Saint Anthony of Padua, by Mary F Nixon-Roulet

illustration of Saint Anthony of PaduaArticle

The beautiful city of Padua has changed but little since the days when the genius of Mantegna displayed itself in the painting of the great Gonzagas. Through the quaint old town the Bacchiglione winds in several branches, and the narrow tortuous streets, with their low “portice,” or arcades, are in few places widened for modernity by the removal of antique and picturesque projections. Over the arms of the river are bridges, some of them dating from Roman days, when Padua was the richest city in northern Italy.

It was never largely a city of strife. Although its people were turbulent and quarrelsome it had no tremendous struggles for liberty such as racked proud Siena to the depths.

Padua traces her origin to Antenor, that mythical king of Troy who was Priam’s brother, and she shows, also, many traces of Roman occupation within her walls, as in the hall of the Piazza della Ragione where we see the fine tombstone of Livius Halys, freedman of Livy’s family, who was buried in 370 and whose tomb was found near Padua.

Varying destinies were Padua’s. She was Guelphic under Jacopo da Carrara; she was harassed by the Scalas; she was ceded to Venice, and ruled wisely and well by the Venetians. Evidences of the Venetian rule we see today in the magnificent Botanical Garden, founded at the suggestion of Bonefede by the Republic of Venice in 1545 – the oldest garden of its kind in Europe. Many and varied are the curious plants growing there, the sunshine of centuries upon them, the dews of countless soft Italian nights moistening their glistening leaves. Here is a Vitus Aquus Castus, planted in 1550; a superb palm (the one mentioned by Goethe), planted 1580; a mighty, hollow plane tree from 1681; an Auracaria ever fifty feet high, and a whole grove of exquisite exotics, blooming in rare and tropic luxuriance and watched over by a giant Carya, one hundred and seventeen feet high, which proudly rears its lofty head toward heaven like some splendid tower against the azure of Italia’s matchless sky.

Here the air is fragrant with the perfume of the snowy lilies which Paduans love, and which they call “Holy Blooms” in honor of one whom they revere as spotless as the lily, and these remind us of the sonnet:

“A lily in thy spotless purity,
In grace and perfume like the budding rose,
That blushing, dew-kissed in my garden grows;
A woman in thy tender sympathy;
In mighty, sheltering strength, a stalwart tree;
All sorrowful amidst poor human woes,
A gentle river whence sweet pity flows,
A little child in quaint simplicity.”

Not only in the garden is one reminded of the great Paduan, for every nook and corner seems to teem with memories of one revered by all Paduans today as he was beloved by those of other days. Neither knight nor warrior, scholar nor artist, was he, yet famed o’er all the world and esteemed even by those who knew not his faith. Il Santo, they call him – in all the galaxy of the friends of God the saint, “par excellence” – for so the Paduans esteem him. Next to Our Lady, best of all the holy ones not divine they believe the gentle saint, flower of Saint Francis, silver-tongued, mild-mannered, lover of children – the “Sweet Paduan, Saint Anthony.” Born in Portugal, yet he was so associated with the Padova he loved as always to be called Saint Anthony of Padua. His effect upon the turbulent Padovani of the thirteenth century was remarkable, for, after he dwelt among them, from being troublesome and full of quarrels they became so changed that Pope Gregory addressed a Bull to the city praising their piety and zeal. Even to day one seems to feel his presence. There is the Chiesa del Santo, the Via del Santo, the Piazza del Santo, the Scuola del Santo, and even in the museum there is a room of the library devoted to the documents relating to II Santo and the archives of his canonization.

In the Via della Fonicella, by the quaint bridge which crosses the Bacchiglione, is the spot where Ezzelino doffed his helmet and kissed the town gate – that tyrant Ezzelino whom II Santo rebuked and who yielded to him, confessing his sins with bitter weeping. Farther on we find a weather-worn statue of the saint watching a street, his Franciscan habit all weather-stained, the Bambino he so dearly loved clasped to his gentle heart. There he stands

“Upon the gateway in the quaint Italian town,
In homely, time-stained habit, with cord and kirtle brown.
The summer suns beat on him, he feels the wintry blast,
Yet standeth ever patient, holding the Christ Child fast.
He gazes on the peasants with gentle, loving eyes.
The Padovani patron, Saint Anthony the wise;
Around his head the sunbeams play like a halo’s sheen,
Nod at his feet the blossoms, himself a flower I ween.”

Beyond the Piazza del Santo is the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, once the Prado della Valle. Originally a fair grassy meadow, the piazza is now shaded by a promenade, bordered with two rows of statues of notable men, eighty-two in number. These include those who have been prominent in the history of Padua, Tasso, Petrarch, Galileo, Livy, Morosini, and others. The most remarkable are those of Palini and Capello, by Canova, showing him at the height of his genius.

The Piazza is at its best at the season of the “fiera,” or annual fair, which occurs upon the feast of Saint Anthony, June thirteenth, for the chestnut trees are still in bloom, white and deep pink, although their waxen petals begin to drop, and here and there powder the ground like snow. Flowers flaunt every where, riotous in color, flinging their fragrance upon the air – violets, roses, lilies and heliotrope, vivid geranium and scarlet hibiscus. Here the peasants come from miles in all the glory of their Sunday best, quaint and picturesque, and all is gaiety, laughter and mirth.

Paduans will tell you that the finest thing to see in Padua is not the Cathedral, as is generally the case in Italian towns, but the Church of San Antonio. “The Cathedral,” the Paduan will say with a fine shrug – scant ceremony with which to dispose of the Renaissance structure of 1556 – “it is well enough; the ‘tesoro’ is very fine with many things of old, and very handsome. The baptistry is from 1100, quite elegant, Signore, but not even to be mentioned until one has observed the Church of Il Santo. Ah! Magnificent!” and the speaker will clasp his hands in esctasy and lead you away to see Il Santo.

Not complete until 1475, this structure was begun in 1231, the year of Saint Anthony’s death, and it is a glorious sepulchre. In style of architecture it is more curious than homogeneous, for the Byzantine dome, after the fashion of Saint Mark’s in Venice, as combined with a Gothic basilica is more striking than happy in its effect, but its twin towers are exquisite bits of poetry in stone. Modern doors replace the old ones, but there are four Gothic niches in the center which contain superb statues of Saint Francis, Saint Louis, Saint Anthony and Saint Bonaventura, the four great Franciscan saints. Above is a lunette by Mantegna, a beautiful bit of fresco of Saint Anthony and Saint Bernardino. Before the church stands the superb equestrian statue of Gattamalata, general of the army of the Venetian republic in 1438, designed by Donatello, and the first specimen of bronze of the modern Italian period.

In the interior of the church twelve pillars bears up the nave and aisles, and the semi-circular choir has eight clustered columns and eight beautiful little chapels. Many fine tombs of noted people are scattered among the chapels, and the walls are rich with frescoes and paintings, especially those in the Capello del Santo. These are scenes in the life of Saint Anthony, which include his ordination, his resuscitation of a woman, his cure of a broken leg, and many others, painted in the somewhat old manner of Lombardo.

The bones of the saint lie peacefully beneath the magnificent altar enriched with votive offerings and tablets. At either side are two superb silver candle sticks borne by two marble angels, while the snowy marble of the altar gleams from behind the four shapely columns in dazzling whiteness – fitting shrine for the spotless soul of him who rests beneath. On the vaulting above is exquisite white and gold ornamentation and the inscription:

“DIVO ANTONIO
CONFESSORI
SACRVM.”

On the antependium of the high altar in the choir of San Antonio are four bronze reliefs of miracles of Saint Anthony, the most exquisite bits of work imaginable; one could linger long within this tranquil spot, breathing so deeply the spirit of devotion, yet one other place within the choir claims attention. There is the full length portrait of the saint, said to be the best existent likeness of him, next to the one at Spoleto. This last is far more beautiful than the one in Padua. It is said to be perfectly authentic and was taken from Padua to Spoleto in 1232 when the saint was canonized there by Pope Gregory XI.

In the sanctuary are the relics of the saint, and in the hall of the Scuola del Santo, the brotherhood of Saint Anthony, there are seventeen frescoes of scenes in his life, several of them by Titian, who had sought refuge in Padua after the war of the League of Cambrai had made Venice too sad a place for art to flourish therein.

In one painting we see Saint Anthony giving speech to an infant in order that it might testify to its mother’s innocence, she being falsely accused; in another the repentance of a jealous husband who has slain his wife and to whom Saint Anthony promises her resuscitation; in a third, a youth who has struck his mother cuts off his hand in wild repentance, and the mother implores Saint Anthony to restore the lost member. These are quaint and interesting rather than beautiful, although the coloring of some, notably those by Titian, is still fine. It is to be regretted that the series was not perpetuated by more durable medium than that of fresco. None of these Paduan paintings of Saint Anthony are very satisfactory, but all are interesting as displaying some phase of the saint’s beautiful character.

Painters of all ages have loved to portray him, and one of the loveliest conceptions of him is by Ribera. The Spaniard must have felt akin to the Portuguese saint, albeit critics say his own life was aught but saintly, for he has painted a most sympathetic likeness of Saint Anthony, youthful, almost boyish-looking, yet wonderfully spiritual. A more modern painting of the same subject, one by Yon Schrandolph, has the same spirituality but in it the saint’s face is older, more worn, more ascetic. Ac cording to the “authentic likeness,” Saint Anthony did not appear ascetic, but there was a radiant inward light which shone from his countenance, a light of one at peace with the world because at peace within the white stillness of his own chaste soul.

The modern paintings of Saint Anthony nearly all represent him in connection with the favorite legend of his visit from the Christ Child, and Paduans still show the spot where this is said to have taken place.

There were, so runs the story, some pious people with whom “Brother Antonio” was wont to lodge upon his visits to Padua, and one night, it being late, the man of the house heard a sound from his guest’s room and went up to see if all was well. Upon reaching the top of the small stair, he observed a great light come from under the door and also a strange scent of lilies, though it was wintry cold and snow lay upon the ground. He was frightened, and peeping through the keyhole, saw within the room the most lovely child caressing the Brother and smiling upon him as he knelt in prayer.

Wonder-stricken he stole away, scarce knowing what to think, but next day he found in his guest’s room a spray of lilies, unearthly fair, and he knew the strange visitant was a heavenly one.

Another favorite story of Saint Anthony is of how in an impulse of pity he gave a loaf of bread from a baker’s shop to a famishing beggar, and called to account by the baker for his reckless generosity, he offered to work for him in payment. This he did, working diligently, taking hard words and hard work until the baker considered the value paid. This legend has given rise to the charity of “Saint Anthony’s bread,” and to the fact that the saint is so often represented with a loaf of bread in his hand. Whether one believes in the legend fully or merely regards it as a pretty story with a moral, it is quite certain that to promise bread to the poor in honor of Saint Anthony if a particular request is granted, brings in many cases an almost miraculous response.

Many other fair legends of the saint were told upon canvas in the old days of artistic Padua, and many more are told to-day by descendants of those who knew him once, for he is their pride and joy. And we gaze eagerly, we listen even more with avidity, for we too are under the spell of the great Paduan, that sweet, simple, holy soul, “II Santo.”

MLA Citation

  • The Rosary Magazine, June 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 April 2018. Web. 25 May 2018. <>