hidden europe 36

Rites of penance

by hidden europe


Prompted by Diego Vivanco's report from San Vicente de la Sonsierra, hidden europe sets out to detect the origins of the religious practice of self-flagellation in Europe.

The preceding article is a intriguing eyewitness account of flagellation, a curious practice that still exists more widely across Europe, both as a recurring element of contemporary faith and as a folklore tradition that is still cherished. The annual Boetprocessie (procession of the penitents), held on the last Sunday of July in Veurne in Belgian Flanders no longer includes self-flagellation, but replicates much of the drama captured in Diego Vivanco’s report from San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Hundreds of hooded penitents process through the town.

Flemish art of the sixteenth and seventeen centuries often depicted flagellants, sometimes merely as incidental characters in a scene. There is a particularly striking painting from the workshop of Pieter Bruegel the Younger — according to some authorities a work that should be attributed to the younger Bruegel himself — that shows a corpulent Prince Carnival jousting with an austere and evidently malnourished Lent. The scene would have been a familiar one to anyone knowing the Shrovetide plays that were often performed outside churches in the run-up to Ash Wednesday (and indeed it was a favourite for artists of the period. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Carnival and Lent painting in 1559, now on display in Vienna, is a slightly earlier example).