This is a view of San Francisco el Grande from the balcony of our rental apartment in Madrid. We spent 5 days in Madrid in May 2013 and for us Madrid was the museum stop on the trip. We spent 3 of our days at the Thyssen-Bournimisza, the Reina Sofia and the Prado. For our final day we had intended to head for Toledo, but on this the last day of our 5 week trip to Paris and Spain, we had run out of energy for early morning trains and long climbs to visit Cathedrals — so Toledo will have to wait till we can spend a day or two there on a future trip. So on our last day, we decided to explore this building we could spot from our balcony. We had no idea what it was.
The apartment was on Cava Alta in La Latina neighborhood and this led directly into Carrera de San Francisco which led directly to the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande. Street signs in Madrid are charming tiled plaques with illustrations.
It turned out to be one of those lovely little Easter eggs one can stumble upon serendipitously when you take the time to explore a new city. San Francisco el Grande is thought to have built on the ruins of a small convent constructed for a pilgrimage of St. Francis of Assisi to Spain in 1217. The current structure was built in the later half of the 18th century. Here is its neoclassic facade as we approached.
We have visited many churches over the years and I love that sense of discovery when something turns out to be so much more than expected. I still remember over 50 years ago stepping into the Wieskirche in Bavaria, which is an unprepossessing white barn like structure and being blown away by the florid rococo interior. I had a similar feeling upon entering this rather stodgy looking building. The first view is of the gilded walls, and alter with its twin marble pulpits.
And then we looked up. This stunning dome is the largest in Spain and said to be the 4th largest cathedral dome in the world (although it is a basilica not a cathedral and so is St. Peter’s which is larger). The basilica did serve as Madrid’s Cathedral apparently until the new and much less attractive Cathedral near the royal palace was finished a few years ago. The dome was painted by Casto Plasencia Mayor. Simply lovely.
There are half a dozen small chapels that ring the central worship space. Each is dominated by a large scale painting.
The Chapel of San Berardino of Siena (not the St. Bernard for whom the dog is named) includes a picture of the saint painted by Goya. Goya was early in his career and had not yet been named court painter; he painted himself into the picture — the man in the yellow jacket to the right.
One can only visit the basilica during mass or in a guided tour which is done in Spanish. There are corridors filled with paintings in the old convent, but the paintings are not well labeled so although we were told there were paintings by Velasquez and other well known artists we didn’t spot those. There are also elaborate rooms that included painted ceilings as well as hung paintings.
A happy surprise and one of the most beautiful churches in Madrid. We were glad to have followed our curiosity when we spotted it from our balcony.