The parish church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir in Valencia houses one of the greatest wonders of fresco painting that Spain has to offer. This historic parish church is located in the city centre and thanks to an extensive restoration in 2016, this place of worship is now a tourist and cultural showcase known as "The Sistine Chapel of Valencia".

This designation is not entirely logical, since San Nicolás is a single-nave church with six sections, twelve side chapels with buttresses (two of which are occupied by side entrance doors) and a magnificent polygonal presbytery facing east. The Sistine Chapel, on the other hand, is only one "chapel" in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope (Vatican City).

In any case, one statement is true: San Nicolás is indeed one of the best examples of the juxtaposition of 15th century Valencian Gothic architecture and a spectacular 17th century Valencian Baroque masterpiece. Let's take a look...

* Report by Karla Ingleton Darocas, Hons. B.A. ( (C) no part of this text or photos may be replicated)

Like most churches in Spain, the building of San Nicolás stands on ancient Roman foundations. The first stone was laid by King Jaime I, who gave the site to the Dominicans who accompanied him. The construction of the parish began around 1242 and is one of the first twelve Christian parishes in the city of Valencia after the restoration of the diocese in 1238.

The Dominicans dedicated the new parish to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of the order, as its founder. Saint Nicholas' miracles are legendary and numerous, but his secret habit of giving gifts gave rise to the model of Father Christmas, which is another story altogether.

Later, an altar was dedicated to San Pedro, who became a co-founder, but the church remained popularly known as San Nicolás.

In the middle of Valencia's Golden Age (1419 and 1455), San Nicolás became famous when the rector of the parish, Alfonso de Borja (later Pope Calixto III), canonised San Vicente Ferrer on 29 June 1455. This gave the church a boost in fame and it was completely transformed into a Gothic building with magnificent Valencian ribbed vaults in the nave.

The only visible Gothic architecture remaining from this period is the main portal, which has a magnificent ogee arch with projecting archivolts resting on thin, unadorned columns. Above it is a Gothic rose window made around 1455, modelled on the Star of David. Under the top of the ogee arch is a strange relief sculpture that looks like a bowl but is actually a pie. It represents a miracle performed by Saint Nicolás, who saved some teenage children from an evil baker who turned human flesh into meat pies.

Valencia's golden age was drawing to a close at the end of the 14th century and from 1519to 1522 there was a civil war between the nobles and the emboldened guilds that severely crippled the economy. The Spanish crown had to take control of the situation and appoint a viceroy to quell the conflict and establish a permanent royal hand in the city.

However, it was also the age of the Renaissance and Valencia was one of the first cities in Spain to be caught up in this trend due to its close ties with Italy through the Borgia family. The Viceroy's court surrounded itself with new ideas and humanism flourished. Valencia led the way in the introduction of printing, the ultimate instrument of modernisation, which came to Spain via Valencia.

But unlike the republican, liberal and enlightened Italian Renaissance, Valencia was caught up in the maelstrom of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation, which was directed against the Protestant movement.

This pumped-up passion led to great hostility towards the Moors, who were still residents in Valencia. The hostility and the repeated attacks by Barbary pirates on the coasts led to the "Final Solution". This was an expulsion of the Moors from the Spanish monarchy ordered by King Felipe III and carried out in the Kingdom of Valencia on 22 September 1609. This event dealt a fatal blow to the city, as much of the agriculture and local economy rested on the shoulders of the Moorish population.

This dark period was followed by the plague or Black Death in 1647, which plunged the city into religious hysteria and the pompous baroque style of the Counter-Reformation.

Between 1690 and 1693, the Gothic Valencian interior of Saint Nicholas was covered with Baroque decoration by the architect Juan Bautista Pérez Castiel. He covered the vaults, columns and walls with sgraffito, stucco and reliefs.

Between 1697 and 1700, Maestro Antonio Palomino, chamber painter to King Carlos II, was invited to Valenica to carry out the fresco painting. Together with his Valencian pupil Dionís Vidal, they designed the complex iconography, skilfully adapted to the architectural space, based on the miracles and lives of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir and allegories of the virtues.

Both painters are depicted in the gable wall to the right of the large rose window.

The high altar consisted of two parts flanked by Solomonic columns. A lower part contained sculptures of the two parish saints. The upper part shows a painting of the Virgin and Child, a work by the Valencian master Jacinto de Espinosa. Above the altar in the celestial vault is a fresco depicting the Glory of San Nicolás and San Pedro Mártir.

lateral chapels * upper fresco of St. Nicholas reviving three children
who had been butchered in an inn to be cooked.

When visiting the interior of the church, pay attention to the surrounding chapels. The chapel of San Dionisio is, of course, an altarpiece of San Dionisio, but on the altar is the most beautiful tempera panel icon of the Virgin of Perpetual Help.

Other chapels include the Chapel of San José,the Chapel of San Rafael Arcángel, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, the Chapel of San Antonio de Padua, the Baptistery Chapel, the Chapel of San Vicente Ferrer, the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Chapel of San Judas Tadeo, the Chapel of Blessed Gaspar Bono and the Chapel of the Crucifixion.

While all of these lateral interior chapels are full of fabulous artwork and sculptures, the exterior chapel, the Chapel of the Communion, is truly delicate and beautiful. It was restored in 2013 to restore its splendour from the 1760s, when it was practically a ruin. It consists of a rectangular nave with two sections separated by a toral arch.

Each section is roofed with a dome on pendentives (a triangular segment of spherical surface to support a dome) and its interior is covered with rococo plaster decoration. Gold leaf covers the walls, pilasters and cornices. The pendentives of the entrance dome depict the four cardinal virtues, while the pendentives of the dome closest to the high altar depict the four evangelists.

Note the 18th century ceramic shield on the arch separating the two areas. It belongs to the chapel's patron, a noble family man named Melchor Valenciano, who had his house not far from the church.

The high altar is dominated by an image of Our Lady of the Desamparados (Homeless), located in a Baroque altarpiece.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, San Nicolás suffered severe damage. Many of the chapels were destroyed and the place of worship itself was looted and eventually converted into a warehouse.

Nevertheless, today it is a wonderful treasure of Valencian pride, visited by thousands every year 

Finally, in 1981, San Nicolás was declared a National Historic-Artistic Monument and shortly afterwards, architectural and pictorial restoration began under the auspices of the Hortensia Herrero Foundation, whose magnificent results allow us to admire San Nicolás in all its splendour.

Resource Books written by
Karla Ingleton Darocas 
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