Religious Beliefs. In Spain as a whole, the Catholic church was long the only religion; freedom of worship became permissible by law only in recent decades. Andalusia is known for having its own emotionally charged and personalized brand of Catholicism, best exemplified in the extravagant Holy Week (Santa Semana) celebrations. There is a strong Madonna focus organizing Andalusian religious beliefs, and some scholars of the region trace the preeminence of the Virgin Mary to pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices in which a nurturant mother-goddess (variously personified as Aphrodite [Greek], Astarte [Phoenician], and Tanit [Carthaginian]) is paired with a son/father/consort figure (Apollo, Melkart, Hercules), citing these pairs as prefiguring the later emphasis upon Madonna and Christ figures. Traditional Holy Week saetas (lyric verses with a religious theme) make strong use of invocations of the Madonna's powers to intervene and protect the people, as well as commemorating her status as the grieving mother of the crucified Christ. The belief that saintly figures, and particularly the Madonna, are capable of being recruited to assist the faithful in daily life is strong throughout the Iberian peninsula, but it finds its most extreme expression in Andalusian religious practice. There are strong undercurrents of acceptance of the miraculous and belief in the power of penitence, which together form an essential element of Andalusian religion.
Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners are the duly ordained priests of the Catholic church, but they are assisted by members of lay brotherhoods and sisterhoods.
Ceremonies. Life-cycle events such as baptism, marriage, and death are attended by church ritual. In the past, such ceremonies might have involved the entire village population, although today baptisms and marriages tend to be much more a family affair. Although church attendance is not strictly observed on a day-to-day basis, particularly among men, the High Holy Days of the Catholic liturgical calendar still tend to bring out the majority of parishioners, and the Lenten period is in practice the single most important ceremonial occasion. The Santa Semana masses are attended by nearly everyone, but the more secular processions and fiestas held during that week evoke the greatest degree of enthusiasm and participation among the people. Massive floats bearing the likenesses of the Madonna and the Christ figure are borne along the streets, each sponsored, prepared, and carried by a particular cofradia, and there is a strong competitive flavor to the comparisons (often couched in the verses of saetas) among the Madonnas of the different cofradías.
Arts. The "quintessentially Spanish" art forms of bull-fighting and, especially, flamenco are in fact "quintessentially Andalusian" in origin. It is in Andalusia that the fighting black bulls were first bred, and long before the development of bullfighting as we currently know it, bull rituals and bull cults were established in the region—predating the Mithraic cult of the Roman empire and perhaps deriving from prehistoric practices. At least, there are prehistoric Andalusian cave paintings and stone carvings of bulls that have an extremely early provenance. Flamenco, too, has an ancient tradition. "The dancers of Gades [Cadiz]" were known as far back as the second century B.C. , and the "puellae Gaditanae" ("girls of Cadiz") are referred to by Strabo, Martial, and Juvenal. This Andalusian tradition of the dance formed the basis upon which the Gypsies, who arrived in the region in the 1400s, elaborated and stylized to yield the form we know today as flamenco. But the region's artistic production is not limited to modern variations on ancient artistic practice. Andalusia was, after all, the birthplace of Picasso, and it has been claimed that the region provided the greatest inspiration for the development of his art. Outside of the sphere of formal performance, Andalusia also has a long tradition of folk composition, particularly represented in lyric verse (secular coplas and the more religiously oriented saetas), both of which are strongly emotional in content.
Death and Afterlife. Andalusian attitudes toward death are strongly colored by Catholic beliefs, and funerary ritual is oriented around the Catholic sacraments of confession and extreme unction. Masses must be said for the deceased, and there has long been a tradition of charitable donations as commemoration for the dead. The expenses for both of these practices are borne by the cofradia to which the deceased belonged during his or her lifetime.