Italy has produced more than its share of great saints. But few have risen to the popularity of Anthony of Padua, considered to be among the greatest theologians and speakers of his age. An important disciple of Francis of Assisi in the early days of the Franciscan Order, he distinguished himself by surpassing Francis in church honors and, despite all humility, in popularity. The Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, built to incorporate the small church where Anthony was buried, is one of the largest and most architecturally unique churches to have been constructed in Italy during the Middle Ages. Its proximity to Venice made it a natural stopping point for pilgrims on their way to the Tomb of St. Mark, but has been a draw for devotees in its own right ever since its completion.
Anthony of Padua, not to be confused with Anthony the Great of Egypt, is one of Italy’s most popular saints. However, for all of his popularity in Italy, he was in fact born in Lisbon, Portugal. His family, the Bulhoes, was one of wealth and standing. However, Anthony decided to pursue a life of the spirit at an early age. He entered the Abbey of St. Vincent, where he served as guestmaster. In this capacity, he aided some visiting Franciscans who were returning to Italy with the bodies of five of their brethren who had been martyred in Africa. Inspired by their heroism and their poverty, Anthony decided to join the fledgling order.
Anthony’s career with the Franciscans was relatively short, lasting only about a decade, but it was both fruitful and surprisingly adventurous. It started out auspiciously, when his ship survived barely survived a storm at sea by making emergency port in Sicily. After finally arriving in Italy, he was assigned to a small hospice in Forli, a town in the north. There he achieved his first measure of fame as a speaker when he addressed a party of visiting Dominicans.
His capabilities as a speaker soon became well known, and the Franciscan order sent him to preach throughout Lombardy. During this time he came to be on close terms with Francis, the founder and head of the order, and became one of the order’s most important and publicly known figures. He helped to spread the Franciscans into France, where his oratory skills became known far and wide. Finally, he was sent to Rome as an envoy to the Papacy, where his sermons were so well received that the Pope ordered them to be published. Anthony died of natural causes at the relatively young age of 36 while traveling to Padua.
According to legend, the church bells of Padua rang by themselves upon Anthony’s death. Because of his popularity, and possibly because of his close relationship with the Papacy, Anthony had one of the fastest canonizations in history, becoming a saint less than a year after his death. He was later named a doctor of the Church. By his own request he was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Mater Domini. The enormous basilica dedicated to Anthony was constructed over this site in the 13th century. It is by far the most popular cathedral in Padua and one of the most important in Northern Italy.
The original resting place of Anthony of Padua was chosen by him for its humble simplicity. Unfortunately, this was not enough to accommodate the hordes of pilgrims that began showing up in Padua shortly after his death. Construction on a new cathedral began quickly, and the massive structure was essentially completed within the relatively brief span of seventy years. Despite this, the cathedral is surprisingly unhomogeneous, featuring bits of every architectural styly that was in vogue in the 13th century. The exterior is nevertheless stunning, featuring a main building of western features and a multi-domed roof that would be more at home in the byzantine east. The original Church of Santa Maria Mater Domine was partially incorporated into the structure.
The church interior is exquisitely decorated, to a point which the poverty-bound Anthony would undoubtedly found excessive. The cathedral is decorated with a wealth of art, including a collection of statues and reliefs executed by Renaissance master Donatello. Anthony is entombed in the church’s Treasury Chapel. His tongue is displayed in a reliquary, so that all pilgrims may pay homage to the saint’s skills as an orator.
The Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua is just southeast of the city center close to the medieval wall, approximately 30 miles west of Venice. It is open daily from 6:30am-7:00pm (closes after the final daily mass on Saturdays and Sundays). There is no admission charge. Web: www.basilicadelsanto.org (official website)
Like most large cities in Northern Italy, Padua enjoys its share of worthwhile Catholic destinations. First and foremost is the Scrovegni Chapel, which features Giotti’s spectacular frescoes depicting the life of Mary. Also in Padua is the Abbey Basilica of Santa Giustina, which houses the relics of a number of local saints. There is also the venerable Cathedral of Padua, as well as the Church of Santa Sofia, the oldest in the city.