There is a document from 1139 - one from Barcelona - that notes different aspects of church "theatrical" liturgy. Included in this document is a description of the "Davallament", the descent of Christ from the cross. It is one of the first written records of this Good Friday act. In the same city, at the episcopal museum, is a wooden sculpture of "El Davallament de la Creu". It dates from the same century. The document was to prove to be important for Mallorca. It set out how the descent should be staged at the Cathedral. Should have been but wasn't necessarily.
Pollensa is often cited as being the location for one of the more important portrayals. There is justification for this. Although it has not been established exactly where in Mallorca the Davallament was first staged, the documentary evidence for Pollensa places it as having been staged at least as early as 1349. Records for the Cathedral seem to be slightly later than those for Pollensa, which doesn't mean there was no celebration of the descent, just that we don't know about it.
There is something else important about Pollensa, and that is that the ceremony was outdoors. Unlike today, it wasn't on the Calvari steps; the name of course evokes Mount Calvary. In the mid-fourteenth century it was staged in the market square. The Calvari still held some terror for the people of Pollensa. Before the Knights Templar were disbanded in the early part of that century, the "Communal Mount", as it was known, was used for execution and torture.
This open-air performance was certainly adopted not so much later by Arta. That town, along with Pollensa, Felanitx and Palma, forms a group where the Davallament has the most historical roots.
The fact was that there was a fair amount of improvisation. Despite the 1139 document, there was, for instance, a to-ing and fro-ing between the use of Catalan and Latin. But more significantly, there was the issue of how the descent should in fact be portrayed and who should be in it. Because of variations, there was constant conflict during the fifteenth century. In 1470, it was prohibited from being staged anywhere except at the Cathedral on Good Friday; the actual day had also been subject to some loose interpretation.
Things really came to a head, though, towards the end of the seventeenth century. In 1691, the Bishop of Mallorca, Pere de Alagón, prohibited the celebration being in what by then was the customary fashion. This included, for instance, the carpenters being instructed as to what they could or couldn't create. The viceroy was dragged into the row, meaning that the crown was also involved. Certain members of the church were so upset that lawyers were instructed.
The whole affair dragged on for several months. Eventually, the king, Carlos II, sent a letter saying that he was most displeased by the disagreements with the bishop. Some more time passed, and Easter 1692 was getting closer. The two sides finally sat down and came up with an agreement for the new Davallament. Or so they thought. In effect, it wasn't until the bishop ceased to be bishop in 1701 that things started to calm down.
If further proof is needed of how arguments over language have shaped Mallorca's culture (and still do), this whole episode was proof. In 1691, at the bishop's insistence, the texts were in Catalan. By 1705 they had reverted to Latin in something of its Vulgar form. As far as the actual portrayal was concerned, the arguments drew on how the Davallament had been at different times over the previous 250 years. It was clear that it had deviated from the 1139 original, so much so that the whole thing had been become "paraliturgical". In other words, liberties had been taken with it.
Because of this, the church, wishing there to be a once-and-for-all style of Davallament, insisted on the Cathedral's version being the benchmark. Towns had to apply to be allowed to use it. By the middle of the eighteenth century, all the differences had more or less been resolved.
There is still the potential for the occasional rumpus. In 2011 in the town of Sant Joan, the Davallament association issued a calendar, the purpose of which was to raise funds for its staging. The bishopric took exception, believing that the calendar trivialised Holy Week. The images had featured participants in the ceremony with very little clothing, surrounded by religious symbols.
So, if you think that the descents you will see on Good Friday are evidence of constant harmony over the years, then think again. But don't worry about all those and instead marvel at what is one of the most emotional occasions in the Mallorcan calendar (slightly clothed or not).