San Nicolás, the Valencian Sistine Chapel

SAN NICOLAS_HeyValencia_Diego Opazo


When the restorer of the Sistine Chapel, Gianluigi Colalucci, contemplated the church of ‘San Nicolás’ in 2014 he could only exclaim: “Long live the Valencian Sistine Chapel!”

St. Nicholas is a 13th-century Gothic church located in the historical centre where Valencia was founded. The city was constituted by the Romans in the year 138 of our era.

Established as a parish in the place where a mosque previously existed, the church of ‘San Nicolás’ stands out for being one of the first 12 Catholic temples, subsequent to the conquest of King Jaime I.

During the fifteenth century, when Alfonso de Borja, rector of ‘San Nicolás’ and future Pope Calixto III, would encourage the enlargement of the apse and the feet of the parish to give it the structure and size maintained nowadays. However, the artistic wonder – that leaves parishioners and tourists who visit it speechless – would take place a few centuries later.

Baroque was imposed on Western culture at the end of the seventeenth century and every parish that appreciated itself had to follow that style. The paintings of St. Nicholas are commissioned by the fashionable artist of the time, Cordovan Antonio Palomino, who is committed to make designs of everything that was going to be painted, as well as to give it theological meaning. Due to Palomino’s overwork, the materialisation of such a work of art would be performed by his disciple, the Valencian Dionís Vidal. Self-portraits of both of them are on the right of the rosette, whose light is filtered reflecting a magical polychrome drawing inside the church. Palomino wears black, while Vidal, in the background, seems to show himself with the attitude of one who seeks the approval of his teacher.

The result: almost 2,000 square metres of stunning fresco painting, between the walls and the whole vault. The paintings of the central vault are divided into six lunettes on each side, North and South, in which the lives of ‘San Pedro Mártir’ and ‘San Nicolás’ are respectively represented. Everything in them is loaded with symbolism and elegance.

Of its architecture we highlight the Main Altar, it is also of Baroque style although more ornate. It was designed by Juan Bautista Pérez Castiel, one of the Cathedral of Valencia’s architects. In the Greater Altar, both Catholic saints are even in their Glory, upon reaching the end of their earthly life.

Return the colour to the darkened

The original paintings in the church of ‘San Nicolás’ were hidden by the passage of the years and, specifically, smoked by centuries of lit candles in honour of the diverse saints and images of the Virgin that lodges the parish.

After several previous restoration attempts, the Valencian institution “Fundación Hortensia Herrero”, at the beginning of this decade, made a commitment to return the original luminosity and colour to this century-old temple.

The restoration works were implemented between 2013 and 2016, in coordination with the Valencian Archbishopric and the specialists at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV). Thanks to the use of innovative and complex techniques, they managed to recuperate the church of St. Nicholas’ artistic greatness. It also includes the architectural rehabilitation directed by Carlos Campos.

Once this first intervention was finished, the UPV remains in charge of pre-emptive conservation, through the use of sophisticated systems that even measure the environment’s humidity. Scaffolding and closed doors, that travellers can find these days in the facades and in the interior of the building, already correspond to a new stage of this church’s restoration which still holds many treasures to unveil.

The origin of Santa Claus

Perhaps because St. Nicholas is considered one of the Catholic saints protecting children, the life and worship of St. Peter the Martyr is relegated by the devotion that the Valencians profess to ‘San Nicolás’.

But the Valencians are not the only ones who pay homage to St. Nicholas. In this increasingly global world, thanks to which Valencia receives the visit of numerous foreigners, it is sometimes these same guests who better know the life of St. Nicholas, which Palomino and Vidal left expressed in their designs and paintings.

Saint Nicolas is the personality who distributes toys and happiness to many children of the world every year. In the present time, he comes to compete with the prominence of the Wise Men during the Spanish Christmases. As it is called and imagined in a part of the north of Europe, Santa Claus can be recognized in the second of the lunettes dedicated to this saint.

Other images such as that of St. Nicholas resurrecting three children boiled by an innkeeper, the high number of angels dispersed around different places of the church or the little ones placed at the feet of the saints, in the High Altar, attest to the importance given to the coming generations in this church.