Stumbling upon a holy march

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 sight

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 Mary's arms.

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 Cyrene.

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 Christ's ministry.

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 records.

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 Holy Blood.