Seeing San Isidro 

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Entrance to the San Isidro Church on Calle de Toledo.


The smell of incense and the sounds of Mass float out of the side door of San Isidro Collegiate Church on Calle do Toledo, as a long queue shuffles past. People of all ages and backgrounds came last week to see just one thing: the remains of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro Labrador. 

The queue went around the side of the church along Calle de la Colegiata.

This lowly farm worker, who was born between 1070 and 1082, (biographical details of his life vary according to the writer, as they always do) has over 400 miracles attached to him, many related to producing water, a vital asset in Madrid’s dry climate. His ‘incorruptible’ body has been the alleged source of much healing over the centuries, with Kings Felipe III and Carlos II just two of the royals who attributed their recovery from illness to his post-mortem intervention. 

2022 is the 400th Anniversary of his canonization as a saint by Pope Gregory XV, and one of the few occasions where the public can see his body for themselves (the last was in 1985) hence the hundreds of madrileños patiently waiting in the evening sun. 

After entering the church, the queue continues to the left of the altar and into a small chapel, usually partially hidden behind closed metal gates. Painted statues of Isidro and his wife Maria (more on her in another article) look down patiently on the visitors. The line is encouraged to move through quickly, with a very tall bearded Policía Nacional officer gently but firmly saying “vamos saliendo, por favor” to those who stand around a little too long. Church volunteers hand out prayer cards and shush anyone thought to be chatting unnecessarily.

I stand at the back, observing the visitors. Some sit on the pews in quiet prayer, some take a quick glance and hurry out and the kids mostly look bemused at the whole situation. 

The remains themselves lie within a wooden coffin, decorated with worn and faded red velvet and tarnished ornate silver mounts and handles of typical late Rococo style. They presumably date from the 1760s when Isidro’s remains were brought to this church. Two straps of conservation tape keep the side of the box together and it is lined with white satin and what looks like acid-free tissue paper (my curator’s eye never misses these details!). The man himself lies open-mouthed with his head tilted to one side. Only one tooth remains, the rest have been removed as relics and his mid-section is modestly covered with the coat of arms of his home city. Flowers and bouquets surround the coffin and add colour to the somber spectacle.

After a brief trip to Almudena Cathedral (home of Madrid’s female patron, a statue of the Virgin of Almudena), San Isidro has now been hidden from our eyes once more. Although it’s likely to be a long time before the citizens of Madrid can see him again, Pope Francis has declared the next 12 months to be the Holy Year of San Isidro, so the events and activities should offer plenty of opportunities to pay tribute to this humble patron.

To see more objects and stories related to San Isidro and Maria, I’d recommend a visit to the Museum of San Isidro: The Origins of Madrid near La Latina.

Also check out my previous blog post: Toledo Bridge and San Isidro

Toledo Bridge and San Isidro

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Stroll down the hill from Puerta de Toledo and you can find the impressive and very decorative Toledo Bridge. This 180 metre long, nine arched structure, replaced two late 17th century wooden bridges, both destroyed by floods. It’s hard to imagine now, but the Manzanares river used to flood quite regularly until the canalisation works of the 20th century restricted the natural water flow. 

Built between 1718 and 1732, the bridge linked the main southern road out of Madrid with the city of Toledo, and provided a grand entrance into Carabanchel Alto where aristocrats had their summer mansions. The Spanish architect who designed it, Pedro De Ribera, also made the elaborate front entrance for the Hospital of San Fernando, now the Museum of the History of Madrid, and the Conde Duque barracks, now a cultural centre and library.

The bridge’s main decorative features are two limestone statues made in 1723 by the sculptor Juan Alonso Villabrille y Ron. They show the patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro, and his wife María. It’s appropriate that this statue is located on a bridge over the river as some of the miracles he is said to have performed are linked with water. 

Isidro de Merlo y Quintana was born in Madrid between 1070 and 1082 CE and spent his life as a farm labourer in the service of wealthy Madrilenian landowners, particularly Juan de Vargas who owned a lot of land along the river. Isidro was a devout Christian and shared what he had, even his meals, with the poor. 

He married Maria Torribia and they had one son called Illan. One day, their son fell into a deep well and at the prayers of his parents, the water of the well is said to have risen miraculously to the level of the ground, bringing the child with it, happily smiling and splashing away. This, the most famous of his miracles, is the one depicted in the statue on the bridge but is by no means the only one. While over 400 miracles have been attributed to him, only five actually happened when he was alive! These include praying while angels did his ploughing for him, multiplying the wheat supply and making a fountain of fresh water burst from the dry earth. 

He died around 1130 CE and was buried in a humble grave, but on April 2, 1212, after torrential rains had exposed bodies from several cemeteries in Madrid, his body was discovered in an apparent state of incorruptibility. Here is when the miracles really start to happen! In the same year his body was exposed,  Isidro is said to have appeared to Alfonso VIII of Castile as a shepherd, and guided his troops in a surprise attack against the Almohad army in the  Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, with this victory marking a turning point in the Christian ‘reconquest’ of Spain. 

Over the centuries the Spanish royal family would seek to be healed by his relics, including King Philip III of Spain who was cured of a deadly disease after touching the bones and as thanks replaced the old wooden reliquary with a costly silver one.  Hundreds of similar miracles later, Isidro was finally made a saint in 1622 and his remains are now in the San Isidro church on Calle de Toledo in the centre of Madrid. 

Tomorrow, the 15th of May, is his feast day, when Madrid has a huge party all across the city, but mainly focused on the San Isidro park on the south side of the Manzanares and visible from the Toldedo bridge. 
So do as the Madrileños do, grab your manila shawl, put a red carnation in your hair, enjoy a few rosquillas (tasty doughnuts with assorted toppings) and raise a glass to San Isidro!

It doesn’t even have to be water…..

The author in San Isidro mode, 2019

La Alberca: A portal to the past

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The main square of La Alberca

La Alberca in the region of Salamanca is a place full of history. In its dark narrow streets sit sloping timber buildings dating from the 14th century onwards. This picture postcard village in Spain was the first to be given the status of a National Historical Monument by the government in 1940.

It’s a place of symbols, which hint at the local industries including honey and textiles; their coat of arms is decorated with a beehive and a spinning wheel. In a village with a rich Muslim and Jewish heritage, enduring Christian emblems are carved into the granite door lintels of the houses.

The crossed keys and papal tiara of the Vatican are joined by mottos including ‘Hail Mary, conceived without sin’. 

One of these symbols hides a darker past. Off the main square and opposite the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, sits an unassuming wooden door. Above this door is carved a hand holding an olive branch, a cross and a sword. This is one of the symbols of the feared Spanish Inquisition, whose goal was to convert all Spain to the Catholic faith. This message would have been clear to the townsfolk of La Alberca: take up the cross and convert and we will offer you the olive branch of peace. If not, you will die by the sword.

This building was possibly the headquarters of the local Inquisition many centuries ago, however their story is seemingly not over yet. Around 10 years ago during the remodelling of this house, two bodies were found, reportedly in chains and sealed into the wall. I haven’t found any more information about this so far, so La Alberca still has many secrets to uncover behind its closed doors.

The symbol appears in other locations around the town

Welcome to Confused Heap of Facts!

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I recently started this blog and an Instagram profile to share some history stories that I’ve come across since moving to Madrid.

One of the hardest things was deciding what to call it. I spent ages trying to think of a word, pun or quote that would cover what I wanted to do.

The problem was, what I wanted to do was quite random. There wasn’t really a set theme, time period or place, just some interesting bits of history that I discovered.

So when I came across this quote by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), I decided it was perfect. Stanhope was a British statesman, diplomat, and writer, who travelled extensively and had a keen interest in history.

It sums up the often confusing, random and accidental things that have happened in the past and why it’s hard to get your head around history sometimes! 

So, check out my Instagram and please comment below with your favourite random fact about history!