The Feast of Corpus Christi, which takes place this Thursday, 15 June, is a festival that would almost have passed unnoticed these days were it not for the decorations and dancing eggs adorning the city centre’s fountains. For centuries it was one of the most important festivals and Barcelona was one of the places where it was particularly important. Besides l’ou com balla – the dancing egg – the festival has left several legacies for traditional culture, such as the giant figures and a good many beasts from the popular imagination.
The highlight to Corpus Christi was always its procession, documented in Barcelona since 1320. Joan de Déu Domènech, the author of the book El Corpus. Una festa de Barcelona [Corpus Christi. A Barcelona Festival], which was published by Barcelona City Council in 2008, explains how the Corpus procession “was the most solemn and spectacular of all the ones held. The biggest and most attractive”. And, he adds: “What distinguished it from the other liturgical displays was the mixture of religious and theatrical elements and, in the midst of it all, flowers and authorities, all in a procession lasting for hours and hours round the city’s streets and squares. An imposing display, the biggest Barcelona has ever seen”.
Another author, Amadeu Carbó, offers us another take on the Corpus procession in El llibre dels gegants de la ciutat [The Book of the City's Giants] published by Barcelona City Council in 2011. Carbó says: On the one hand, the lineal conception of processions as big triumphant street parades brings to mind the large fancy displays made in honour of the city’s very important visitors, such as the kings. And, on the other, it recalls the military victory parades where the conqueror, in this case the guard, placed at the back of the entourage, would parade with their troops and battle trophies arranged in perfect order according to importance or hierarchy, from lower to higher, within the processions”.
There was a time when the Corpus procession was held come what may and, if need be, changed day. That happened in 1640, the year of Bloody Corpus, with the outbreak of the Reapers’ War. This led to the halting of the procession, which was moved to November that year. On other occasions, more than one procession was held to celebrate specific events. Three such processions were held, for instance, in 1571: the mandatory one on Corpus Christi day itself, another on 18 November as a thanksgiving to celebrate victory in the Battle of Lepanto, and the third on 30 December, another thanksgiving, this time for the birth of a son to the King.
One of the procession’s elements was the entremesos which, as the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana defines them, were “animate or inanimate figures that used to be displayed or made to dance as part of a court festival”. In other words, giants, dragons, eagles, serpent-like beasts and several elements from popular and traditional culture that continue to this day.
The heritage Corpus has left Catalan society is fairly evident. Although the festival has lost much of its pomp and splendour, Catalonia still has quite a few events with links to that date, some being quite well known, for example, the Enramades de Sallent, the flower carpets in Sitges and in Arbúcies and the Patum de Berga. Barcelona still has one of its own traditions: the ou com balla or “dancing egg”. The origins to this typically Barcelona tradition remain a mystery, but some say it was a way the wealthy living in the mansions on C/ Montcada used to keep their children entertained as they waited for the procession to pass by.
Be that as it may, the tradition has survived up to this day and there are various places in the city where, without fail, a dancing egg appears every Corpus Christi, among others the Casa de l’Ardiaca, the Municipal History Archives and the Cathedral cloister.