Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador, Madrid, Spain

Category: Madrid

If you’re planning to visit Madrid, the thriving capital and largest city in Spain, one of the best times to go is in mid May.  This time of year, specifically May 15th and the days that surround it, is when the Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador are held to commemorate one of the most celebrated holidays of Madrid.  The feast and festival, which are held in an open-air area known as Pradera del Santo, are staged to honor the city’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, who is also the patron saint of farmers.

Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador:  History

According to historians, San Isidro was born in the area now known as Madrid in the year 1082 and died in 1172.  Legend has it that while the saint was praying, two angels plowed the land for him.  Many miracles have been attributed to San Isidro.  One of these, according to hagiographers, happened when he was building a well and his son accidentally fell in.  San Isidro, through prayer and meditation, miraculously brought the boy back up to the parapet when the water level caused the child to float.

Another tradition of Madrid tells the story of San Isidro miraculously causing a spring to gush by banging the ground while he plowed his land.  A hermitage dedicated to the saint was built on this spot in 1528.  It was ordered by the Empress Isabel, after Prince Felipe regained his health after drinking the water from the spring.  Many years later, the current hermitage was built by Baltasar de Zuniga, Marquess of Valero, featuring a single nave and dome.  Then, in 1811, the Sacramental Cemetery San Isidro was built on the apse.

Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador:  The Fiestas

  In the early morning each year on May 15, the San Isidro Meadow, or La Pradera de San Isidro, is home to a massive pilgrimage that dates back to shortly after the death of San Isidro in 1172.  This is followed by the Grand Mass at 12 noon, held at the Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidro. Following the Eucharist of the mass, the Archbishop of Madrid makes his way to the San Isidro Meadow, where he blesses the water from the spring.

Throngs of people take to the streets in the afternoon during the Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador, some holding the image of San Isidro and his wife high above their heads.  This pilgrimage or parade reached its peak in the 19th century, when literally thousands of people, visitors and locals alike, would gather in the meadow to celebrate.  Scenes such as these have been depicted by some of Spain’s most famous 19th century artists, including Francisco Goya.  To this day, there are still hundreds of families who can be seen in the meadow on May 15th, spreading blankets to picnic near the hermitage.

Several traditions are observed on the Fiestas de San Isidro Labrador, including the drinking of the water from the spring and the tradition of rosquillas, the eating of listas or tontas, ring-shaped pastries that are either bathed in sugar (listas) or plain (tontas).

In the evening on the feast day, the city of Madrid comes alive with celebrations, concerts and other performances, but perhaps the most popular attraction of the festival is the bullfighting.  During the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival some of the best bullfighters in Spain gather to entertain the masses at the Las Ventas Bullring, a month-long event that draws locals and tourists from all corners of the world.

Note:  Tickets for the bullfights can be very hard to come by so it’s best to plan in advance if you hope to see one of these events.