A chance to see one of Europe's most significant religious
processions came about by accident, reports Gillian Vine.
Sometimes, when travelling, incredible things happen by happy
accident. I hadn't expected anything other than a quick look
around during a five-hour stop in Bruges, but it turned out
to be the day of the Procession of the Holy Blood, an amazing
The story of this extraordinary religious celebration starts
almost 900 years ago, when Thierry d'Alsace, Count of
Flanders, returned to Bruges, in what is now northwestern
Belgium. The count had fought in the Crusades, the ill-fated
religious wars aimed at securing Christian access to
Jerusalem and other holy sites. A brave soldier, d'Alsace's
efforts were rewarded with the gift of a container supposedly
holding a few drops of Christ's blood. His homecoming in
1150AD was a festive affair, which culminated in the
reliquary being taken to the 12th-century Catholic church in
the town centre.
The church, now the Basilica of the Holy Blood, still houses
the relic, which is brought out each year on Ascension Day,
to commemorate Christ's ascension to heaven on the 40th day
of Easter. (In 2013, it will be on Thursday, May 9.) Since
1820, Bruges has staged a living tableau to tell the Bible
story from Adam and Eve through to the Resurrection.
I was told a little of this by a charming student who, for
the day, had taken over his sister's restaurant near
Smedenpoort, one of Bruges' mediaeval city gates, where the
procession starts. He wasn't there to sell food - hardly a
shop opens on this solemn occasion - but he was making money.
Like others along the route, he lined the edge of the
pavement with the cafe's chairs and charged £5 ($NZ8) for a
''ringside'' seat. It was money well spent, as an hour before
the start, the streets were already lined with people,
thousands of whom watch the parade.
First came the bands, then a series of beautifully dressed
groups representing different regions and choirs in a
colourful curtain-raiser before Adam and Eve, hand in hand,
introduced the biblical tableaux.
Other Old Testament scenes followed, with Noah, Moses and
Joseph (of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame) who, thanks to
skilful costuming, were easy to recognise despite my
inability to follow the parts when the actors paused to
deliver their lines. Sheep, camels, horses and donkeys added
to the ebullient atmosphere of this segment.
Then came John the Baptist and the crowd, never noisy, became
silent as the Gospel events were played out, including
Salome's dance and her demand that King Herod reward her with
''the head of John the Baptist on a platter''.
I counted eight actors playing Christ, the youngest a baby in
Although Christmas cards show the three wise men on camels,
the Bruges version has them on horses. Balthazar's steed was
decidedly frisky but Melchior and Caspar's were unfazed by
their admiring public. There was a nod to tradition with the
Magi: Caspar (or Gaspar) was black.
Presenting the Last Supper could have been challenging but,
like several other complex tableaux, it is staged on a float
drawn by draught horses: nothing is motorised in the
Procession of the Holy Blood.
The drama plays out, as Christ is taken before Pontius Pilate
and condemned to death, then carries his own cross to
Golgotha with the forced assistance of bystander Simon of
Wisely, statues are used to depict the Crucifixion; the two
soldiers guarding the tomb are suddenly, shockingly, alive.
The procession, which takes almost two hours, ends with the
re-enactment of Thierry d'Alsace's return to Bruges, holding
the vessel containing the blood. It is carried to the
basilica, where thousands wait in Burg Square. The Catholic
Bishop of Bruges - currently Jozef De Kesel - blesses the
crowd, marking the end of the event.
Despite the appeal of the formal ending, in some ways the
street view of the Procession of the Holy Blood is the best,
as the tableaux flow seamlessly by. For those (like me)
cheeky enough to wander beforehand along the street where the
groups, horses and floats were being readied, the solemnity
with which the preparations were being undertaken emphasised
the significance of this historic religious procession.
Losing your head
John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher whose baptism of
Jesus Christ in the River Jordan marked the beginning of
John angered the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas, for
denouncing as incestuous his marriage to Herodias. As
Herodias was Herod's niece and ex-wife of the king's brother,
the marriage was illegal under Jewish law. The outspoken
prophet was tossed into prison.
Then came the celebration of Herod's birthday and - in a
shocking act for a Jewish girl - Herodias' daughter Salome
danced before her stepfather and his guests. They were
delighted, so the king offered her whatever she wanted.
Salome consulted her mother who saw an opportunity for
revenge, so the girl returned to Herod and asked for ''the
head of John the Baptist on a platter'', as Mark's Gospel
The king reluctantly agreed, John was beheaded; his head was
brought in by a soldier and presented to Salome.
Herod's public reluctance might have been a front, for the
first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that John's
followers were so numerous the king feared a rebellion, which
was why he had the prophet arrested.
Whichever version is correct, John the Baptist proclaiming
the coming of the Messiah, and a soldier carrying his head
are among the most powerful images from the Procession of the