Located a short walk from the Royal Palace, the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande is not on most tourists’ itineraries. It should be. Even when tourist visit, it is to see the Capilla de San Bernardo (Chapel of Saint Bernard) where a large painting by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) hangs. Goya’s work is worth seeing; but, it is hardly the most impressive in the Basilica.The site for the building was chosen in 1214 by none other than Francis of Asisi (1182-1226). It became the capital’s hub for religious Royal and national events. Several weddings by Bourbon rulers took place there. However, after invading French troops used the Basilica as a military barracks, the building fell into disuse. (Both because of the cost of restoration and its association with the French.) During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Spanish government commissioned the country’s best native artists and architects to retore the Basilica. (By the way, a basilica is different from a Cathedral or church in many ways. For one, a Cathedral is dedicated to a particular saint. Basilica’s are dedicated to the Virgin. They also represent different hierarchies within the Catholic Church. A priest says Mass in a church, a Bishop in a Cathedral and the Pope in a basilica.)
The Basilica’s principal dome–one of the largest in the world–was painted by Casto Plasencia Mayor (). Plasencia had studied in Rome, where he did extensive studies of Raphael’s frescoes in the Pope’s apartments. He also drew inspiration from the eighteenth-century frescoes done by Tiepolo for the Royal Palace, just down the street.
There are six chapels, each dedicated to a different saint and featuring epic-sized paintings. However, my favorite works in the Basilica, by far, are the twelve sculptures along the perimeter of the cupola, representing the original twelve apostles in larger-than-life carera marble. These were done by artists whose names are now forgotten and whose other works are almost all gathering dust in the basement of national and regional museums. (Please excuse my poor photographs. The light conditions in the Basilica are not great.)
The Basilica and its artists deserve a great deal more attention. (I hope to write an extensive paper, perhaps a book, on it someday.) For more images, go to this album.