History

The age old roots of this popular tradition stem from holy scripture and from the medieval spirituality of Joachim of Fiore, whose thinking spread throughout Europe and came to the Iberian Peninsula through the different religious orders that settled there – Cluny, Cistercian and Franciscan – and, through the latter, to the Azores during the settlement of these Atlantic islands. The origin of this worship and its promotion and dissemination in Portugal is attributed to Elizabeth of Aragon, wife of King Dinis, known as the Holy Queen.

Hymn of the Holy Spirit

 

THE THEATRE, THE HOUSE OR THE EMPIRE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

The Spirit is hard to represent. ‘It is the Holy Spirit – God, mercy’, as we pray before the crown. In scripture, it already appears ‘as’ a dove, ‘in the shape’ of tongues of fire. What you see is never exactly like it. What you see is always less and less relevant. In the Azorean culture and religiosity, it is also present in the form of Empire, Crown, Sceptre, Mace, Flag, Boy and Poor Person. Because He has dressed them in silver and flowers and brought fireworks, merrymaking, alfenim [white paste made of sugar and sweet almond oil], Portuguese sweet bread, meat, bread and wine, all Azoreans know who the Holy Spirit is, while He is ignored in other parts of the Catholic world.

The ritual and symbols of the Empire are not a mime to ridicule anyone or to unseat any legitimate power, despite the social criticism that the festivities include with their own hierarchies and officers. Everything is done with seriousness, without shame or false imitations of presumption or provocation, respecting the roles of all of those who take part. This is then the imperial tradition, without misappropriation and with clearly defined features and leaders.

When we say ‘Empire’ in the Azores, we mean the dynamics themselves that encompass the practice and celebrations both in terms of worship and charity. When we say ‘Empire’, we equally refer to the venue of the festivities (central group of islands), which is also known as the ‘theatre’ (eastern group of islands) or the ‘house’ of the Holy Spirit (western group of islands).

We can find a remote inspiration for the construction of these theatres and empires in the Book of Ezekiel (48:30-35), when it mentions the twelve gates of Jerusalem, four on each side. With open frames, doors and windows started to be used for reasons of convenience and public sanitation. The empire is never built at ground level, because it showcases a different framework than the existing one and for protection against existential storms. The Book of Revelation (21:10-16) also refers to ‘a thick and high wall with twelve gates’, three on each side with twelve pillars. New Jerusalem was to be square with length equal and width. Were these texts in the minds of the Azorean architects of popular constructions?

The Holy Spirit demonstrates that this worship is of His liking, as we can see by the countless testimonies and abundant stories of miracles. They clearly want to show that the Holy Spirit wants to be worshiped with the Empire festivities, as they include dinner and alms to the poor.

A community that experiences the worship of the Holy Spirit is an indirect model of social criticism. The reality of the Empire is relevant for the appeals that it brings forward: the spiritual memory that remains alive, as it is actually the function of the Spirit – Paraclete, remembering (reviving) all that Christ said and taught; the symbolic evocation of the way of understanding the service in terms of simplicity and innocence; the sharing of goods with the poor and with those marginalised by society, with poverty not being synonymous with shortage, but with sharing, multiplication and abundance. These festivities proclaim the dignity of every person, especially children and the poor, as it is portrayed in the very act of crowning.

The festivities of the Divine Paraclete make sense as a reaction to the depersonalisation and uprooting brought about by globalisation, as we witness a movement that searches for and defends the deepest cultural and religious roots of our identities. There are no grounds to assert a pagan nature, unless there is an intention to justify neo-paganism or practical secularism.

The cultural advantage of these celebrations is their transition to life, such as the exercise of justice and power, the boy and innocence, kindness and sharing. Thus, the festivities of the Holy Spirit can lead to a process of conversion and change in the religious, moral, intellectual and social order. In their simplicity, these festivities are a critical and prophetic resistance to political and economic power, while being like a historical reserve of utopian, poetic and evangelical thought.

The worship of the Holy Spirit can serve as a pedagogical approach to gifting and justice. While other events are connected to penance and to an individual dimension of the subject, in this worship, vows are the result of what one gives, shares and receives, dreaming of a world of abundance and justice, a messianic sign of the Kingdom of God in the presence and sovereignty of the Spirit.

Hélder Fonseca Mendes

History

The Festivities of the Holy Spirit are deeply linked to the Azorean soul. It is a form of popular religiosity impregnated with the most pure and genuine Christian principles, founded on a plurality of love-thy-neighbour demonstrations that include the sharing of goods, social solidarity and gratitude to God in deep appreciation for the blessings received.

The age old roots of this popular tradition stem from holy scripture and from the medieval spirituality of Joachim of Fiore, whose thinking spread throughout Europe and came to the Iberian Peninsula through the different religious orders that settled there – Cluny, Cistercian and Franciscan – and, through the latter, to the Azores during the settlement of these Atlantic islands. The origin of this worship and its promotion and dissemination in Portugal is attributed to Elizabeth of Aragon, wife of King Dinis, known as the Holy Queen.

The strong presence and proliferation of this worship on the islands results from a number of factors, among which we can highlight the civic and pastoral activity of the Franciscans, the education of the first settlers who already knew and practiced these rites, and the need for protection and solidarity in the fight against common hardships, including the isolation and inclement weather that cyclically hit the archipelago, the resistance against the Philippine Dynasty, and the affirmation and practice of local traditions and customs, among others.

The festivities of the Holy Spirit are not only limited to the geography of the Azorean Archipelago, having surpassed it thanks to emigration, becoming an integral part of the lives of Azoreans in the communities that have hosted them. In this sense, this worship takes place today in Brazil in the states where the presence of Azoreans and their descendants has a great expression and meaning, in the United States in the communities that have settled in New England, in California and in the distant Hawaii, in Bermuda, and finally in Canada in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia.

Hundreds of brotherhoods scattered throughout the Azores Archipelago and the communities of the Azorean diaspora faithfully embody the profound meaning and the role that this centuries-old tradition plays in the life of the Azoreans and of their descendants. This reality is masterfully represented and expressed in this Vitorino Nemésio’s sentence taken from his book Mau Tempo no Canal [translated to English as Stormy Isles—An Azorean Tale] (Complete Works VIII, Lisbon, Imp. Nac., Casa da Moeda, 1994, page 173): ‘The Festivities of the Holy Spirit fill the spring of life with a fantastic movement, as if imitating the fields men and women flowered’.

The worship of the Holy Spirit is such an iconic element of the Azorean identity that the Government of the Azores associated it to the celebration of the Day of the Azores and of the Autonomy, since this is the public expression that best defines and identifies the Azorean people.

Symbols of the Holy Spirit

It is the objects, the practice and the worshipers of the Holy Spirit that reveal the symbols and signs of the underlying concepts, repeating them over and over again as if to confirm the consistency of the discourse and to strengthen their ideography. They express a reality that, despite being hidden, is commonly understood by everyone. They mediate and reveal the deeper meanings of a worship in which all senses are involved, and it is, therefore, natural that symbolism is also expressed through every sense.

Symbols

Firstly, there is a whole SYMBOLOGY OF COLOUR expressed in the worship of the Holy Spirit and present in all its visual culture that is dominated by the use of scarlet red and white.

Red is the colour of the flag of the Holy Spirit and of the ribbons adorning the symbolic objects. A sumptuous colour, reserved for pontiffs and emperors, it represents supreme power. Red and white are the colours symbolically consecrated to Yahweh, as the God of love and wisdom.

White is the dove of the Holy Spirit, and white are the flags hoisted in the Empires during the celebrations. White is also the paper that covers the throne where the crown rests in the house of the emperor. If white can mean emptiness, it also perfectly illustrates completeness, the range of all other colours. It is not by chance that the ribbons that decorate the maces range from the white-red combination to a group of seven different colours. But being the sum of all values, white is simultaneously a non-colour. It is in this ambiguous and boundary area that we should understand white as a value of passage, combining potential and possibility, dear themes to the utopian idealism that lies in the genesis of the worship of the Holy Spirit.

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heorísmo

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

The DOVE is a symbol of the divine spirit in scripture – the sign par excellence of the Holy Spirit – and is represented across the iconography of these celebrations: the crown, the sceptre, the flag (and its rod), and the gifts of alfenim [white paste made of sugar and sweet almond oil]. Since pre-Christian times, it has taken the value of what is imperishable: the soul, the vital principle.

Apart from the concrete object, the CROWN is represented in a variety of different everyday iconographies, including the facade of Empires and other buildings, the dishware, and the cinnamon contours on top of rice pudding, always symbolising the power and authority – the Empire – of the Holy Spirit. But it also conveys an idea of mediation: between the underlying human materiality and the heavenly spirituality, the divinity.

Symbolic Objects

Worship relies on the use of a set of liturgical objects that provide a physical shape to people’s faith. Among them, the most important are the CROWN, ORB and SCEPTRE that, besides their use in worship services, have by themselves symbolic value.

Photography: José Guedes da Silva Collection: Museu de Angra do Heroísmo

Photography: José Guedes da Silva
Collection: Museu de Angra do Heroísmo

The CROWN is used in various ritual ceremonies; it is handed to Emperors upon their election and is entrusted to them until the Sunday following Easter, with some of the most significant moments of the celebrations, like the slaughter of animals for the common meal, being held before it. There is a throne reserved for the crown, where it rests both in the Empire and in the house of the Emperor. It is formally an imperial crown in silver – but some are also plated or made of brass – and usually features between three and six arches. The crown is topped by a gilded silver ORB over which, in turn, there is a DOVE with spread wings that provides the trilogy of liturgical objects of the Holy Spirit with the symbolism of the universality of His empire.

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heorísmo

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

As a symbolic extension of the arm that orders, the SCEPTRE completes the crown’s expression of authority. It is also made of silver and topped by a dove with spread wings.

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

In their ritual use, both the crown and the sceptre can be decorated with white – and sometimes red – silk ribbon bows. The arches of the crown may also be fitted with small orange flower buttons over white fabric.

The MACES, made of polished wood, about a metre and a half long, are carried by a variable number of participants – usually twelve – in the ceremonies and processions. They are topped by a stand for a candle, hence being also known as TORCHES. They are sometimes decorated with ribbons and have a triple symbolic value: authority (one should remember the old maces carried by judicial and municipal officials), a walking support for pilgrims, and the crook of the shepherd that guides the flock made up of the faithful.

Photography: José Guedes da Silva Collection: Museu de Angra do Heroísmo

Photography: José Guedes da Silva
Collection: Museu de Angra do Heroísmo

The FLAG announces the processions and points out the houses where, at that time, the crown of the Holy Spirit resides. In crimson damask, it features a white dove in relief in the centre from where white and silver light rays radiate. A smaller version of the scarlet flag is hoisted at the house of the Emperor, while the crown remains there. White flags with scenes related to the worship are hoisted near the Empire.

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

Photography DRCom – Império dos Quatro Cantos, Sé, Angra do Heroísmo

Andreia Falcão Mendes

Regional Directorate for Culture

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