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. However, taking pictures with a smartphone seems to be more or less tolerated now. And since just about any churchgoer nowadays has such a device, it would be impossible to strictly enforce the rules anyway.
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 (fourteenth century), Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-1390), Andriolo de Santi (died ca. 1375), Giusto de’ Menabuoi (ca. 1320/30-1390), Donatello (1386-1466) and Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455-1532). The fresco in the lunette above the main entrance is the work of Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Below I will discuss some of the works made by these artists in chronological order.
The large Cappella San Giacomo on the right side of the church was commissioned by one Bonifacio Lupi (1316-1390) and built by Andriolo de Santi. Lupi was also buried in the chapel. The construction of the chapel started in 1372, and in 1376-1379 its walls were decorated with beautiful frescoes painted by Altichiero. The large Crucifixion on the long back wall is attributed to him in its entirety. The other frescoes, that depict scenes from the life of the apostle Saint James the Great, were most likely a co-production with the painter Jacopo Avanzi (died 1416), although we do not know the exact relationship between the two men. The frescoes were restored in 1999 and now their state of preservation is adequate. Admittedly some details have been lost, but for that we may also blame the painters themselves and the technique they used. Painting a secco (on dried plaster) may be much easier, but it is less durable than buon fresco (on wet plaster).
Although it has a damaged sky, Altichiero’s version of the Crucifixion is still very impressive. The sheer size of the work enabled the artist to paint a huge crowd around the cross. While the crucified Christ radiates peace and serenity, there is a lot of hustle and bustle around him and all sorts of things are happening. Altichiero deserves a huge compliment for depicting everyone present in the scene as an individual, with their own facial features and set of clothes. A wonderful detail is the group of soldiers in the lower right corner. The men are playing dice for the Saviour’s robe.
As was already mentioned above, the frescoes on the left wall are partly attributed to Jacopo Avanzi. These frescoes are splendid too. In the lunette we see James the Great debating Philetus, a disciple of the magician Hermogenes. Of course James wins the debate and Philetus converts to Christianity. On the right the wicked Hermogenes summons a couple of demons. In the large fresco below the lunette James posthumously appears to king Ramiro I of Asturia (842-850) in a dream. The king then summons his royal council (centre) and subsequently defeats the Moors in the famous battle of Clavijo (right), which historians now consider wholly fictional. The battle has been depicted as the siege of a city. James himself appears above the walls and it is clear the Christians owe their victory to his intervention.
On the left side of the church we find a large chapel with excellent frescoes by Giusto de’ Menabuoi. The chapel is dedicated to the apostles James the Less and Philip, but it is usually called the Cappella del beato Luca Belludi. Luca Belludi (ca. 1200-1286) was a friend and confidant of Antonius of Padova. He was beatified in 1927 and his mortal remains have been enshrined in this chapel since 1971. The chapel itself was commissioned in 1382 by the brothers Naimerio and Manfredino Conti from Padova. The walls and vault of the chapel were subsequently decorated with frescoes by Giusto and his assistants.
Giusto de’ Menabuoi is of course best known for his frescoes in the Baptistery of Padova, but his work in the Cappella del beato Luca Belludi is very good too. The central fresco in the apse represents the Madonna and Child, flanked by four Franciscans: Louis of Toulouse, Franciscus of Assisi, Antonius of Padova and Luca Belludi. The kneeling figures are the Conti brothers. To the left of the central fresco we see Saint James the Less with Naimerio’s wife and children, while on the right Saint Philip and two of Manfredino’s son have been depicted. The two apostles again appear in tondi on the vault of the chapel, flanking Christ.
The most interesting fresco is that on the left wall of the apse. Here we see Antonius appearing to Luca. The building behind Luca is obviously the Santo, while Antonius is pointing at the walled city of Padova. The city has been depicted quite realistically: the Palazzo della Ragione is for instance clearly visible, and so is the Castello Carrarese (far left). The fresco refers to an event that took place in 1256, i.e. the liberation of Padova from the tyrant Ezzelino III da Romano (see Veneto: Monselice). The other frescoes in the chapel mostly cover stories from the lives of James the Less and Philip. On the left we for instance see the crucifixion of Philip, while on the right James liberates a merchant (mercator) from a tower.
The current high altar dates from the end of the nineteenth century. It was designed by Camillo Boito (1836-1914), who tried to restore a fifteenth-century altar by Donatello that had been disassembled in 1591. The statues that Boito reused were a large bronze Crucifixion and statues of several saints. Doubt remains whether all the statues in are in their historically correct places. From left to right we see Louis of Toulouse, Justina of Padova, Franciscus of Assisi, the Madonna and Child, Antonius of Padova, Daniel of Padova (a deacon) and Prosdocimus, the first bishop of the city. The altar reliefs were also made by Donatello and his assistants.
Saint Antonius’ tomb can be found in the so-called Cappella dell’Arca on the left side of the church. The chapel has its own façade, which features a Latin text that reads:
RP PA PO
Which can be translated as ‘the republic of Padova placed this sanctuary for the divine (!) Antonius the Confessor’. The chapels dates from the sixteenth century and many artists (especially sculptors) contributed to it. The most famous among them are probably Tullio Lombardo and his brother Antonio Lombardo (1458-1516), and Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570). The most eye-catching decorations are without a doubt the nine wall reliefs featuring the miracles performed by Saint Antonius. The Cappella dell’Arca gives access to the Cappella della Madonna Mora, which is what remains of the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini (see above). The chapel has a number of frescoes, a funerary monument against a wall and an altar. The Cappella del beato Luca Belludi can be reached from this chapel.
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.
Update 25 August 2022: text and images have been updated.