Each year since 1917, the villagers of Marpissa on the Greek island of Paros have been observing their own unique take on the Good Friday ritual that marks the death and resurrection of Christ. Known locally as ‘Anaparastaseis’, this local custom involves the entire village and attracts people from all over the island, residents and tourists alike. Anaparastaseis began as a way to teach the customs observed at Easter to children of Marpissa.
Marpissa is a small hilltop town just off the east coast of the island of Paros. Founded in the fourteenth century, it is now the third largest town on Paros. At the centre of the town is the typical Byzantine-style Church of Metamorphosis (the Transfiguration of Jesus). And it is this church that is at the centre of the Anaparastaseis tradition.
Anaparastaseis – a Kind of ‘Tableau Vivant’
This custom is unlike anything I have seen before, but it is something akin to a tableau vivant. Literally meaning a ‘living picture’, actors dress up and strike a pose but do not speak or act. The ‘tableaux’ in the Marpissa custom take their inspiration from religious icons, more specifically images that together tell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ‘vivants’ are children from the village, with some younger adults also involved. These ‘living images’ are then set up around the village, and incorporated into the Good Friday service at the end of Holy Week. Today the tableaux vivant are a integral part of the Good Friday service that takes place at the Church of the Metamorphosis in Marpissa – they are not something to amuse the children and entertain tourists.
During the final service of the day, an Epitaphios or an icon representing Christ is placed on a bier and covered with an embroidered white cloth. This bier is then carried around the village, going from one tableau to the next, while villagers process behind it. As the procession passes from one staged image to the next (there are 17 in all), starting with Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, a version of the Passion of Christ unfolds. Other images include Mary Magdalen washing Jesus’s feet, the Last Supper, the last Judgement, Jesus carrying his cross up the hill, and the descent from the cross.
When the bier gets back to the church, it is held above the doorway and the procession of villagers files into the church crouching beneath the bier. As I approached the bier about to enter the church, I could barely suppress a laugh. One of the priests holding up his corner of the bier was occupying his time texting on his smartphone. Well, he had already been there a while and there was still quite a queue behind me.
While shuffling along in the procession, I was struck by a strong, wonderful smell of fresh herbs. It made me want to head off to a kitchen and cook! Before the procession starts the streets are covered with the fresh wild oregano and sage, so that when people trample the leaves the herbs’ characteristic scents are released. Incorporating the sense of smell into the procession is not surprising given incense is used in all services of the Greek Orthodox Church.
This representation of the Passion of Christ is unique to Marpissa, and all the islanders know of Anaparastaseis. The tradition was started by a local teacher as a way of teaching the story of Christ to young children using the religious icons they would have seen in their houses. The word Anaparastaseis is made up of two words, ana – again and parastaseis – presentation. Each ‘tableau vivant’ is then re-presenting the imagery of a particular icon. Icons are important in Eastern Christianity, and have been so since early Christianity and throughout the Byzantine period.
What Are You Doing Next Easter?
Having observed and taken part in many, diverse religious rituals around the World, Marpissa’s Anaparastaseis moved me. I was lucky to have as my guide throughout the ceremony Christina Fokianou. Not only is Christina a licensed tourist guide on Paros, but she has herself frequently taken part in the ceremony. Christina is therefore able to give a personal account of the evening service, as well as knowing a great deal about the history and other customs of the island. Despite starting around 10 pm, and lasting for about an hour and a half, the weather was perfect for an early spring night – perhaps a little windy. And after it was all over we joined many of the other people in one of the many local cafés. While enjoying a hot Greek coffee with a slice of local semolina and cinnamon cake, a friend of Christina’s who had taken part in one of the tableaux came into the café. The way in which they exchanged stories about the evening, you got a feel for how significant this annual event is; how it brings the community together for this most important time of the year for the Orthodox Church. Marpissa’s Anaparastaseis is definitely something to experience.
Within the walls of the historic Byzantine Church of the 100 doors, Panagia Ekatontapiliani, in Parikia is a very modest museum of Byzantine art. The collection of Byzantine icons is a must see, but the museum also has a beautiful historic bier that once carried an Epitaphios.