When St. Anthony of Padua died in 1231, the Paduans who truly loved St. Anthony immediately began building a huge shrine around the little church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, where he had been buried. The work on the new shrine continued for many years, through the 15th century. As a result, the basilica of today reflects a variety of architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic and even Byzantine.
The basilica is divided into three naves, and at the end of the central nave is the sanctuary with the main altar and the artistic works of Donatello, a famous sculptor of the Renaissance. Within the sanctuary is a tall cross with the corpus of the crucified Christ.
There are also a number of bronze statues, including a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus. On the left side (facing the altar) of the sanctuary is a statue of St. Anthony of Padua holding a Bible in his hands. Why the Bible? It was said of St. Anthony that he knew sacred Scripture so well that if the Bible were ever lost, St. Anthony could rewrite the Bible from memory.
There is also a statue of St. Damian, the first local Paduan martyr of the early Church, and a statue of St. Prosdocimus, the first bishop of Padua.
On the right side (facing the altar) of the sanctuary is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, a statue of St. Giustina, also a local Paduan martyr, and a statue of St. Ludovic, who was the first Franciscan to be named a bishop.
Throughout the basilica, there are also a number of statues of St. Anthony. Perhaps the most famous is the statue of St. Anthony holding the Christ Child. On one occasion during his lifetime, St. Anthony was observed by another Franciscan friar to be standing on the balcony of a monastery holding the Christ Child in his hands. St. Anthony made the friar promise that he would not reveal what he had seen until after St. Anthony’s death.
At the back of the main altar is a corridor that goes around the altar, and off the corridor are chapels dedicated to various saints. For example, there is the Chapel of St. Rose of Lima, which features frescoes of the life of the first Catholic saint of the Americas. Immediately behind the main altar is the Reliquary Chapel, which contains the relics of St. Anthony. Within this chapel, built during the time of Baroque architecture, is a painting showing the triumph of St. Anthony in heaven.
Initially, the relics of St. Anthony were kept in the sacristy in a large wardrobe. When visitors came to venerate the relics, the friars would open the large wardrobe so the people could see the relics.
With the passing of time, the basilica became increasingly a place of pilgrimage. So many came to the basilica that the friars decided, in 1690, that it would be better to have a permanent exhibition of the relics, which resulted in the building of the Reliquary Chapel.
In addition, over the centuries, kings and queens and other prominent people donated unique works of art to be displayed in the Reliquary Chapel, and, as a result, it is also called the Treasury Chapel.
The tomb of St. Anthony was opened for the first time in 1263, and it was found that his tongue and jaw were incorrupt.
When St. Bonaventure, the minister general of the Franciscans at that time, saw the miracle of the tongue, he said, "O blessed tongue, you have always praised the Lord and led others to praise him! Now we can clearly see how great indeed have been your merits before God."
The tomb was opened again in 1981, and, during this second opening, it was also found that the vocal cords and the hyoid bone (the Adam’s apple) were well preserved.
Also seen in the Reliquary Chapel is the large coffin in which St. Anthony was first buried in 1231. Inside the large coffin is a second coffin, placed there in 1263.
Today, the Basilica of St. Anthony, the largest church in Padua, is one of the most popular shrines in the world, drawing about 5 million visitors each year. The millions who come consider the basilica, which holds about 2,000 people, to be the home of St. Anthony, and, as a result, they come to visit their saintly friend.
St. Anthony, who is today known as the "Wonder Worker," died on the night of June 13, 1231, at the age of 36. Consequently, June 13 is his feast day.
St. Anthony was canonized within 11 months of his death, the shortest time in the history of the Catholic Church for a canonization process, in the town of Spoleto, Italy, by Pope Gregory IX on May 30, 1232. Many miracles occurred after his death through his intercession — and many continue to this day.
Joe Albino writes from
Syracuse, New York.