I arrived in Seville on the Eve of the Immaculate Conception. All day people had been preparing to celebrate the feast, decorating their houses with great banners of blue and white; and at night the silent, narrow streets had a strange appearance, for in every window were lighted candles, throwing around them a white, unusual glare; they looked a little like the souls of infants dead. All day the bells of a hundred churches had been ringing, half drowned by the rolling peals of the Giralda.
It had been announced that the archbishop would himself officiate at the High Mass in the Blessed Virgin's honour; and early in the morning the cathedral steps were crowded with black-robed women, making their way to the great sacristy where was to be held the service. I joined the throng, and entering through the darkness of the porch, was almost blinded by the brilliant altar, upon which stood a life-sized image of the Virgin, surrounded by a huge aureole, with great bishops, all of silver, on either side. It was ablaze with the light of many candles, so that the nave was thrown into deep shadow, and the kneeling women were scarcely visible.
The canons in the choir listlessly droned their prayers. At last the organ burst forth, and a long procession slowly came into the chapel, priests in white and blue, the colours of the Virgin, four bishops in mitres, the archbishop with his golden crozier; and preceding them all, in odd contrast, the beadle in black, with a dark periwig, bearing a silver staff. From the choir in due order they returned to the altar, headed this time by three pairs of acolytes, bearing great silver candlesticks, and by incense-burners, that filled the church with rich perfume.
When the Mass was finished, a young dark man in copious robes of violet ascended the pulpit and muttered a text. He waited an instant to collect himself, looking at the congregation; then turning to the altar began a passionate song of praise to the Blessed Virgin, unsoiled by original sin. He described her as in a hundred pictures the great painter of the Immaculate Conception has portrayed her--a young and graceful maid, clothed in a snowy gown of ample folds, with an azure cloak, a maid mysteriously pure; her hair, floating on the shoulders in luxurious ringlets, was an aureole more glorious than the silver rays which surrounded the great image; her dark eyes, with their languid lashes, her mouth, with the red lips, expressed a beautiful and immaculate virtue. It might have been some earthly woman of whom the priest spoke, one of those Andalusians that knelt below him, flashing quick glances at the gallant who negligently leaned against a pillar.
The archbishop sat on his golden throne--a thin, small man with a wrinkled face, with dead and listless eyes; in his gorgeous vestments he looked hardly human, he seemed a puppet, sitting stilly. At the end of the sermon he went back to the altar, and in his low, broken voice read the prayers. And then turning towards the great congregation he gave the plenary absolution, for which the Pope's Bull had been read from the pulpit steps.
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In the afternoon, when the sun was going down behind the Guadalquivir, over the plain, I went again to the cathedral. The canons in the choir still droned their chant in praise of the Blessed Virgin, and in the greater darkness the altar shone more magnificently. The same procession filed through the nave, some priests were in black, some in violet, some in the Virgin's colours; but this time the archbishop wore gorgeous robes of scarlet, and as he knelt at the altar his train spread to the chancel steps. From the side appeared ten boys and knelt before the altar, and stood in two lines facing one another. They were dressed like pages of the seventeenth century, with white stockings and breeches, and a doublet of blue and silver, holding in their hands hats with long feathers. The archbishop, kneeling in front of the throne, buried his face in his hands.
A soft melody, played by violins and 'cellos, broke the silence, and presently the ten pages began to sing:
Los cielos y la tierra alaben al Seņor Con imnos de alabanza que inflamen al Seņor.
It was a curious, old-fashioned music, reminding one a little of the quiet harmonies of Gluck. Then, putting on their hats, the pages danced, continuing their song; they wound in and out of one another, gravely footing it, swaying to and fro with the music very slowly. The measure was performed with the utmost reverence. Now and then the chorus came, and the fresh boys' voices, singing in unison, filled the church with delightful melody. And still the old archbishop prayed, his face buried in his hands.
The boys ceased to sing, but continued the dance, marking the time now with castanets, and the mundane instrument contrasted strangely with the glittering altar and with the kneeling priests. I wondered of what the archbishop thought, kneeling so humbly--of the boys dancing before the altar, fresh and young? Was he thinking of their white souls darkening with the sins of the world, or of the troubles, the disillusionments of life, and the decrepitude? Or was it of himself--did he think of his own youth, so long past, so hopelessly gone, or did he think that he was old and worn, and of the dark journey before him, and of the light that seemed so distant? Did he regret his beautiful Seville with the blue sky, and the orange-trees bowed down with their golden fruit? He seemed so small and weak, overwhelmed in his gorgeous robes.
Again the ten boys repeated their song and dance and their castanets, and with a rapid genuflection disappeared.
The archbishop rose painfully from his knees and ascended to the altar. A priest held open a book before him, and another lighted the printed page with a candle; he read out a prayer. Then, kneeling down, he bent very low, as though he felt himself unworthy to behold the magnificence of the Queen of Heaven. The people fell to their knees, and a man's voice burst forth--Ave Maria, gratia plena; waves of passionate sound floated over the worshippers, upwards, towards heaven. And from the Giralda, the Moorish tower, the Christian bells rang joyfully. The archbishop turned towards the people; and when in his thin, broken voice he gave the benediction, one thought that no man in his heart felt such humility as the magnificent prince of the Church, Don Marcelo Spinola y Maestre, Archbishop of Seville.
The people flocked out quickly, and soon only a few devout penitents remained. A priest came, waving censers before the altar, and thick volumes of perfume ascended to the Blessed Virgin. He disappeared, and one by one the candles were extinguished. The night crept silently along the church, and the silver image sank into the darkness; at last two candles only were left on the altar, high up, shining dimly.
Outside the sky was still blue, bespattered with countless stars.
NOTE.--I believe there is no definite explanation of this ceremony, and the legend told me by an ancient priest that it was invented during the Moorish dominion so that Christian services might be held under cover of a social gathering--intruding Muslims would be told merely that people were there assembled to see boys dance and to listen to their singing--is more picturesque than probable. Rather does it seem analogous with the leaping of David the King before the Ark of Jehovah, when he danced before the Lord with all his might, girt with a linen Ephod; and this, if I may hazard an opinion, was with a view to amuse a deity apt to be bored or languid, just as Nautch girls dance to this day before the idols of the Hindus, and tops are spun before Krishna to divert him.
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