The macabre-sounding Dance of Death – or Dansa de la Mort in Catalan – has been held on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week in the tiny village of Verges, a few kilometres inland from the Costa Brava, for well over three hundred years. It consists of a hugely atmospheric theatrical representation of the life and passion of Jesus Christ.
Up until the eighteenth century, Mass was always held in Latin, which made it very difficult for the townsfolk to follow the ecclesiastical commandments, so the church decided to use the theatre as a resource for teaching the doctrine to the masses to make it more relevant and meaningful. The Verges mystery as it is performed today is based on a book of verse written in 1773 by Antoni de Sant Jeroni that is used by many towns as a basis for their Holy Week representations, although according to archive records the first Procession of Verges significantly predated the book, taking place in 1666.
The Mystery of the Passion, or the Procession of Verges, consists of two parts. The first is performed on stage in the village square and is only accessible to ticket holders. Before a backdrop of the medieval walls and fortified towers, the last three years of the public life of Jesus Christ is staged, with a particular emphasis on his final days – his betrayal, arrest and death sentence.
Once the performance in the square has concluded with the reading of Pontius Pilate’s decision, the actors move on to the church to start the second part: the Procession. At this point the whole village becomes part of the spectacle, with the Procession winding through the streets until coming to a climax with the Dance of Death and the Crucifixion.
The Dance of Death itself is performed throughout the Procession and consists of five skeletons that emerge to the sound of drumming and form the shape of a cross. They are accompanied by four escorts bearing flaming torches which, along with the mesmeric beating of the drum, creates a spine-chilling atmosphere. The main part of the Dance of Death is performed by two adults (representing the Scythe and the Flag) and three children (representing two Dishes, filled with ash, and a Clock with no hands). The message is that death spares no-one (the Flag); it cuts short our lives (the Scythe) and reminds us that at any time (the handless clock) we will end up as ash (the children).
Verges is the only village in the world that still has a living representation of the Dance of Death, which is reminiscent of the ancestral rites used to worship the dead. This type of macabre dance was often associated with the epidemics of plague that ravaged Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, not to mention wars and child mortality, and reflects that inexorable moment in time that lies in wait for everyone, whether rich or poor, noble or peasant, the religious concept being that Christianity represents a triumph over death itself.
Date: April 18, Maundy Thursday
17:00: March of the Roman soldiers
22:00: Mystery Play in the main square
Midnight: Procession through the streets