29 January 2020

San Nicolás: a Gothic and
Baroque jewel that is the
‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia and a ‘Baroque jewel’.

The church is one of the finest examples of a Gothic church with baroque decorations. Frescoes and plasterwork cover the entire interior, from small pilasters in chapels, to the walls, apse and vaulted ceiling, creating a visual and colour spectacle.

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Valencia is tucked quite nicely into the streets of the old town. It is almost hidden from view in a laneway off Calle Caballeros, adding to the surprise awaiting visitors.

The church stands on the site of a Roman temple and a later mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church stands on the site of a Roman-Hispanic temple that later became a mosque with the Muslim conquest of the area. The church was founded in the 13th century as one of the first 12 parish churches in the city following the reconquest of Valencia by King James I in 1238, and from an early stage was associated with the Dominicans.

The church was built ca 1242, with a layout that includes a single-nave with six side chapels between the buttresses and polygonal apse.

The church was remodelled on the initiative of the Borja family in the Gothic style between 1419 and 1455, with the Gothic rib vault contracting in the central nave. The refurbishments include a rose window alluding to a miracle of Saint Nicholas.

Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458), also known as Alfonso de Borja, was the Rector of the Church of San Nicolás from 1418 and Bishop of Valencia from 1429 before becoming Pope in 1455. A plaque nearby recalls the prediction of Saint Vincent Ferrer that Alfonso de Borja would become Pope and would then canonise him.

The interior of the church was completed between 1690 and 1693 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The interior of the church was completed between 1690 and 1693, and was decorated in the baroque style by Juan Pérez Castiel.

The interior was filled with and frescoes depicting the lives and miracles of the two patrons of the church, Saint Nicholas of Bari and Saint Peter of Verona or San Pedro Mártir (Saint Peter Martyr).

Saint Nicholas of Bari or Myra is the guardian of children and the source of the stories about Santa Claus. Saint Peter Martyr was a 13th century Dominican friar from Verona who was martyred in 1252, and is remembered for miracle involving a dying child in his church.

The frescoes were designed by Antonio Palomino in 1694 and completed ten years later by his pupil Dionis Vidal in 1704.

The reliquary of Saint Nicholas in front of the High Altar(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The stories from the life of Saint Nicholas told in the frescoes include the healing of an old woman, the miracle of the three young women, the restoration of a dying child, the rescue of three children and an innkeeper’s conversion, the humiliation of Arius at the Council of Nicaea, and the death of Saint Nicholas.

The frescoes also include a self-portrait of Antonio Palomino and Dionis Vidal on the west wall. The window on the West Wall is in the shape of the Star of David.

The 18th century reliquary at the High Altar contains a relic of Saint Nicholas.

The altarpieces in the side chapels include works by Juan de Juanes, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa and José Vergara Gimeno.

The baroque organ dates from the 18th century.

The gate overlooking the square of San Nicolás is a neo-gothic 19th-century recreation.

The baroque organ dates from the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Church has been restored recently, revealing a pictorial display that experts have called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia. The restorations were overseen by the former director of the restorations at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The restoration has been classified as ‘the most important architectural and pictorial-ornamental work ever carried out anywhere in the world due to the scale of the work and the techniques used.’

The project was completed in collaboration with the Faculty for Heritage Restoration at the Technical University of Valencia (UPV) and with support from the Hortensia Herrero Foundation.

The church still preserves some traditional devotions, including the famous ‘Walking on Saint Nicholas’ or Devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, patron of lost causes, on Mondays. This means the church is closed to tourist visits on Mondays, but it is open Tuesday to Friday from 10:30 to 19:30, and on Saturdays from 10:30 to 18:30. Tours are available in English and Spanish.

The self-portrait of Antonio Palomino and his pupil Dionis Vidal on the west wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Santos Juanes, two saints
in a church in the market
place in Valencia

The square exterior of the apse of Santos Juanes facing the Plaza del Mercado (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In the heart of Valencia, Santos Juanes is a Roman Catholic church in the Mercat neighbourhood. The church is also known as the Real Parroquia de los Santos Juanes (the Royal Parish of the Saint Johns) or San Juan del Mercado (Saint John of the Market) because it is beside the city Central Market and faces the Llotja de la Seda or Silk Exchange.

The two Saint Johns named in the dedication are Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.

A church was first built here on the site of a former mosque in 1240, two years after the conquest of Valencia by King James and his Christian armies. This follows a pattern found throughout the city, and the church is one of the so-called ‘foundational parishes’ in Valencia.

Inside the Church of the two Saints John, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The first church was built in the Gothic style. However, it was damaged by fire later in the 14th century and was rebuilt.

Major fires in 1552, 1592 and 1603 led to further reconstruction, commissioned by the Archbishop and Viceroy Juan de Ribera. This church was rebuilt in an exuberant Baroque style and completed in the year 1700. Today, the church is an interesting blend of architectural styles, from a Gothic nave to Baroque sculptures.

The church stood in the Boatella neighbourhood, once a working class area outside the town walls, that housed some of the Morisco population, former Muslims and their descendants forced to convert to Christianity under threat of death after the open practice of Islam was outlawed.

Inside the Church of the two Saints John, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The main façade of the church retains a walled-up oculus of a rose window from the older church. This is known locally as the blind eye of Saint John, because the rose window was never opened.

The square exterior of the apse, facing the Plaza del Mercado, has a central niche decorated with a stucco statuary group of the Virgin of the Rosary, attributed to Jacopo Bertesi. The Virgin Mary is holding the Christ Child, who holds the globe, all within a burst of rays, angels, and cherubs.

Other portals contain the symbols of Saint John the Baptist (the lamb) and Saint John the Evangelist (eagle). The centre is surmounted by a clock tower, and the roofline is dominated by statues of Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Francesco Borgia and Saint Luis Bertrán. This façade includes profuse complex iconography including the Lamb on top of the book with five seals, and image from the Book of Revelation.

The clock tower is flanked by the two Saint Johns and a weathervane placed on the upper part of the façade, known as the Pardal de Saint John or Sparrow Bird of Saint John. Legend says the bird watched over children who had been abandoned in the marketplace.

The restoration of the frescoes is sponsored by the Hortensia Herrero Foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Inside, the church interiors, including the frescoes, suffered arson damage in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

The church only has one nave covered by rib vaults, decorated with frescoes depicting the church triumphant by Antonio Palomino, who was King Charles’s court painter, and who also did work in Valencia's Cathedral.

The walls are lined with 12 larger-than-life statues representing the 12 tribes of Israel, also by Jacopo Bertesi.

Twelve larger-than-life statues by Jacopo Bertesi represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The frescoes in the smaller, secondary Capilla de la Comunión or Chapel of the Communion are José Vergara’s masterpiece.

The present restoration works, sponsored by the Hortensia Herrero Foundation, are aimed at recovering the splendour of an important architectural church in the centre of the city.

The main façade of the church has a walled-up oculus of a rose window known locally as the ‘blind eye of Saint John’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)