The pointy garb worn in Spain in the run-up to Easter will horrify many who see it. But this strange costume can mean many different things, writes Kelly Grovier.

Wizards wear them and so do dunces. In ancient Rome, freed slaves donned them as a sign of their emancipation. In the 15th Century, noblewomen in France and Burgundy wore them as a status symbol, as did 19th-Century women in the eastern Mediterranean, who elaborately encrusted them with pearls and precious stones. Iron-age mummies known as the ‘Witches of Subeshi’, excavated from China’s Tarim Basin, along the northern Silk Route, were found to have fashioned them from black felt - their characteristic steep spire tapering to a peak nearly 60cm (2ft) above their heads.

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Despite its diverse ethnic origins, the tall pointed hat is likely, today, to elicit revulsion from those in the West who associate its distinctive shape with the sharp end of racial bigotry and the intimidating garb of the Ku Klux Klan. But photos circulating in the media this week from Seville, Spain, serve as a reminder of the multifarious meanings of even the most seemingly singular and inimitable of cultural symbols.

Captured during a parade celebrating Holy Week (which precedes Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar), the photos chronicle the procession of la Borriquita brotherhood, whose members (or ‘penitents’) hide their identities with pointy hooded hats (or ‘capirotes’) in a ritual that dates back at least as far as the Inquisition. Historically, the capirote was intended as a mark of humiliation and was worn by those publicly punished by Church officials for doctrinal violations. In time, the cap was adopted by Catholic brotherhoods as a voluntary guise for their flagellants (those flogging themselves as penance for their sins).

Between 1812 and 1819, the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya vividly documented a more brutal rehearsal of such a procession - one in which excruciating physical penance was publicly observed by the pious participants, whose backs were whipped until bloody. Though such harrowing displays of abuse had been banned in Spain since 1777, Goya’s A Procession of Flagellants suggests how undiminished the ritual urge remained, well into the 19th Century.

But for many who encountered the photos captured in Seville this week, Goya’s portrayal may not have been the most resonant or immediate art historical echo. Removed from their religious context, penitents wearing the capirote might easily have been mistaken instead for members of the US white-supremacist organization, the KKK, which adopted an unsettlingly similar disguise for use in its terrorising campaigns throughout the 20th Century.

Rather than recalling Goya’s gruelling canvas (which the painter hoped would call attention to aspects of society that required reform), observers of this week’s photo may have been reminded instead of an iconic image from modern Americana. Philip Guston’s clutch of crude and cartoonish late works undertaken in the 1960s, featuring gangs of hooded Klansmen, was instrumental in helping nudge the pointy hat in the direction of farce in popular consciousness. Placed alongside the photo of penitents from la Borriquita brotherhood, Guston’s 1969 painting City Limits with its crowded clown car of hooded cowards, offers a memorable metaphor for the endless identities with which any cultural symbol can be crammed.

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