The Procession of the Holy Blood, a mammoth event that has taken place every year in Bruges since 1304 (with few exceptions) has been cancelled for the second time as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The procession, in which some 2,000 local volunteers take part, dressed as Biblical figures including Christ with the Cross, was due to take place in May as usual after being cancelled last year. However the organisers said it had proved impossible to organise in the current circumstances.
“On a sunny edition, easily 40,000 people come to Bruges to admire this annual spectacle,” said William De Groote, chair of the Holy Blood Procession non-profit.
“That is of course unthinkable in these times. Rehearsing with 2,000 volunteers is simply not possible either.”
“The extras were worried about coming together to rehearse,” said coordinator Matthieu Clarysse. “We thought about putting on a smaller version of the procession, but then we have to give up on quality, and we prefer not to do that.”
The Procession of the Holy Blood centres on a small glass phial kept in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, on the Burg square in the centre of Bruges. According to legend, the phial contains a scrap of cloth stained with the blood of Christ, collected when Joseph of Arimathea washed the body before placing it in the tomb.
The phial later passed into the hands of Thierry of Alsace, brother-in-law of Baudouin the First of Jerusalem, who received it from Baudouin (whose statue stands on the Place Royale in Brussels) and brought it back to Flanders after the Second Crusade.
That was in about 1147-49, but the relic disappears from view until the 1250s, suggesting it may have come from the Sack of Constantinople by the army of Baudouin XI, another count of Flanders.
The legend surrounding the relic has it that the blood liquefies on Friday (the day of the Crucifixion) and the church is open on Fridays for the faithful to pass through and revere it.
The Procession is of huge importance to the city, not least commercially. It fills the streets along its length, and the public lines the route. At the Markt square, however, the tribunes are set out, and seats are not cheap. As well as that, the local tourist industry is booked up months in advance, and the chocolate shops that crowd the city centre to a land-office business.
The event has been going steady since 1304, apart from the periods of the religious wars, the French invasion and the two world wars.
“Even in 1856, when there was cholera, an extra edition of the procession was held as a means to make people feel better,” said William De Groote.
“But we can’t even do that with this type of virus. In 2015 we had to cancel due to the rain, but you would have to go back to World War II for the last time we were unable to process for two consecutive years.”