Founded in the 14th century, the church of San Ginés was built just outside the medieval walls of Madrid. Some speculate that perhaps an even earlier church stood here, one that might have existed in the 11th century, if not earlier, in the 9th century, and that it was originally built by Mozárabes, Christians who lived in Muslim Spain and absorbed and utilized Islamic Spain’s aesthetics. Some believe Madrid’s native patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, who lived during the 11th and 12th centuries, came here in the early morning to pray before going off to work in the fields.
The 14th century structure of San Ginés collapsed in 1641 and was rebuilt in 1645 in the Hapsburg style: stocky, solid, but also earthy. In 1724 a fire devastated the church and again San Ginés was reconstructed.
Writer Lope de Vega (1562-1635) was baptized here. His contemporary, the writer Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), wedded here.
Going from a church built outside the medieval walls to one that was at the heart of modern Madrid by the 19th century (and a favorite of Queen Isabel II in that century), San Ginés has been a Madrileño sweetheart for several centuries. San Ginés was also a very popular church during Franco’s reign.
Within San Ginés are works by El Greco, the Greek painter from Crete who as a young man in 1577 moved to Spain and made Toledo his lifelong home. On the church’s outer east side is an old-styled outdoor book stall that opens daily and sells all manner of used books, some quite curious and old.
A curiosity in the church is one of its chapels, the one dedicated to La Virgen de los Remedios, Our Lady of Remedies, where you will find Mother Mary with a crocodile…
The Virgin and the Crocodile of San Ginés
The chapel dedicated to La Virgen de los Remedios, Our Lady of Remedies, has a crocodile at the foot of her altar.
This comes about from a fable from the early days of post-1492 exploration and expansion in the Americas, still during Queen Isabel and King Fernando’s rule: A married couple (Alonso de Montalbán and his wife) went to the New World on Fernando and Isabel’s orders as trusted servants. A few years later they received word from the king and queen to return to Spain.
On their return voyage, the Montalbáns were attacked by a monstrous crocodile. When the couple was completely trapped and saw certain death in the jaws of this creature, the wife began fervent prayers to Mother Mary for intervention. Her intercession was miraculously delivered: An image of Mary (La Virgen de los Remedios) was carved on the spot, like lightening striking, as the mammoth reptile was simultaneously struck dead.
To give proof to the miracle and offer their thanks when they got to Madrid, the husband transported home the crocodile and his wife, the image of the Virgin. Both items now occupy this chapel.
Having the crocodile placed under Mary’s feet carries on a traditional symbolism of Mary standing on the serpent, of her being immaculate, untainted by base, ego-impulses. Here, the crocodile simply takes the place of the snake.
If you are walking, your next (and last) stop in Hapsburg Madrid is a little further afield at the Gothic splendor of the church, Iglesia de San Jéronimo el Real, overlooking the grounds of the Prado Museum. Once there, you can enjoy this world-renown museum or enjoy an intimate and refreshing stroll in the royal botanical gardens or a grand stroll in the Parque del Buen Retiro.