San Nicolás de Bari, Valencia’s Sistine Chapel

The Church of San Nicolás de Bari is one of the most fascinating jewels of the Valencian Community. It is popularly known as the Sistine Chapel of Valencia. This unique name comes from its restoration in 2016, although it is a National Historical-Artistic Monument since 1981. Located in the historic centre, it is an excellent example of the coexistence of a 15th century Gothic building with 17th century Baroque decoration.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

A magnificent pictorial work

The frescoes in the Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir in Valencia look flawless after their last restoration. It is difficult not to be amazed with the chapels, altars and vaults of the church. Throughout its history it has undergone several restorations. One of them was done at the request of the Borja family between 1419 and 1455. During this period, the Gothic ribbed vault in the central nave was made.

Central aisle | Photo: Shutterstock
Central aisle | Photo: Shutterstock

Two hundred years later, between 1690 and 1693, the church interior was covered with Baroque decoration. At the same time, frescoes were added to the central nave. They show scenes from the lives of the two patron saints of the parish, Saint Nicholas of Bari and Saint Peter Martyr. In 1700, Antonio Palomino was in charge of the design. The painting was a task for his disciple Dionís Vidal. These paintings show scenes from their childhood, preaching, miracles and their subsequent death.

Photo: Church Museum of San Nicolás Valencia - sannicolasvalencia.com
Photo: Church Museum of San Nicolás Valencia - sannicolasvalencia.com

Fictitious openings can be seen in the paintings that evoke the sky. The vault is divided in two parts, telling the story of each saint separately. Both converge in the presbytery, creating a glory of angels and fictitious architecture. There are almost 2,000 m2 of paintings that prove the church’s magnificence.

High Altar | Photo: Shutterstock
High Altar | Photo: Shutterstock

The high altar is another jewel of San Nicolás de Bari. The altarpiece is flanked by Solomonic columns, as well as different sculptures of both saints. In the upper body rests a painting of the Virgin and Child. The chapels that frame the temple on the right and left are also noteworthy. In them, 12 in total, there are many religious images, some of them are over 100 years old.

In the chapels and the chapter house of the church there are works by painters such as Rodrigo de Osona, Juan de Juanes, Fernando Yáñez de Almedina, Vicente Macip and Jacinto Espinosa, among others. As far as sculpture is concerned, some are by artists as important as Ignacio Vergara, Francisco Salzillo, Enrique Tamarit…

Paintings | Photo: Shutterstock
Paintings | Photo: Shutterstock

Every Monday, the church of San Nicolás de Bari welcomes hundreds of visitors who take the so-called Walks to St. Nicholas or the Devotion to St. Jude Thaddeus. The latter has a chapel to which the faithful go. He is the patron saint of lost causes and impossible cases. In the chapel there is a bronze devotional book with the image of the saint. The faithful come to touch it to ask for a favour.

The Walks to St. Nicholas are a ritual in which the saint grants you a wish if you complete it. The person in charge of praying something to the saint must walk for three consecutive Mondays to the church. During the journey, they must remain silent.

Roman Temple, Mosque and Church

The church of San Nicolás de Bari is located in the historical centre of Valencia, specifically in Caballeros Street. Formerly, it was an east-west oriented street in Valentia Edetanorum, a city founded in 138 BC by the Romans. In the surroundings of San Nicolás square, funerary remains of a Roman temple have been found. After that, for a short period of time it was a Visigothic paleochristian temple. With the arrival of the Muslims in the 8th century, a mosque was built in its place.

In 1238, when King James I of Aragon conquered Valencia, the mosque was again modified until it was a Christian parish. It was one of the first 12 Christian temples in the city after the reconquest. Thus, the Dominican Order, also called of Preachers, received it as a donation. They are the ones who baptize the church in honour of St. Nicholas of Bari. A few years later, the order added another saint to the parish’s name, the first martyr of the Dominican, St. Peter Martyr.

Church of San Nicolás de Bari nowadays | Photo: Shutterstock
Church of San Nicolás de Bari nowadays | Photo: Shutterstock

During the Spanish Civil War the church was seriously damaged. It was looted and transformed into a warehouse. The chapels were destroyed. In 1981 it was declared a National Historical-Artistic Monument, although it was not until the 21st century that the pictorial and architectural restoration was carried out, which restored the church of San Nicolás de Bari to all its splendour and brilliance.


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