Padova’s Frescos

A short train ride west of Venice is the medieval city of Padua and former home of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Padova, anglicized to Padua, is the capital of Padova province in the Veneto Region and the current population sits at just over 200,000 inhabitants. A less hectic and less expensive place to live than Venice, we were told that many residents commute to Venice for work.

Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova

With as many churches as we step into, we have learned to easily recognize Saint Anthony of Padova. He is typically holding the child Jesus, a lily, a book or all three. We have also often seen St. Anthony depicted standing on a seashore surrounded by fish, which refers to his Sermon of the Fishes.

The legend goes that “while preaching to the heretics at Rimini who derided him, the saint turned instead to the seashore and began to preach to the fishes about their predatory nature; the fishes miraculously came at his call and remained with their heads out of the water until he had finished speaking and gave them his blessing.”

Naturally in our explorations of Northern Italy we wanted to visit the city where this most popular Saint took his name.

Anthony of Padua was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon, Portugal and he died quite young, in Padova (1195-1231). He is revered for his powerful preaching, teaching, expert knowledge of scripture and his love and devotion for the sick and the poor.

Chapel of St. Anthony

At the age of 15, Fernando entered the religious order of St. Augustine in Lisbon. Two years later he was sent to Coimbra in Portugal where he embarked on 9 years of intensive study. When he learned of the first five Franciscan martyrs who had been tortured and beheaded in Morocco for preaching about Christ, he pleaded to join the Franciscan brotherhood and travel “to the land of the Saracens (Moors), that I may gain the crown of the holy martyrs.” The Augustinians reluctantly allowed him to leave their priory.

The young priest accepted the Franciscan habit, and changed his name to Anthony. On his way to Morocco he became seriously ill and had to turn back towards home. However the ship ran into several storms and was blown east across the Mediterranean. Months later he arrived on the east coast of Sicily and from there he moved north to a hermitage to begin his Franciscan education.

In 1222 he gave his first short sermon to a gathering of Dominicans and Franciscans friars and his knowledge, passion and holiness impressed the friars. His life as a public preacher began and in 1224, he came to the attention of St. Francis of Assisi, who quickly appointed Anthony to teach his friars theology. Anthony took hundreds of trips, traveling tirelessly, preaching in both northern Italy and southern France. Padova was an important city during Anthony’s lifetime and he preached many famous sermons there. He died of an illness at age 36. Due to the many miracles that occurred at Anthony’s tomb in the year following his death, Pope Gregory IX quickly declared him, Saint Anthony of Padua.

Basilica of St. Anthony

Building began on the pride of Padova, the Basilica of Saint Anthony’s the year after his death, in 1232 and millions of pilgrims continue to this day, to visit his tomb and the relics housed within.

Basilica of St. Anthony

Abbazia di Santa Giustina

At first glance the Abbey of Santa Justina looks similar to St. Anthony’s Basilica, but it’s origins are much older. A Latin author and bishop, Venantius Fortunatus (530-609 CE), wrote that the church of Santa Justina in 565 CE was most lavishly decorated.

Abbey of Santa Justina

In 971, the church was assigned to the Order of Saint Benedict and restoration and enlargement of the structures began. During renovations the remains of various saints were exhumed, including remains attributed to St. Luke the Evangelist.

Saint Luke was described as a doctor by profession but he was also a talented painter. It is thought that the apostle may not have known Jesus personally, but he traveled with Saint Paul on his pilgrimages and he wrote the Gospel of Luke.

It is recommended that visitors don’t miss the Corridor of the Martyrs inside the Abbey and it was there we found a large iron cage, dating back to the Middle Ages, which contains the remains of Saint Luke. As with many saints, the relics of Saint Luke have been shared amongst churches. The body is at the Abbey of Santa Justina in Padova; the head is in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic; and a rib has recently been sent to his formerly empty tomb in Thebes, Egypt.

Iron Cage of St. Luke

Cappella degli Scrovegni

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is impressive. The walls and ceilings of the Scrovegni Chapel are covered in extremely well preserved frescoes of the life of Jesus and Mary. The Florentine painter and architect, Giotto di Bondone, known only as Giotto (ca 1267-1337), created the frescoes between 1303 and 1305. It was magnificent to see in person.

Scrovegni Chapel

Church of Santa Maria dei Servi

The Church of the Nativity of the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a 14th-century Roman Catholic church.

During the battles between church and state in the 18th and 19th centuries, many convents and monasteries were closed and revenues were redirected from the church toward the crown. In 1807 the Servants of Mary Order was expelled and the church was confiscated. It would be more than 200 years, in 2014, before the Order of the Servants of Mary were able to return to their historic church.

One of the church’s most coveted works of art is the outstanding wooden crucifix by the sculptor, Donatello (1386-1466). Named the Miraculous Crucifix, Donatello created the work between 1443 and 1453. An entire book has been created about the restoration project called: The restoration of the wooden crucifix by Donatello in the Church of the Servants of Padova.

We appreciated the wonderful early-18th century rococo decorations on this altar.

Church of the Nativity of the Servants of Mary

Duomo di Padova

The Cathedral of Padova, also called the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, is smaller than the two basilicas mentioned above and not as ornate. First constructed in the 4th century, it has been totally rebuilt 3 times. Michaelangelo was involved in the cathedral’s design in the 16th century but the Basilica we see today was completely renovated in 1754.

Basilica Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption

One puzzle we needed to clarify for ourselves was why a church would be named both a basilica and a cathedral and we found these helpful definitions.

“A Cathedral is a Church that is run by a Bishop in an area which comes under the bishop’s jurisdiction.”

“Basilicas (minors) are rewarded that status by the pope, usually because of a spiritual or cultural significance. The term “basilica” is an additional label to whatever the structure already is; meaning any cathedral or church can also be a basilica.”

The elegant interior of the Cathedral is painted using a soft white palette, seamlessly blending baroque details with contemporary art styles and richly colored floors. It feels refreshing and peaceful.

Padova Cathedral Baptistry

The Duomo is widely known for its 12th century Baptistery, which is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and located next door. Preserved inside are spectacular frescos painted between 1375 and 1376 by Giusto de’ Menabuoi showing scenes and stories of the lives of St. John the Baptist, Mary and Jesus. One photo of Menabuoi’s frescos is our header at the top of this blog.

Much of Menabuoi’s masterpiece was covered by Venetian soldiers using green paint in the 15th century; no doubt preserving the colors that would be uncovered in the 20th century. Painted on one wall are interesting monstrous figures and images from the Book of Revelation.

Monsters from Book of Revelation

Padova Cathedral Museum

There are a large group of religious artworks in the museum from Padova’s cathedral and other diocesan churches. An even larger number of pieces have been rescued from churches, convents and monasteries that have closed or no longer exist. The collections date from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Perhaps the most striking collection in the museum was a large room completely encircled with 16th century paintings of the first 100 Bishops of Padova.

Padova Cathedral Museum – 100 Bishops

We may have initially been reluctant to say farewell to Venice, but Padova definitely charmed us. And by the way, did you know that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things? Good to know.

Salute from these Padovano,

Ted + Julia

View our Abbey of Santa Giustina photo album here

View our Church of Santa Maria dei Servi photo album here

View our Padua Cathedral Baptistry photo album here

View our Padua Cathedral Church photo album here

View our Padua Cathedral Museum photo album here

View our Scrovegni Chapel photo album here

View our Basilica of St. Anthony photo album here

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