WARNING: THE PICTURES IN THIS POST SHOW HUMAN REMAINS
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.
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