Suffering and Saetas

“An artist wears her art in place of wounds.” -Patti Smith

Art has long been identified with personal, creative and sometimes anguished expressions of suffering. The tortured artist and the suffering writer are veritable cliches. We can think about such people as Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Curt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway. Comedy is another area that has been associated with the tragic creative as well. Here’s a Top Ten Tortured Artists list. Many such lists could be created for any field of creative endeavor.

While not all creative people can be called tortured by any means, much art has been produced by the identifying with some form of suffering. Art is a often a process of sublimation. Sublimation is when some feeling, impulse or thought is expressed by displacing it into some other form. It occurs “when displacement “serves a higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions.”  Sublimation has been called a psychological defense mechanism and in many cases it is. In the case of aggression for example sports may serve as a viable outlet or channel .

In the case of expressions of pain, anguish or other extreme emotions there tend to be two major areas where these can be sublimated  or expressed successfully in a socially sanctioned way. Those areas would be religion and art.

In the religious context this sometimes becomes expressed directly by self-inflicted injury. Devotional acts of bodily-injury may be used for commemoration of the suffering of others, as demonstrations of belief in divine powers to overcome suffering, as redemptive acts, as pledges of faithfulness, as marking of major life passages or as collective expressions of social discontent or anger.  They become in fact rituals.  Rituals can have many purposes and symbolize many things. They are both socially and psychologically useful.

The penitents of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, the commemoration of Asura by certain portions of the Shia Islamic community, the Hindu practices at Thaipusam festival which includes a Kavadi ritual in which people pierce their skin,  Native American Sun Dance ceremonies which have sometimes involved piercing and suspension by flesh, tribal rites of passage in Africa and South America and Polynesia which often scarification or tattooing, all speak directly of physical suffering as symbolic and expressive. Physical suffering in these contexts is symbolic of numerous psychological and social transitions, hopes, expressions of sanctity, social cohesiveness and group solidarity.

When the elements of suffering are taken to the mental realm, rather than being expressed in physical practices and rituals sometimes the expressions that occur can become art.

el_greco_pietaIt is not surprising, with most religions containing certain elements to both address  suffering and to provide some form of comfort, salvation, redemption or transformation that much religious art deals with this topic of suffering.

It is from Christianity that the most numerous expressions of  suffering emerge. The great Pietas of artists such as Michaelangelo and El Greco (image source) are one such example.

Suffering in the Christian context is inevitably tied to the crucifixion of the Christ. And most religious art of suffering in Christianity depicts aspects of this as well as aspects of the suffering of various saints as they attempted to fulfill their divine missions.

At Easter the final week of Lent is called Holy Week. This week is marked in Spain particularly by large processions of religious people carrying icons through the streets of their cities and towns. During these processions there are particular stopping points which symbolize the stopping points of Christ along the Via Dolorosa as he carried the cross to his crucifixion.

In southern Spain in particular the moments of these processional stops are marked by the singing of a particular type of song called a Saeta.

What is a Saeta?

A Saeta is an a cappella (unaccompanied) song of a religious nature from Spain that is sung during Lent and may also be sung during other occasions of religious significance. At times it has also been sung in prisons when Catholic religious groups visited prisoners.

Saetas are also known colloquially as “arrows to the heart”.

Origins of the Saeta

There are a number of theories as to the origins of Saetas. Some say they are derivations of sung Psalms and others consider them to be descended from the ancient Jewish chanting.

The Sephardi Jewish community has a long history in Spain as does the Christian community. The Moors conquered Spain in the Middle Ages so there is also the possibility of the Islamic/Arabic music being somewhat influential in the development of Saetas.

There are numerous styles of Saetas. Some have rhythms that resemble Gregorian chants, Islamic calls to prayer, Jewish recitations as well as Arabic musical ornamentation. In all the Saeta is often referred to as the “song-prayer“.

The influences of the people of the Romani (also known as Roma, Roms or Gypsy) culture, with speculated origins to have been in India, are seen in the music of the Romani of Spain, of which Saetas are but one small part.  The Romani are the principle singers of Saetas as well as the originators of much, if not most, Flamenco music, dance and other related art forms.

Modern Saetas take further elements from Flamenco music to adorn the mournful notes.

Context of the Saeta

Capirotes in the Holy Week in Valladolid Spain-image source  Wikipedia-Holy Week in Spain

A common feature in Spain is the almost general usage of the nazareno or penitential robe for some of the participants in the processions. This garment consists in a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak. The exact colors and forms of these robes depend on the particular procession.

from Holy Week in Spain

Holy Week Processions of the confraternities, which are brotherhoods of lay Catholics, present a moving spectacle of devotion.

Participants generally wear special costumes as they carry iconic images if Jesus and Mary as well as saints on palanquins through the streets. This is accompanied by performances, incense, prayers and music all following a prescribed pattern.

In Spain part of the performance is the singing of Saetas during short breaks in the procession.

Processions of Christians during Holy Week can be found all around the world including in Italy, Israel, Guatemala, France, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines.

The Performance of Saeta

Singers will often address the iconic image of the Virgin Mary as she suffers the loss of her son as well at to the Christ image itself.

As the performance continues the singer digs deeper inside with an aim to bring it out the emotions of suffering such as loss, anguish, pain or compassion and transform it into song. And through song a psycho-emotional connection is made between the singer and the image to which he sings. It is an expression of the symbolic.

Expressions of compassion are most prominently identified with the crucifixion of the Christ. Words of the Saeta are poetic and deep. Here are a couple of examples:

Carry him little by little,
Foreman, in short steps
Because he smothers himself in sorrow,
and carries his eyes low
from tears like pearls.
They lowered him from the plank
And in sheets they put him,
His body faded,
His Mother asks to the Heavens:
What crime has he committed?


The night had fallen
The darkness covered us
When that beloved, perfect pledge
In Mary´s arms
Corpse, they turned it over to her.
(the Jailer of Solitude)

from Saetas: Prayer from the Heart

How I Came to Have Interest In This Topic

My mother’s side of the family is Catholic from Europe and some of those relatives have been monastic (Sisters of St. Benedict) so it’s not such a stretch to appreciate the rituals from that perspective. And I’ve always liked the artistic aspects of Christianity, especially Catholicism, even if the message just didn’t connect.

Beyond that, about 12 years ago I took up Flamenco dancing. I had done some research, while studying anthropology years before that, on the Romani people and had started to develop interest in the origins of their culture. I had taken extra courses on South Asia even though my interest at the time was in East Asia and China, particularly Buddhist aspects of culture in Asia. Inevitably that would lead to study of India and my interests started to shift towards migrant populations and cross-cultural contact.

It was because of contacts I had made studying Flamenco that I ended up in India a couple of years later.

And it was from Flamenco more recently, that I met my roommates/house sitters in Canada for the past 5 years. They are a family of immigrants from Spain with some Romani heritage. So when I visit from time to time and stay with them (we share the apartment I own) I get to hear some fine Flamenco music and eat some fine Spanish food. And I cook Indian food for them. A couple of times some of their family members have come to visit when I was there and even with a crowded house it was a lovely time. So I’ve learned a lot more about Flamenco and life in Spain than I did on any of the visits I’ve had there.

That’s given me more of a perspective of the art of Flamenco and about Saetas and religion as it is practiced in Spain.

The emotions that appear in the Saetas are both expressions of personal suffering and compassion for the suffering of the Christ, his mother, the saints and more broadly all who suffer. By transmuting those feelings from a personal, social and psychological detriment into an expression that all can connect with, it gives a sense of relief as well as social bonding and recognition of the suffering of others.

This reminds me, in some ways of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen which is part of Lojong training. In Tonglen practice there is a cycling of the breath wherein suffering is transmuted into compassion. The suffering is taken in with the breath and using the heart-mind, compassion and peace are emitted with the exhaled breath. The breath is used as a powerful vehicle controlled for focusing and transforming. This just reminds me of the breath-work of any singer. The exhalation contains the results of the inner alchemy of taking emotion, suffering, identification with another and giving back something that is cohesive, recognizable and the result of generosity of the heart.

Tonglen practice in many ways is also a method of sublimation of suffering. Not an artistic expression but it does share a religious context with the practice of the singing of Saetas. It too can be deemed a form of prayer if prayer is defined as an invocation. An in the Buddhist sense this invocation can be towards the indwelling bodhicitta.  (see Nathan’s great post called Buddhist Prayer to get an idea of the context)

Here are some further description of Tonglen.

from The Stream of Nectar, Pith Instructions for Cultivating Twofold Bodhichitta by Ga Rabjampa Kunga Yeshe

This mainly refers to the practice of alternating the two sessions of visualization outlined above. [taking and giving] In order to grow more familiar with this and make the practice more stable, we can consider that as we breathe in, we take in others’ negativity and suffering in the form of black smoke, and as we breathe out we send out our own happiness and virtue, so that it ripens on others.

-source Lotsawa House|Mind Training-The Practice of Alternating

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says :

To be able actually to transfer one’s happiness to others and directly take their sufferings upon oneself is something only possible on very, very few occasions; it occurs when both oneself and another individual have a very special type of relationship based on karmic affinity, stemming perhaps from a previous life. Why does one cultivate this attitude? Because it leads to attaining great strength of character, courage and enthusiasm; and improves one’s own practice of developing bodhichitta
-source Tonglen – Rigpa Shedra Wiki

From that which is painful something extraordinary and meaningful can emerge.  Something which includes rather than overlooks. Something which unites rather than divides. Something which can be a healing of wounds.

Examples of Saetas

In the first video Diana Navarro sings in a concert type atmosphere. She is a well known flamenco cantaora and part of the New Wave of younger flamenco singers who are both bringing back older styles and incorporating new musical elements from places like Cuba and South America. She was nominated for a Latin Grammy award.

Saeta Diana Navarro El Cautivo

During Holy Week the streets are filled with people observing the processions. At the various stopping points singers in the past would spontaneously begin a Saeta.  The next two videos capture performances done by a man and then a woman.  Whether they are spontaneous or planned is unknown but the passion of the singers is unmistakable.

Saeta al Cristo de los Gitanos

Saeta a la Esperanza Macarena

The young Maria Carrasco appears on a television program and sings a Saeta. She is a member of the well-known Carrasco family who are renowned for their flamenco singing.  The singer Diego Carrasco is one of my personal favorites.

Maria Carrasco saeta

Gil Evans – Saeta (The Salton Sea soundtrack)

Theme from the movie The Salton Sea, instrumental performed by Terence Blanchard. There is also a version of this done by Miles Davis on his Sketches of Spain album.


Saeta (flamenco)-from Wikipedia. Gets into some of the more technical aspects of the music and it’s relationship to other flamenco styles.

Flamenco-Saeta – from Gives some history and background about Saetas as well as listing some of the most well known singers.

Saetas: Prayer from the Heart – from An interesting article that outlines some of the history and context of the Saeta

The Structure of the Saeta Flamenca: An Analytical Study of Its Music– musicologists have produced numerous studies of many types of Flamenco music. Here you can read the abstract of this particular article

Saeta performances– Youtube has many performances of Saetas by popular Flamenco performers as well as amateurs.

2 comments on “Suffering and Saetas

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Suffering and Saetas « Smiling Buddha Cabaret --

  2. “Sublimation has been called a psychological defense mechanism and in many cases it is.” Freud said sublimation functions as a socially acceptable escape valve. The element of social recognition is central to the concept. So ‘Social psychological defense mechanism’ would be more clear.

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