The Mystery Play of Elx, or Elche, is one of Spain’s oldest and greatest cultural events and is truly a never-to-be-forgotten experience, even amongst the multitude of compelling Spanish Festivals. To label the Elx Mystery Play as ‘a liturgical drama of the Middle Ages’ or a ‘Medieval lyrical drama’ does no justice to the complexity, theatricality and power of this production, held annually at the Basilica of Santa Maria every August 14th and 15th.
In the Basilica itself there is a temporary ramped stage in the central transept, a false ceiling, stage machinery to open the Gates of heaven and lower and raise angels and the Virgin herself and, at the play’s moving climax, a shower of silver tinsel billowing from above during the Virgin’s coronation. All this accompanied by breathtaking choral music employing Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque melodies and exquisitely performed by a completely amateur choir recruited specifically for the festival.
The Mystery Play is the culmination of the celebrations in Elche in honour of the town’s patroness, the Virgin of the Assumption. Beginning with colourful and noisy parades of Moors and Christians, commemorating the Christian Reconquest of Elche in 1265, and culminating on the 15th, the Day of the Assumption of the Virgin, Elche becomes a spectacular mix of religious piety and pagan partying!
The Mystery Play itself is actually in two separate acts – La Vespra (the eve of death) which is performed on the 14th and La Festa (the assumption and coronation) on the 15th. Immediately after the first part the vigil of the Virgin’s body occurs when there is a candle-lit procession through the Walled City’s old streets. A further procession follows the next morning as the image of the Virgin is carried through the Old Quarter. The whole celebration is rounded off with, naturally, a midnight firework display followed by a lot of partying.
The origins of the Elx Mystery Play go back at least to the 13th century during the time of the Reconquest and, according to the legend, the time that the Consueta, the libretto and music of the play, was washed up on the beach near the city with the image of the Virgin. Most scholarly interpretations now place the play somewhere in the second half of the fifteenth century.
The play has survived because Pope Urban VIII, who was pontiff from 1623 to 1644, issued a Papal Bull permitting the play to be performed inside the Basilica in the face of a ban on performing plays in churches. Now the last Mystery Play of its kind that is regularly performed, it remains the key event in the city’s year and was, in 2001, declared a masterpiece of World Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO. As well as the performances themselves there are public rehearsal performances on the three days leading up to August 14th.
Elche is a city worth spending time in because of its incredible Palm Grove, Palmeral de Elche, of more than 200,000 trees, a World Heritage Site, as well as the Mystery Play itself. A delightful city it is only a few miles from Alicante airport so is very accessible. The airport at Murcia is also only a relatively short drive away especially once the Alicante to Murcia A32 toll road is fully completed. The Main A7 motorway links the city to the remainder of the Mediterranean coast. By rail, Elche is on a local route between Alicante and Murcia, which brings easy access to the rest of Spain. The AVE high speed train connecting Valencia and Madrid will also include a stop in Elche making access to the city even easier.