Centuries ago, the small town of Otero, a district of Ponferrada (León), kept alive an old religious custom that was revived when the central days of Holy Week occurred. As in many other places in the country, the neighbors paraded in procession dressed in robes. Some of them carried heavy crosses. And a few carried out an extreme practice: they tried to emulate the suffering of Jesus during the Passion by whipping, punishing their backs until the blood gushed out. Nobody in the municipality of Bercia today remembers that rite, forgotten over time. Fortunately, the memory of those flagellations had been immortalized on one of the walls of its Romanesque temple, hidden under several coats of paint. Until a few years ago, the deteriorated surface ended up flaking and a surprising find emerged there. Two disciplinarians, drawn in charcoal and with a few hints of color, resumed the parade. One, carrying the cross. The other, lacerating his aching and bleeding side.
The discovery would go no further than for the date when the naive popular enlightenment took shape. The researcher Josemi Lorenzo has just dated the drawing to an indeterminate moment in the 19th century. Considering that the monarch Carlos III had forbidden this type of punishment in 1777, it turns out that Otero was one of the Spanish peoples that turned its back - yes, lacerated, sore, bleeding - on the royal ID, acting as the parishioners wanted, by margin of royal decree. That was not the only thing in which the country ignored the plans of the enlightened king. His mandate to bury the dead far from the interior of the churches ran into social custom and the resounding refusal of the bishops.
"Rational thought could not accept the practice of burial in churches for the sake of health, nor public flogging as a barbaric and repulsive practice for sensitive people." Professor and academic Carlos Martínez Shaw contextualizes those prohibitions in the birth of a new mentality. In its enactment, "the measures of Carlos III are linked to modern sensibility," he says. Maybe too much, judging by the reaction. The society of the moment put itself in profile, pretended not to have listened. "A good part of Catholic Spain was against it because the provisions rejected traditions rooted in popular consciousness," explains Martínez Shaw. "The popular thing is impossible to change it to blow of legislation", maintains Josemi Lorenzo.
It was, indeed, a deeply rooted ritual. The scourging arose associated with the brotherhoods and these, in turn, saw the light in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the economic awakening of the bourgeoisie. "The new guilds not only created an economic and social structure, but also a religious one." The anthropologist José Luis Alonso Ponga affirms that the religious brotherhoods came to break the "monolithism" of the Church. To such an extent that they would become a true front, even playing to act independently of the parent institution.
Practices such as public punishment were authorized at the end of the 13th century when it was understood that they commemorated the Passion of Jesus and in the 16th they were consolidated and expanded. Alonso Ponga relates that the bull of Pope Paul III "granted plenary indulgence in 1536 to all those faithful who attended the processions lighting up or disciplining Good Thursday or Good Friday." Discipline was exercised in different brotherhoods, but it was especially the Franciscans and the brotherhoods of the Vera Cruz who were in charge of spreading the fashion of carrying heavy crosses, dragging chains or whipping the body to atone for guilt. And there was more. In 1570, Paul IV expanded the privileges of the brotherhoods linked to "suffering", which even managed to obtain the power to free a prisoner.
In the Spanish case, it seems that it was the Genoese merchants who, among their commercial objects, brought such customs. His journey would not stop here. The public punishment traveled to Latin America, as some 16th century paintings preserved in Mexico attest. "When the United States annexed New Mexico they were horrified by the practices of the Franciscans, such as marking the territory with their own blood, something truly impressive," says expert Alonso Ponga. Hence, the North Americans brought more moderate European religious with the intention of modernizing religious life and eliminating this type of extreme rites.
"In the eighteenth century the faithful began to apologize for not disciplining themselves so much," says Alonso Ponga. The anthropologist assures that, when the prohibition of Carlos III arrives, "the public punishment had begun to decline". Even some cities, like Zamora, anticipated the reformist monarch by vetoing these rites. When the certificate was published in 1777, the text included all kinds of derogatory adjectives to justify the restriction. Flogging is synonymous with contempt and causes confusion and fear in children and women. Those who practice it achieve other ends that have nothing to do with atoning for sins, says the text. The practice, however, survived. This is how the painter Francisco de Goya collects it in detail in his painting The disciplinarians, early XIX.
In any case, the discipline subsisted especially in remote places, which were protected by legislation and bishops. That must have been the case of the Berciano town of Otero. The discovery of the popular mural in the church of Nuestra Señora de Vizbayo, which narrates precisely these events, led historian Josemi Lorenzo to investigate the sources to try to verify it. However, the factory books "were silent" about it. No trace of the execution of the drawing, who made it or if it was a commission.
The painting, which is located on the north wall of the temple of Romanesque origin, was hidden after successive whitewashing. It seems that something or someone caused a large portion of the layer that covered the drawing to collapse, a mural more than two meters long by one and a half meters high. The charcoal portrays two penitents, wearing a tunic characteristic of other brotherhoods of the Vera Cruz. One of them bears a cross, portrayed with an error of perspective. The other walks ahead, wearing a hood, beating his back until blood spurts out, illustrated with red details.
Neither could the local people help him to better understand the past, of which there is no memory. Lorenzo could only find the distant testimony —interesting, yes— of the parish priest of a neighboring municipality. The priest said that in the 1930s, both in his town and in other nearby towns, penitents went out in procession and flogged themselves. When the parade ended, the wounds were cleaned and cared for with hot wine.
"The finding supposes to document the historical existence of an extreme devotional practice forgotten in the locality, still conserved in other parts of Spain", asserts the author of the investigation. The problem now is that, while other documents and testimonies are known, the drawing runs the risk of disappearing if it is not valued. Why? "The past of a building covers from the beginning to the end, everything is layers of history, but it seems that in this country everything that is not Romanesque is not valued", questions Josemi Lorenzo. In this sense, its destruction due to lack of interest would do as much damage as the elimination of the remains of paint that could still cover part of a larger canvas. Some of the information from the past still takes refuge in them.
Regarding the practice of the discipline, Spain still has some testimonies today. One is that of the Extremaduran tradition of the Empalaos de Valverde de la Vera. On the night of Holy Thursday, the disciplinarians carry out a hard way of the cross through the streets of the town carrying a heavy wooden crossbar tied to their shoulders, as if it were a cross, to achieve forgiveness for their sins.
"The case of the Empalaos is not comparable to the bloody discipline that is preserved today in San Vicente de la Sonsierra", points out the anthropologist José Luis Alonso Ponga. In fact, in the Rioja municipality the famous Picaos walk under a tunic and only reveal their backs, which they repeatedly punish in public with a bundle of cords. Despite prohibitions and rituals in disuse, the Riojan brotherhood has managed to preserve the scourging in our days. "This only happens when you elevate an element to the category of non-negotiable identity," explains Alonso Ponga. Just in case, in places like the Church of Our Lady of Vizbayo, the memory of these acts was recorded with charcoal. This is how its walls tell it today, at least for now.