The biggest draw for pilgrims (or religious world travellers) in Padua is the sanctuary of Saint Anthony where his mortal remains are kept. Simply called “il Santo” by Paduans, I expected the sanctuary to be yet another monument to mass pilgrimages with all the often-kitsch paraphernalia associated with these places.
I was pleasantly surprised. St Anthony’s basilica is an extraordinary piece of architecture uniting byzantine domes, Romanesque arches and gothic heights in a unique amalgam reflecting the internationalism of a mediaeval world-trading Venetian republic. Within its vast spaces, pilgrims and sight-seers alike mingle in a convivial mass which appears to be well-organised.
As my wife’s real first name is the female version of the Saint’s name we headed to the ornate chapel of his relics housed behind a side altar and automatically placed our hands on the rough rock surface warmed by so many other hands.
We then walked to the reliquary chapel crowning the main apse. Here I was somewhat taken back by the uncorrupted tongue of Saint Anthony, removed from his body at his death, and by the equally uncorrupted vocal apparatus of the preacher saint, placed in a new reliquary when the tomb was opened in 1982. Indeed, at pre-defined intervals, the whole of the saint’s remains are placed on view, although when we visited he was safely tucked away behind the altar.
I’m not sure of the wisdom of showing off a saint’s vocal apparatus – perhaps it is a metaphor to reinforce the conviction that the words he preached were ordained by God. Certainly, St Anthony’s sermons remain highly relevant teachings and are easily available on the Internet. He is, after all, one of the thirty-three doctors of the church in the same way that Catherine of Siena and Francis of Sales are doctors (and Francis of Assisi is not). If you weren’t sure how one qualifies to be a doctor of the church then this title is only given to those whose writings and preachings are useful to Christians “in any age of the Church.”. i.e. of international appeal.
It’s extraordinary that someone born in Portugal, and who started his career soldiering, should have become so thoroughly part of Italian life: indeed, more than that, become a major saint in Roman Catholic culture, for there is no doubt that St Anthony, patron saint of lost causes, things and persons, a Franciscan, is the closest in popularity to Saint Francis of Assisi..
St Anthony is particularly invoked when one has lost things. Since I’m beginning to forget more and more where such items as my garden dibber or my cell-phone charger have been mislaid in our domestic confusion I’m quite convinced that I may be calling on this amiable and learned saint more often in future. More seriously, St Anthony is the patron saint of missing people. In common with TV channels in other parts of the world, there is an often harrowing missing persons’ investigative programme on RAI called “Chi l’ha visto?” (Who has seen him (or her?)?) Many people whose loved ones have suddenly disappeared into the blue appeal to Saint Anthony in their search.
The reason St. Anthony’s help is invoked for finding lost, stolen or abducted items or persons is because of the following incident: Anthony had a book of psalms with his own notes written in it for teaching purposes. A novice decided to abandon the course and stole the book when he left the friary. St Anthony found the book missing and prayed for its return. The thief got the message and returned not only the book but also returned back into the order.
After examining the saint’s relics we found ourselves in a chapel of the blessings, beautifully frescoed by that greatest of recent Italian painters, Pietro Annigoni, who carried out some of his most magnificent works for the Saint (quite apart from painting the Queen of Great Britain). Here we were privileged to receive a personal blessing from an Antonine friar, which made us feel very happy.
We wanted to explore more of this often neglected city of Padua, in particular the Palladian town hall and the historic caffé Pedrocchi, but suddenly the whole marvellous edifice was literally shaken by one of the loudest thunderclaps I have ever heard which was followed by a veritable deluge. We, therefore, took the chance of continuing to shelter in the basilica and visited some of its most beautiful features, including three cloisters and centre of liturgical activity. We attended an audio-visual show which taught us more about this remarkable person and the current work done by the St Anthony friars. The audio-visual show must have dated back twenty years and I felt its quaintness should be preserved.
Incidentally, St Anthony’s basilica has a glorious musical history. For example, Giuseppe Tartini, the great violinist and author of the “Devil’s Trill”, was music director here and the prodigious renaissance composers Costanzo Porta and Barbara Strozzi are buried here.
We stayed long enough in the fabulous basilica for the storm to die down a little before making our way to the Scrovegni chapel area described in our previous posts.
St Anthony’s basilica also happens to be one of only eight international Roman Catholic shrines. The full list is here in case you want to start “collecting” them:
Basilica della Santa Casa Loreto