Each year in the United States, the month of May kicks off with the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky.
However, two other famous horse-related events in Europe far predate the Derby, which had its first run on May 17, 1875.
These are the Bluttritt processions in Germany and Belgium. Bluttritt means “Blood ride” and they relate to relics of the sacred blood of Christ — the Heilig-Blut. The rides take place on the feast of the Ascension or on the Friday following that feast, which is then called Blutfreitag (Blood Friday).
The largest of these Bluttritt events takes place in Weingarten, Germany, on the Friday after Ascension. This year it will be held on May 19. Between 2,000 and 3,000 riders on horseback follow a relic of Christ’s blood — carried by a rider on horseback — from Weingarten Abbey through the city streets. The ride begins at 7 a.m., covers 10 kilometers (6.21 miles), and lasts about three hours. There are four altars for prayers along the way, where the procession stops for prayer. The ride ends back at the abbey, followed by a noon Mass, various prayers through the afternoon and ends with an evening blessing of the crowd with the relic.
Riders dress in formal attire, including top hats. Until 2022, only men and boys were allowed to ride, but women are now accepted.
The rider who carries the blood relic — encased in a jeweled cross — attaches it to himself by a chain. This is a precaution, in case his horse might rear and cause a fall.
Origins of the Blood Ride date back to 1094, when Judith of Flanders, who possessed the relic at the time, gave it to the Abbot Walicho of Weingarten Abbey. The provenance of the relic before that time goes back through members of the nobility in the city of Mantua in Italy.
Stories vary about how it came to Mantua, but the relic — which consists of dirt said to contain Christ’s blood — was eventually divided in two pieces there. One part ended up in Rome, while the other part remained in Mantua, later going to the German Emperor Heinrich III. He, in turn, gave it to Count Baldwin V of Flanders, the father of Judith.
Before all that, the story of how this relic of Christ’s blood came to be at all dates back to Calvary’s cross and the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side with a spear. Christian tradition says this Roman was named Longinus. When he realized that Christ was the “Son of God,” he collected some of Christ’s blood in soil beneath the cross and preserved it.
Longinus was later martyred, but the relic passed from him to Mantua — whether he preached there or the relic traveled there from another place is unclear.
Because of wars and political strife, the relic was hidden away for many centuries. It eventually came into the hands of Judith, who was then the Duchess of Bavaria. She was later buried in Weingarten Abbey, a year after her donation of the relic.
Another horse ride with a relic of Christ’s blood takes place on Ascension Thursday in Bruges, Belgium. Judith of Flanders was born in Bruges, but this relic of Christ’s blood is said to have come from a resident of Bruges who brought it back from Jerusalem after the Second Crusade (1145-1149). The process is now listed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In July, yet another blood ride takes place in Bad Wurzach, Germany. While only dating back to the 17th century, this ride on the second Friday of July attracted 1,500 riders in 2022, according to London’s Daily News. The relic used for the ride is a bloodstained cloth said to be Christ’s blood.
The reason this Bluttritt procession is held in July is because July — by church tradition — is the month dedicated to the Precious Blood.
During June, our parishes will have Corpus Christi celebrations, with many of them hosting processions with the sacred host being carried through the streets. The Blutritts, while different, still bring the Lord’s presence into the public square.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; Brugge.be; Kerkenet.be; atlasobscura.com; Mondoinernazionale.com; blutritt.de; weingarten-online.de/; ich.unesco.org and londondaily.news