitants of Elche have a small snack - a cold melon or nugolet, an anise distillate mixed with water and then go to the centre to party until the early hours.

The first act, known as La Vespra (The Eve of death) is performed on 14 August (the entrance is free; while for the previous open rehearsals you need to buy a ticket).

At 3 pm, it was bloody hot, but the streets were filled with stalls and crowded with people. I felt the distinct smell of paella and sweet churros from afar; there was also a big choice of tasty local cheese, ham and melons. People drank pure wine or sangria and listened to the music bands or watched street artists’ performance.

The religious drama was supposed to start at 6 pm, but when I looked out of curiosity into the basilica at 2.30, I was astonished to find out that it was already almost full. Apparently, there were whole families alternating and holding spots for family members. Understandingly; as locals, they are entitled to them more than others; for sure they know personally at least one of the actors. The cupola was covered with great linen and turned into a blue sky with clouds and flying angels.

The town was festively decorated. There were gold ribbons flapping in a gentle breeze; rotating CDs on strings, shining in the sun; and some strange plastic bottles with palm-like red leafs sticking out - I understood their meaning only later.

Over a small river flowing through Elche, several nice bridges cross; the usually dry riverbed is concreted and interestingly painted by graffiti artists. I didn't go any further, it was too hot. I had a cold horchata (refreshing tigernut drink) and sat down in the shadow of the palms.

At 4 pm, I decided to go to church and sit down while a few chairs were still available. I bought a booklet with explanations and in addition I got a fan without which I wouldn't have survived - as the number of people increased, so did the temperature. The shrine wasn't  as cold as usually; though I sat by the open door, I could feel drops of sweat flowing down my back like big, cold slugs.

Used to the Spanish delays and waiting, I had a book with me, so I somehow survived. A little before the beginning a guy from church choir came to the stage and tried (in vain) to make us sing some songs, but I wasn't able to join and the others probably didn ́t feel like making an effort in such a sweltering heat.

The play describes the death of the Virgin Mary and her ascension to heaven. The original manuscript has not been preserved; the oldest copy dates back to 1709. The script contains melodies from different periods - medieval Gregorian chants, Renaissance and Baroque songs, all gradually adapted.

At exactly 6 pm the show started. First the local and church authorities entered through the main gate and sat down around a small stage on a pulpit lit by twelve candles. Then Mary appeared - a girl about ten years old, in a white tunic and a sky-blue mantle, whose head was decorated with a golden tiara. Her entourage consisted of Maria Salome, Maria Jacobe and several angels. All of them were children, as in the Middle Ages the liturgical origin of the work forbade the participation of women.

Mary walked slowly from the door to the pulpit, stopping in front of the sculptures and altars representing biblical scenes. Performing something like a Way of the Cross; she sang about the desire to meet her son again. She sang sorrowfully and beautifully. All by herself, without musical accompaniment; a complicated melody; about twenty minutes. She was an unbelievable singer, her voice flew across the nave like a tinkling bell; it gave me goosebumps. As an amateur, I would say that it was chirping somewhere high above us and circling around the main melody as if she sang ornaments…

When she reached the stage, the full organ thundered powerfully, the bells rang - I still have chills - and then the sky opened. That is, a square aperture appeared in the dome high above us, and something like a huge Chinese lantern began to eject from it in a storm of applause. When it was all outside, its eight wings opened and turned into a golden palm tree with a little angel inside.

The palm descended little by little and the boy started singing. Hats off to him and to his performance too, he sang to the same melody as Mary had before.

Thanks to the excellent acoustics, his sweet, ethereal voice hovered about us like a ribbon in the wind. Downstairs, there was a deadly silence. Sprinkling shimmering gold dust from his bag, he slowly approached the ground. After landing, he announced to the Mother of God early death and handed her a golden palm; she expressed her wish to have the Apostles with her at that moment. Small angel made a promise and then, still singing, began to ascend. When he reached the false ceiling, the organ roared, the bells rang - and the boy disappeared...

It wouldn't be fair to reveal all the details. Eventually, Mary passed away surrounded by the grieving Apostles (instead of a child, they placed a statue with a mask with closed eyes on the catafalque).

Suddenly, thunderous organ music again, the gates of heaven opened, and my eyes almost bulbed. A second aerial device appeared, this time with five people: in the centre, Angel Mayor (Chief Angel) in white, as a reminder of Christ; two adult angels at his sides - one playing guitar, the other playing harp (yes, a huge instrument also hung there); and two little angels with guitars were kneeling under them. Unbelievable! Actually, some time ago I accidentally saw a picture of this apparatus which made me come to Elche - it looked like a theatre on a chandelier :)

The celestial creatures singing fabulously were slowly descending and showering us with golden dust. Imagine two adult baritones around which child voices were entwining like honeysuckle and bindweed; and the gentle tones of a harp... It was truly a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

The angel's choir fetched Mary’s soul (represented by a picture), announced to the world her early ascension, and slowly went to heaven again...

This was the end of the first act. The corpse of Mary covered with flowers remained lying on the catafalque so that the people of Elche could pay her their last respect. I left the hot church and went for another cold horchata.

By the way, the first aerial device, commonly known as Nube (the Cloud) or Magrana (the Pomegranate) began to be used in the church as early as in 1760 and has been maintained since. The second one is called Recèlica or Araceli, the third one Coronación (the Coronation) or Trinidad (the Trinity). These devices permit the ascent and descent through a dozen hemp ropes, manually winded with the help of jacks. Above the linen; on the terrace of the presbytery, there is a temporary scaffolding which allows the “scene-shifters” to carry out all the necessary operations.

On this night, called Nit de la Roá, there was a spontaneous silent candle-lit procession at midnight. Those who wanted to pay homage to their patroness, wandered through the old city, where the funeral procession would walk in the morning. Others had dinner, danced (and threw petards, of course). Elche didn't sleep, the street party lasted until the early hours... And already at 4 am, the first ceremonial Mass was held.

The next morning at 10 am a funeral procession followed, with a statue of the Mother of God carried through the old district. Among the participants were choir singers, actors and hundreds of locals.

In the early evening, at 6 pm the second part of the Mystery (La Festa - The Feast) took place in the Basilica. I confess that I watched the live broadcast on television, I didn't feel like sweating again in the church which was crowded even more.

Again, I won't go into detail, just briefly. The play began with the burial of Mary, interrupted by a group of protesting Jews. When one of them tried to touch her, he remained paralyzed.

Seeing the miracle with their own eyes; the Jews believed in Mary's sanctity and were baptized, after which the paralyzed man was able to walk again. Together they buried the body in white robe quilted with gold in the tomb.

Just then the organ thundered and the aerial device entered the scene. It was again Araceli with five angels who took Mary’s soul to heaven the day before. Now, they were slowly descending from the dome and singing; they were coming for her resurrected body. The Chief Angel left the apparatus; he was replaced by the statue of Mary - without a mask; with open eyes, ready to enter the kingdom of God. At sweet cherub ́s singing, the device began to rise; when suddenly a doubting Thomas ran in. He saw, believed and asked for forgiveness...

When the group was in the middle of the way, the organ roared once more and another apparatus appeared under the ceiling! While the first stayed hanging in space, high above the viewers, the second was decreasing. The man sitting on the throne and two children on his sides represented the Holy Trinity, bringing the crown. They stopped a few meters above Mary, and whereas the angels were sprinkling tinsel that was falling on spectators like small stars; the Heavenly Father slowly lowered the brilliant crown.

When it landed on the Mother of God's head, the audience broke into a several minutes lasting applause and shouting "Long live to Mary!"

The basilica resounded with the majestic singing of Gloria Patri; people cried and even angels were wiping their eyes… The performers, dangling under the sky-blue dome, enjoyed the play’s moving climax, and then began to ascend. The last rumbling of the organ and Mary with her entourage ascended to heaven. The sky closed again for a year, the Mystery was over...

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