This is one case in Madrid where you can’t have too much of a good thing. The 17th century Iglesia de San Antonio de los Alemanes is completely covered in frescoes, from top to toe.
- The fresco on the ceiling dome is by Francisco Rizi. It depicts the Glory of St. Anthony.
- The 18th century altarpiece is by Miguel Fernández.
- And most of the wall frescoes are by Luca Giordano. They show scenes from the life of St. Anthony (and more than a few buxom women).
In art, St. Anthony is sometimes seen with a white lily (symbol of his purity), a flaming heart (symbol of his fervor), or an an open book with the Christ child perched on the top (symbol of his knowledge of scripture). Check out the statue in the altarpiece and the figures in the ceiling fresco.
Why the Germans?
The Iglesia de San Antonio de los Alemanes—along with its accompanying hostel and hospital—were originally built for Portuguese migrants (“Los Portugueses”) from the 1620s-1630s. At that time, Portugal was under Spanish rule.
When Portugal gained its independence, the name went out of fashion. So it was re-dedicated to German immigrants (“Los Alemanes) by Mariana of Austria.
Who Was St. Anthony?
St. Anthony of Padua is the Patron Saint of the Poor & Lost Things—a suitable figure to grace a church for immigrants. He was born in Lisbon, Portugal, and was known for his gift of preaching. His luminous words about the Gospel once drew the attention of a school of fish. Upon seeing this, his critics decided he might have something important to say.
St. Anthony packed a lot into his short life—he died in his 30s. The cause was ergotism, which is caused by eating rye or cereals that are contaminated with a deadly fungus. It’s not a pleasant way to go, and I don’t envy him the death.
But even that had a beneficial outcome. In the Middle Ages, ergotism was called “Saint Anthony’s fire,” since the monks of the Order of St. Anthony were known for their skills in treating the disease.
The ceiling fresco is by Francisco Rizi. It depicts the Glory of St. Antony—the Saint is receiving the Infant Jesus from the hands of the Virgin Mary.
Most of the wall frescoes in the Iglesia de San Antonio de los Alemanes are by Luca Giordano. This marvel of the 17th century trained under Spain’s famous son, José de Ribera, and spent his years flitting around Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Spain.
During his life, he gained a number of wonderful nicknames, including “Thunderbolt” and “Proteus.” He was so good at mimicking other painters that he could fake Rubens with ease.
But his best moniker may be Luca fa presto (“Luca does it quickly”). There are plenty of stories about his exploits in the Spanish court in Anecdotes of Painters, Engravers, Sculptors, and Architects. He was in Madrid from A.D. 1692-1702.
“One day, the Queen [of Spain] questioned him curiously about the personal appearance of his wife, who she had learned was very beautiful. Giordano dashed off the portrait of his Cara Sposa and cut short her interrogation by saying, “Here, Madame, is your Majesty’s most humble servant herself.”
Apparently, he also delighted the Queen’s husband, King Charles II (“The Bewitched”), by painting with his fingers and thumb. Giordano created a more conventional portrait of Charles II, which is now in the Prado. You can see the effects of Habsburg inbreeding even there.
Charles II’s mother, Mariana of Austria, was a big fan of Giordano, which may explain why he was given the task of enlivening her re-dedicated church.
The Museo Sorolla was Joaquín Sorolla‘s house, so it’s an intriguing way to get a sense of the man, his family, and his work. Even the garden reflects his love of light.
This modest museum is one of the best places to understand Madrid as it was. As it is now, many of the buildings the city have been rebuilt, remodeled, refurbished, and removed from their roots. Even the street names have changed.
At the museum, you’ll find plenty of everyday objects from the past. There are maps from the time of Cervantes and full-scale models of the city’s layout. Suddenly, Madrid becomes a place of the court, of toadies and intrigues and whispers behind the arras.
You can imagine the Baroque festivities, the Corpus Christi processions, the monstrous figures and the torches and the music. You can picture a soft day on the Paseo del Prado, with aristocrats strolling down the promenade in the guise of majos & majas.
But you can also see a city that was built on industries for the self-same court—flour mills and porcelain factories and gold & silver craftsmen. Even the convents and monasteries were hoping for patronage. In Madrid, everything relied on the king.
The museum is housed in the former Real Hospicio de San Fernando (“Royal Hospice of San Fernando”) and fronted by a Baroque entrance that has to be seen to be believed.
It was created by Pedro de Ribera from A.D. 1721-1726.