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Highlights include centuries-old churches and world's highest chapel. Aug. 14 issue feature.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
World Youth Day 2011 travelers will have plenty to do in Madrid. In addition to the WYD events, visitors can make a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage by visiting some important religious sites in the area. All but one is in Madrid itself.Highlights range from centuries-old churches steeped in Spanish history to a two-year-old church considered the world’s highest Catholic chapel. Some are small, some huge. Many have liturgical art by Old World Masters. One even has a special connection to the founder of World Youth Day, John Paul II.San Pedro el Leal Church and San Nicolás de los Servitas Church are the two oldest churches in Madrid. San Pedro was constructed shortly after San Nicolás, which was built at the start of the 13th.Although most of San Pedro was renovated as late as the 1900s, its 14th-century mudéjar tower (bell tower) is original and leans a little like the Tower of Pisa. Inside, be sure to see the 18th-century statue Jesús el Pobre (Jesus the Poor).San Nicolás, redone in the 15th century, has Madrid’s only other original mudéjar tower, this one dating from the 12th century.The Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, has an enormous dome, 108 feet in diameter, making it among the five largest in the world. King Charles III built this 18th-century basilica over the spot where St. Francis is believed to have founded a convent in the 13th century.The main doors are carved from American walnut. Among the paintings inside is one in the San Bernardino de Siena Chapel of St. Francis preaching, which was painted by Spain’s Goya (who included himself in the scene).The Monasterio de la Encarnación (Monastery of the Incarnation) was founded by more royals in 1611. One of the highlights of the baroque church is the relic room, which contains hundreds of relics. Particularly prominent is the glass vial containing the dried blood of St. Pantaleón that miraculously liquefies for his feast on July 27 (including this year). The Basílica Pontificia de San Miguel has a unique curved front. Built in the early 18th century by an Italian architect, it’s an important example of the Spanish baroque style. Inside, beautiful frescoes can inspire spiritual meditation.The main Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena, where Pope Benedict is scheduled to celebrate Mass for seminarians on Aug. 20, is young by Spanish standards. It took a century to build over the site of the original church of Santa María de la Almudena.Spanish King Alfonso XII laid the first stone in 1883, but difficulties slowed its completion.It was finally consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II on his trip to Spain. (Remember him in prayer and petition on your visit to this cathedral.)This cathedral mixes neo-Gothic, neoclassical and modern, even Cubist, styles and has large stained-glass windows. It is enormous — 341 feet long and 249 feet wide.Make sure to pray to Our Lady before the statue of her as the Virgin of Almudena, the patroness of Madrid.According to local custom, the statue of the Virgen de la Almudena was found in the city walls following a nine-day novena after Christians recaptured Madrid from the Arab invaders. Back then, locals hid the statue in walls to protect it (hence the name la Almudena, from a word meaning “castle” or “citadel”). The Church of San Isidro el Real served as the cathedral before Almudena became the official cathedral. This baroque church was built in the 17th century over the site where 11th-century Madrid native St. Isidore, the patron saint of Madrid, lived with his wife, St. María de la Cabeza, and son.Isidore was a miracle worker — even raising his own son from the dead from the well into which he had fallen. He is also patron saint of farmers.Some of the holy scenes painted in the church are by the well-known Spanish religious painter Sebastián Herrera.For centuries, only women of royal blood were allowed to enter the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Monastery of the Royal Barefoot Nuns).It was founded in 1559 by the sister of King Philip II (remember his name). As a result, it contains priceless works of religious art by greats like Titian, Bruegel the Elder and Rubens. You might not be able to see all 33 chapels (to correspond with the age of Jesus when he died), but you can see and meditate on the religious scenes in many of the works of art. (The convent has dozens of sculptures of the Baby Jesus.) And the reliquaries are must-sees, too. They include the True Cross and bones of St. Sebastian.The Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Royal Monastery of St. Lawrence of Escorial) is outside of Madrid, 27 miles away. But there, on Aug. 19, Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet with young religious sisters, then with hundreds of young college teachers in the Basilica de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.The complex is colossal. Designed after the grill on which St. Lawrence (Aug. 10 feast day) was martyred, it’s simple compared to fancier baroque styles elsewhere.It was commissioned in the mid-16th century by King Philip II. He wanted it as a resting place for his father, Emperor Charles V. Philip died here, in a sparse, monastic-like room from which, while ill, he watched Mass in the chapel.According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Philip “had a boundless devotion to the Catholic faith.” In fact, he saw himself as a defender of the Catholic faith throughout the world, fighting against heresy. He became part of the “Holy League” that St. Pius V organized to oppose Islam, while his brother Don Juan commandeered the outnumbered fleet that defeated the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto on Oct. 7, 1571 (from which derived the feast of Our Lady of Victory, later to become known as our Lady of the Rosary).Philip wanted either Michelangelo or Titian to do the art, but they were both quite elderly by then. So he asked Pellegrino Tibaldi, who modeled himself after Michelangelo. His splendid, colorful paintings and frescoes on the monumental library’s vaulted ceilings are thought to be his finest works. You’ll rarely see a library like this, especially one so devoted to religious art. (Look for the portrayal of the Assumption here or in the basilica.)The library has tens of thousands of rare manuscripts, including the diary of St. Teresa of Ávila. And throughout, especially in the so-called New Museums, many masterpieces are ready for your contemplation from the likes of Goya, El Greco and Velázquez.In the basilica, don’t miss the fresco depicting heaven, the frescoes of the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin, as well as the celestial three-tiered reredos over 90-feet high behind the main altar with its bronze statues and Philip II-commissioned sets of religious scenes. There are also thousands of relics here — many of them in the basilica.On the other end of the spectrum, back in Madrid, is the very sparse, modern Capilla Torre Espacio (Chapel in the Space Tower). It’s on the 33rd floor (see the significance?) of the 57-floor modernistic Torre Espacio skyscraper, which was finished in 2007.Opened in November 2009, the chapel has daily morning Mass. In the sacred space, the nearly floor-to-ceiling crucifix by the altar stands before an expansive window overlooking the city and mountains beyond. Over 440 feet above ground level, this chapel is thought to be the highest Catholic chapel in the world.In the midst of its unadorned modern style, there is a statue of Mary that appears Renaissance in style, as well as a wondrously sculpted silver tabernacle in the form of a church.Day and night, a blinking green light facing outside pinpoints the precise site of the chapel and reminds people even miles away of Jesus’ presence.It’s a reminder of what WYD 2011 — and all the religious sites in Madrid — are meant for: to be part of a faith-filled pilgrimage.Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.