Thursday 11 June 2009

Pins and Pan - The Feria of San Antonio

By Richard Morley
Spanish women are all lovely, but sometimes I think they have a masochistic streak. For what other reason would they deliberately stick pins in themselves in the name of love? Let me explain.

This weekend sees the celebration of San Antonio. There are two saints called Anthony; one was Egyptian and lived around the forth century. This is not about him. This is Saint Anthony of Padua, 1195 to 1231, who among other things is the patron saint of lost things.

So, if you have mislaid the TV remote or your mobile phone again(!) then this is the prayer you must use:
St Anthony, St Anthony,
Please come down
Something is lost
And can’t be found.

The saint was born in Lisbon and was actually baptised Ferdinand. He went to school at Lisbon cathedral and at the age of fifteen joined the Augustinians as a novice. He was still near his family though, who annoyed the heck out of him by constant visits and so he asked to be transferred to Coimbra, about two hundred kilometres north on the way to Porto, so he could study in peace.

Apparently he had the reputation of being nervous and tongue-tied in company, but when forced to make his first sermon, after a hesitant start, became most eloquent and discovered a facility inside himself to explain the scriptures. This led him in later life to be appointed by no less a person than Saint Francis to teach theology.
This miraculous conversion from tongue-tied young man to great orator was the first of many miracles attributed to him, and which the church has carefully catalogued. Several of these were a little mundane, and here I quote the Catholic Encyclopaedia, that while “preaching in the square des Creux des Arenes in Limoges he preserved his audience from the rain”, without giving any detail. Did he suddenly produce a large umbrella, or did the falling waters part, in the style of Moses at the Red Sea, to fall either side of his congregation? I am not a little underwhelmed.
Also, he is miraculously ascribed to have preached from the pulpit and sung in the choir simultaneously, to have predicted that a pulpit from which he would preach would collapse, but that no one would be injured, and that a fasting horse would not eat until the animal knelt and adored the blesséd sacraments that Saint Anthony held. I am still not that impressed.
However, he did restore an amputated foot to a boy. But the full story is that the boy kicked his mother and Saint Anthony decreed that the boy’s foot should be chopped off as punishment, but after the deed was done, the kindly saint reattached it. I find that quite heart-warming! There were those at the time who did not follow the ways of the mother church and were regarded as heretics. San Antonio’s special mission was to try to bring these wayward children back into the fold and he became known as the “Hammer of the Heretics”. One of his more famous deeds in that to impress the heretics he preached a sermon on the banks of the River Brent near Padua and the fish stuck their heads above the water to listen. Personally, I think the fish noticed a large crowd on the bank and though, “I wonder if someone has a bag of breadcrumbs?” But there are those who regard it as another of his miracles. However, the heretics thought that Antonio should keep his nose out of their religion and to make their point some of them offered the saint some poisoned food. Much to their disappointment the saint had no ill effects from eating the food and it was said that the mere act of saying grace and making the sign of the cross over the proffered dish “miraculously” removed the poison. I suppose my favourite miracle has to be when while returning from the funeral of Saint Francis he and his fellow travellers stayed at the cottage of a poor woman and although the exact circumstances are not given, somehow wine glasses got smashed and a wine barrel leaked its contents. Saint Anthony not only restored the barrel and refilled it, but also “miraculously” the broken glasses were made whole. That had to be a heck of a wake!

Whether you believe in miracles or not, the history of the saint is one of never-ending devotion to his God. He went and did whatever the church required of him. He was sent to preach to the heretics when no one else would go. He may be known as San Antonio of Padua, but that is only because that was where he preached the sermon to the fish. In truth, he spent his life travelling and seemed to spend very little time in any one particular place.
However, in Madrid he does have a place devoted to his memory. Actually he has two! In the Paseo de la Florida there are two identical Ermitas, or small chapels, dedicated to his name.
The first, built in 1768 replaced an earlier building dating from 1720. Official records just say the original was “destroyed”, but give no reason. So revered was the memory of San Antonio within the community that no less an artist than Goya decorated the Chapel. In 1905 the Ermita was declared a national monument.

Some people have called this Ermita, “Madrid’s Sistine Chapel”. The frescos are quite wonderful and painted in the cupola and on its supports, properly called the “pendentives”, is a scene of yet another of the saint’s miracles; that of the resurrection of a dead man in order that he can give evidence to prove the innocence of San Antonio’s father, who was accused of murdering him.
The regular use of the Ermita by the faithful began to have a deteriorating effect on the art works and, in 1929, the community built an exact copy, at least from the outside, to be used for daily services, and closed the original, although it is still possible to view the frescos. In this way Goya’s work will be preserved for future generations.

Goya’s opinions upset a few important people and so he went to live in France, near Bordeaux. He died there in 1828, but in 1901 his body was brought back to Madrid and buried near the Ermita. Across the road a statue of the great man, brush and palette in hand, gazes on the place where he did his best work.

If you venture behind the Ermitas and look across the railway lines along which commuter trains arrive at Principo Pio station, you will find four giant concrete slabs, each bearing a letter of the artist’s name. You will also, unfortunately, see a great deal of graffiti by painters who could learn a thing or two from the great man.
Goya has another connection with the area. It was near Principio Pio that the scene of one his greatest paintings took place, that of the French firing squad executing a group of Spanish patriots on the Third of May, 1808. The painting is called, “El Cuadro de Los Fusilamientos de Tres de Mayo”.
But what, I hear you cry, has all this got to do with sticking pins in señoritas.

June the 13th is the Saint’s Day and along the Paseo de la Florida, outside the two Ermitas, the residents will celebrate with a grand fair. This is another day when the people dress in their chulapos and chulapas and consume huge quantities of cholesterol filled meat and partake of a cerveza or two. At one time the district was famous for it tailoring and dressmaking and employed many young girls as seamstresses. Of course, these young ladies would dream of being married – but to who – and more importantly, when?

So a custom came into being. On El Dia de San Antonio, twelve dress-making pins would be tossed into the baptismal font in the Ermita. The seamstresses would then place the flat of their palms into the font and hopefully one or more of the pins would stick.

Now there are two versions of how the results of this painful exercise can be interpreted. The first is that the number of pins sticking into the palm would show the number of months that the young hopeful would have to wait until she found the man of her dreams. The other is that the number of pins would reveal how many lovers she could expect to have in the next year.
Strangely, the queue patiently waiting to enter the Ermita seems to consist largely of middle aged men and women. I expect they are just waiting to view the frescos.

It’s a public holiday here on today. (Yes, yet another!) So the celebrations will be spread out over the four days of the long weekend, assuming everyone takes the “Puente”, which I explained in another post.

The ninth of June has a special meaning in local folklore. There is a saying about the folly of removing one’s jacket until the “fortieth of May”, which by my calculations fell two days ago on the ninth. This does seem to be a good warning as we have had some excellent hot and sunny weather recently, but the past few days have seen the return of much needed rain and brought a chilly freshness to the air. But from the 10th onwards, we are expecting the clouds to disappear and the temperatures to soar. All that cold beer at San Antonio’s Fair will be very welcome.
If you found this post entertaining or informative please let me know by commenting below. The ladies looking for love are following a tradition. Don't try this at home!


  1. Reverting to childhood education I still (automatically) invoke St. Anthony when I lost something in the house ;>) Old habits die hard.

  2. Richard: As always, enchanting photos and a good explanation of events in Madrid. An enjoyable read for us Anglos. When I am back in Madrid in November, I will ask for recommendations of off-the-beaten path (non-tourist) places to visit.