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…..