The first bicentenary
Unesco WHL Candidate
It is almost a certainty that the Historical Processions held in Mendrisio during the Holy Week, as all others, are older than the date when they were first mentioned in the early 17th century.
The event taking place on Holy Thursday is a popular “religious play” in which about 20 groups or characters do not recite a text but walk in procession along the streets of the town, simulating the road to Calvary. The only people who speak out are the Jews, who shout abuse and demand the death of Christ; hence, the procession is known as Funziun di Giüdee. It was organised by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for at least three centuries.
The solemn procession held on Good Friday is an extension of the burial rite of Christ, therefore it was originally managed by priests. The tradition of calling the event Entierro spread when neighbouring Lombardy bowed down to Spanish rule in the 16th century. It represents the nocturnal funeral of Christ, usually accompanied by his sorrowful Mother. It seems that her statue was added to the procession in Mendrisio only after the Servants of Mary returned to St. John's convent in 1644. It has been ascertained that they managed the event from then onwards, at times disagreeing with the parish priest, until the convent of Mendrisio and almost all convents in Ticino were closed down in 1852.
Other Holy Week traditions have also been preserved, besides the two evening events held in Mendrisio.
The “Holy Sepulchres,” widely used throughout the Mediterranean area for at least one thousand years, present a catafalque for the dead Christ adorned by fittings that can be rich and complex. These sites are assiduously visited by the faithful. A dramatic setting was installed in the Church of Santa Maria Nascente, in Mendrisio, before the renovation works that were completed in 2014.
The “Settenario” (Septenary) held in the church of St. John, formerly of the Servants of Mary, is much rarer and, therefore, exceptional. Recording a high rate of attendance by people from Mendrisio, it refers to the evening services, each dedicated to one of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, with special prayers and the song of the Stabat Mater (attributed to Jacopone da Todi) in the form of an antiphon. Following a tune of unknown origin, the men take it in turns to sing a verse from the choir of the church, and the women answer with the next verse from the nave.
Instead, the large and suggestive temporary altar in the Church of St. John (painted by Bagutti in ca. 1775) where the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows was placed, is unfortunately not decorated anymore. Today it is removed from the niche in the apse, attired in festive garments of the early 1800s that have been restored, and placed with its rich golden stand (ca. 1780) on a table decorated with paintings until just before the procession.
During the last decade of the 1800s the social and economic circumstances of the Canton finally allowed a considerable investment to be made to once again celebrate and revisit processions. On that occasion the newly formed committee, which still organises the whole event, decided to establish the year 1898 as the first centenary of the reorganisation because one of the few historical documents that is still preserved mentions the landvogt, the Swiss governor of the Italian-speaking provinces who was head of the district from the 16th century until 1798.