Madrid has over 80 churches, so selecting five to visit is tough. We’ve gone with prioritising beauty and historical importance. The list excludes Madrid’s cathedral (La Almudena), which will be described in a subsequent post – although many Madrilenos (regarding its newness, funding and architecture as inappropriate) have a take it or leave it attitude to the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. After each church, we’ve suggested a cafe or restaurant for sustenance.
Basilica of San Francisco El Grande
Completed in 1785, and hosting Spain’s largest dome, the Basilica of San Francisco El Grande is a breath-taking example of the neo-classical style architecture of Francisco Sabatini (architect of the Palacio Real, Alcala Gate – and Madrid’s new sewage system in the late 1700s!). Like many other large buildings in conflict-torn Madrid it also functioned as a barracks in the mid-1800s during the Carlist Wars. According to legend, the church stands on land offered to St Francis of Assisi in 1214. It hosts a large collection of paintings, including works by Goya and Zurbarán, and prominent statues of important saints.
San Isidro Collegiate Church
South of Plaza Mayor, en route to the famous Sunday Rastro Market, San Isidro Collegiate Church towers over the Calle de Toledo. Not only is San Isidro (a labourer/farmer in Madrid in the 1100s) the patron saint of Madrid and the church his place of burial, but it was Madrid’s cathedral before La Almudena was consecrated in 1993. The church is an impressive baroque edifice, dating from the 1760s. Tragically, it fell victim to anti-religious fervour at the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936) causing widespread damage and collapse of the dome, now painstakingly restored and richly decorated.
Church of San Nicolás de Bari de los Servitas
Madrid’s oldest church is another religious building damaged during the civil war – but restored and declared a national monument in 1947. The site dates to the early 1200s, but it may have housed a mosque prior to that date. The current building is from 1650 and consists of Muslim and Christian architectural styles – proving that Mudejar (i.e., Muslim architecture under Christian control) remained in demand long after Madrid returned to Christian control in 1085. The tower is a typical square Muslim style, whilst the central apse is gothic. Juan de Herrera, favourite of Philip II (and architect of the famous El Escorial Palace outside Madrid) was buried in the church.
Iglesia Parroquial de San Jerónimo el Real
‘Los Jeronimo’s’ has an illustrious past dating to when the site was granted to religious orders by Queen Isabella I (the Catholic monarch of Castile, who with King Ferdinand of Aragon, united Spain in 1475). The monastery was home to the swearing-in of subsequent monarchs as Princes/Princesses of Asturias – a title granted to the heir apparent of the Spanish crown, currently held by Princess Leonor. The impressive gothic church dates from the mid-1500s with later additions, most notably the entrance staircase, built for the wedding of King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter) in 1906. With such royal connections, today, it is Madrid’s society church.
San Antonio de la Florida Chapel
Away from central Madrid one can view original frescoes by Franciso de Goya – and his final resting place except for his head, the location of which remains a national mystery! The chapel is a must-see for art enthusiasts. The frescoes celebrate a miracle of Saint Antony of Padua, one of Madrid’s most popular saints – owing to his association with bringing lovers together in matrimony and celebrated every 13th June. Goya would have realised the significance of his frescoes to Madrilenos painted in the late 1800s. The chapel was declared a national monument in 1905 and in 1928 an identical place of worship was built adjacent, to provide a home for the congregation and religious service – preserving Goya’s masterpieces in situ.
Featured image: Basilica of San Francisco El Grande
(c) Photos: Essential History, unless otherwise noted