Traditions of Holy Week in Spain: The Capirote

The global pandemic has disrupted the normal celebration of the Holy Week in Spain, where, for a second year, the government has forbidden the celebration of public processions. As many of our readers will know, the Holy Week processions in Spain are one of the key cultural and religious expressions of the people, and in many cases in the hyper-secularized world, one of the few moments throughout the year when the presence if Christ is so dramatically manifested in the streets.

Los Nazarenos, by Joaquin Sorolla. 1914
The Hispanic Society of New York.

While each confraternity has their own habit and customs that may vary widely, perhaps the best-known image is that of the penitent wearing a tall conical hood, the capirote. It seems important when examining this piece of lay religious headgear to distinguish between its two component parts: the hood itself, used to preserve the penitent’s identity, called antifaz; and the stiff cone that gives it its characteristic shape, the cucurucho. The terminology is however quite irregular and the term capirote might be used for the ensemble or just the inner cone, even among different confraternities of the same city.

The hood or antifaz is a prevalent item of vesture for most penitential confraternities all over the world. It was used since the origins of these lay movements in the medieval phenomenon of flagellants. While these were initially wild manifestations with extremist and even heretic tendencies, the movements were progressively harnessed, in part thanks to the influence and direction of mendicant orders, in particular the Franciscans. This garment used in order to preserve the anonymity of those performing public penance doubtlessly developed under the intellectual tutelage of this initial phase, and depictions of confraternities already acquiring a pseudo monastic uniformity, including the use of the face covering can be found as early as the 14th century.

Procession of flagellants depicting several hooded penitents.
Detail from folio 74, The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry by the Limbourg brothers, 1405-1409.
The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Hooded White Penitents of King Henri III, Paris, 1583-1589.
Library of Congress

St John the Baptist flanked by two penitents.
Early 16th century glazed terracotta lunetto at the Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence.
Picture by the author. 

The cucurucho or coroza, on the other hand finds its origins in a paper or parchment cone hat that was worn by public penitents. It's etymology probably derives from the latin cuculla. The coroza was later adopted by the Castilian, Aragonese and Portuguese Inquisition as standard part of the costume decreed for those condemned by the tribunals, who were automatically considered public penitents. This adoption on the part of the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century eventually made this cone shape hat deeply ingrained in the imagery of the black legend that surrounds this entire period.

Procession of Disciplinants (detail), woodcut by Pieter Tanjé. Early 18th century.

Details from two paintings by Goya: A Procession of Flagellants and The Inquisition Tribunal 1819.
  These works were created as part of anticlerical propaganda effort by the enlightened cultural elites of the time and have later become the epitome of the Spanish black legend. 

Interestingly, contemporary survival of this cone hat can still be found in some mummer’s costumes from mountain villages of northern Spain, like Silió or Ituren and even as far Karlovo in Bulgaria. A closer example of its survival (until recently, at least) is the dunce-cap, frequently used for the humiliation of students in the Victorian era.

Traditional mummers from the village of Ituren, Navarre, wearing the Ttuntturro.
Picture by

It is believed that the first confraternity two combine the two elements was the Sevillian Hermandad de San Juan de Letrán y Nuestra Señora de la Hiniesta in the 17th century and was progressively widely adopted in both Seville and the rest of Spain and even Rome. However, the arrival of the ideas of the enlightenment would lead to new legislation that forbade the “excesses” of baroque and medieval custom. Penitents were not allowed to cover their faces, and so they simply wore the antifaz with its front part rolled up. Restrictions relaxed at the end of the 19th century, and the capirote came back with force, cradled by the romantic fashions of the time.

A curious scene from Rome.
Detail from The Flagellants by Pieter van Laer, 1635.
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Holy Week in Murcia, where wearing the face covering removed has remained custom.
Picture by Gregorico

In other places such as Málaga, the head covering, known colloquially as faraona is nothing but a vestigial capirote, deprived of its face covering and its cone.
Picture by 

The cucurucho itself is traditionally made of sturdy cardboard, but in the last few decades we have seen the appearance of new materials like plastic mesh, which is not only lighter but is also more durable, especially where the climate is less forgiving.

The author's own capirotes: original cardboard and new pvc mesh.
The wet weather of northern Spain was not gentle on the cardboard, which always required haphazard repairs.

We must also regrettably mention its adoption in the early 20th century by an American terrorist organization with masonic undertones. Its use by this organization is only proof of the profound ignorance of its symbolism and origins. Unfortunately, this hijacking of the capirote means that its use in the United States is all but impossible, and leads to many American tourists with uncomfortable questions.

Updated 03/31/21, misprint correction.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.