The church of Sant’Antonio di Padova, known as Il Santo to locals, is not just any church. It is in fact the second most important church of the Order of the Franciscans, after the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. It is huge, but not as large as the Santa Croce in Florence, the largest Franciscan church in the world. The Sant’Antonio is, of course, dedicated to Saint Antonius of Padova (1195-1231), whose relics can be found inside. Thousands of pilgrims visit the basilica each year to pray at the tomb of the saint and ask for his blessing. This is probably the reason why taking pictures is strictly prohibited inside the church. Tourists with cameras might disturb the worshippers, who have no intention of ending up on someone’s Facebook page. Since photography is not allowed, this post will focus mostly on the exterior of the church, although I will mention some of the artworks that can be found inside.
History and art
The most intriguing aspect of Saint Antonius of Padova is that his name was not Antonius, nor was he from Padova. His real name was Fernando Martins and he was born in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. He is therefore sometimes referred to as Antonius of Lisbon, for instance in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, which has a fresco of the saint by Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421-1497) with the Latin text SANCTVS A(N)TO(NIVS) VLIXBONENSIS. After joining the Franciscans, Fernando took the name Antonius from the fourth century Saint Antonius the Great, also known as Anthony Abbot, the so-called ‘Father of All Monks’. In Italy, he met with Franciscus of Assisi, the founder of the Order, and quickly became not just his follower, but also his friend and confidant. In ca. 1226, Antonius settled in Padova. Just five years later, he died while still only in his mid-thirties. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini on the outskirts of Padova.
Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) made sure that the popular Antonius was canonised less than a year after his death. On 30 May 1232, Fernando Martins of Lisbon became Saint Antonius of Padova, patron saint of lost things. It was now decided that the simple tomb in the simple church of Santa Maria was not sufficient for a saint. Already in 1232 the construction of a much larger basilica was started, which incorporated the little church into the new building as a chapel, the so-called Cappella della Madonna Mora. The new church of Sant’Antonio di Padova was completed around the year 1310, but it was enlarged and embellished on many occasions throughout the rest of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Especially important for a pilgrim’s church like the Santo was the addition of an ambulatory around the presbytery. It allows the pilgrims to walk around this part of the church in solemn procession. This website gives some information about the Percorso Giubilare in the basilica, the Jubilee Path.
Pilgrims should enter the church through the Porta della Misericordia on the left side of the church. Saint Antonius’ tomb (Tomba di Sant’Antonio) and the Cappella della Madonna Mora mentioned above are also located on this site of the basilica. At the back of the church, there is the late seventeenth century Cappella delle Reliquie (also known as the Tesoro), which holds the saint’s relics. The church apparently has Saint Antonius’ jawbone, vocal cords and tongue here, as well as some other objects that worshippers will probably find fascinating.
Like the San Marco in Venice, the Santo is a curious mix of styles. We see Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic elements, with some Baroque additions from the seventeenth century such as the aforementioned Chapel of the Relics. The facade has Romanesque features, but the pointed arches are Gothic and so are the four towers (two short, two tall), although these also somewhat resemble minarets. Of the eight domes of the Santo, seven are clearly Byzantine, and it is fairly obvious that the church of San Marco in Venice served as an inspiration here. The eighth dome, which is conical, is Gothic again. The interior of the church is also mostly Gothic. Artworks were provided by artists such as Stefano da Ferrara, Altichiero, Andriolo de Santi, Giusto de Menabuoi (whose frescoed map of the city of Padova is fascinating), Donatello and Tullio Lombardo. The fresco in the lunette above the main entrance is the work of Andrea Mantegna.
The most famous artist to work in the basilica was probably Giotto (ca. 1266-1337). This Florentine artist and innovator also worked on the Cappella degli Scrovegni and the Palazzo della Ragione in Padova, but his first work in this city seems to have been executed in the Santo between 1302 and 1303. It was probably while working in the basilica that Giotto got into contact with Enrico Scrovegni, the banker who would have the Cappella degli Scrovegni built and who would hire Giotto to execute his famous fresco cycle there between 1303 and 1305. The frescoes in the Santo that are attributed to Giotto can be found in the Cappella delle Benedizioni. Incidentally, the chapel used to be leased by the Scrovegni family, so it is possible that this chapel is the link between Giotto’s work in the basilica and in the Cappella degli Scrovegni. Visitors to the Cappella delle Benedizioni should not expect huge fresco cycles; all that is left of Giotto’s work are eight busts of saints, most of them heavily repainted. Giotto and his colleagues also worked on the chapterhouse of the Santo. The first fragments of the frescoes that they executed there were rediscovered in 1842 under the plaster covering the walls. What remains can be admired here. The chapterhouse can be found in the Chiostro della Magnolia, one of the four cloisters adjoining the basilica.
One of the most important works of art connected to the Santo can be found outside, on the Piazza del Santo. It is an equestrian statue of the condottiero Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443) by the Florentine artist Donatello (1386-1466). Erasmo was nicknamed Gattamelata, which means something along the lines of ‘Tortoiseshell cat’. We do not know how exactly he acquired that nickname. It may derive from the name of his mother, Melania Gattelli. Another possibility is that in battle he wore a helmet with a crest that resembled a tortoiseshell cat both in shape and in colour. Gattamelata served Venice well and after his death in 1443, he was interred in one of the chapels of the Santo. Donatello finished his marvellous equestrian statue of the condottiero in 1453. The costs were mostly paid by Gattamelata’s widow it seems, although the Republic of Venice may have contributed some money as well. Compare Gattamelata’s statue with that of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice, and pick your favourite.