One thing which Murcia City is not short of, is historic churches. That of San Juan de Dios is, however, slightly different. It is now a museum as well as church and can be easily visited by the public. In late 2014, the Church/Museum opened from 10am-2pm every day except Monday and between 5pm-8.30pm from Tuesdays to Saturdays inclusive. Entrance was free.
San Juan de Dios is to be found in the Plaza Christo de la Salud. The church is quite an attractive looking building from the front, with two towers either side of the central part, which itself has large main entrance doors with a crest in the stone above of what appears to be a queen surrounded by angels. In fact, as you may see inside, the sculpture is designed to represent Our Lady of Grace and Good Events. Above that are windows with rejas and another carved crest before further decoration at the top of the dome. The façade is of stone, but with feature areas of brick. Parts of the façade are painted cream.
Inside, the church is essentially a large circle under a very richly decorated and painted dome with little chapels all the way around the circle on its outside and stone sculptures of various saints such as Santa Florentina and the four saints of Cartagena which you will see as you walk around. The information boards indicate that the church is on part of the old Arab fortress and was built on the orders of Alfonso X following the Christian takeover of Murcia City. The early church was subsequently demolished with the church of San Juan de Dios then being built. Beginning in the first third of the 17th Century it was run by the Hospitaller Order of San Juan de Dios.
As you walk around the church, the first chapel is that of La Solidad y de Cristo Yacente (the chapel of solitude and the recumbent Christ). This contains a very impressive statue in its back recess of Our Lady of the Light in her solitude. It is described as a polychromatic wood carving from the 17th Century. Below this image is another polychromatic wood sculpture of the recumbent Christ, which is said to date from the 16th Century. You then arrive at the Capilla de la Dormición de la Virgen – the Chapel of the Virgin’s rest. This holds two representations – one of the moment of Mary’s death (in a glass case) and the second of the Virgin emerging victorious at the moment of her ascent to heaven with a surrounding arch of bells, which belonged to the former church of the Convent of St Stephen in Murcia. The Capilla de San Rafael follows. This contains a highly regarded baroque sculpture in which San Rafael the Archangel is depicted in the typical way associated with the Hospitaller Order of St John. The Archangel was regarded as the special protector of this order with cloak (scapula) and the traditional emblems of the pilgrim’s stick and the fish which cured St Tobias’ blindness. The figure of San Rafael is to be seen in a very richly gilded case. St Rafael is regarded as the patron saint of travellers, guides, pharmacists and as the protector of those with vision problems. This chapel also holds a painting dedicated to the Virgin of Bethlehem which used to belong to the Sacristy of St John of God.
At this point, it is worth pausing to look at the ceiling and dome of the church. The paintings there show scenes of the life and miracles attributed to St John, the patron saint of the Hospitaller Order. The dome is, indeed, remarkably ornate and contains a recess several levels up with a figure of the Virgin inside it. The lower levels of the dome are predominantly blue and white painted while, higher up, cream and gold painted outlining of the individual panels predominates.
The main altar area is impressive and houses a statue by that most famous of all Murcian sculptors, Francisco Salzillo, which came from another church in the city, that of St Stephen. The stone columns to either side of the main part of the altar came from quarries at Mula. A polygonal niche contains the 18th Century processional sculpture of the Virgin of Grace. Under the altar area, the original designer, Marin y Lammas, ordered a cell to be built to provide accommodation for a member of the religious order allowing continuous worship to take place.
As you continue round, the next chapel is that of St John of God. This chapel contains a processional sculpture of the saint, represented as the Head of the Hospitaller Order, dressed in a habit and with a crozier. He holds a book and a model of the church. It is not known who made the carving, but it is believed to date from the mid-18th Century.
This chapel also contains a concert harmonium attributed to one Joseph Merklin (1819-1905), a German born organ builder of international renown who also built the organ for Murcia Cathedral. Continuing, the Chapel of the Christ of Health, the Capilla del Cristo de la Salud, contains a life sized wood polychromatic carving of the crucified Christ made by an unknown sculptor at the turn of the 15th and 16th Centuries which was originally in the former hospital. The Chapel of the Calvary contains a group of items comprising the crucified Christ (the work of the Jesuit Domingo Beltran from the 16th Century), images of St John (18th Century) and of Our Lady of Sorrow (attributed to the Andalucian School of the 17th Century).
There are two other areas of the Church which can be visited, but only by booking in advance. The first of these is the choir which houses the work of a prominent 20th Century Murcian artist, Juan González Moreno (1908-1996). Then, the Church actually contains an archaeological site. It seems that during work being undertaken on the Church in 2001, the remains of the Alcazar walls and royal mosque from the 12th Century “golden era” of Ibn Mardannish (the Wolf King) were discovered. A royal graveyard and decorated arch and dome were also found. We have yet to get to see these remarkable remains, but they are very much on our list and you should certainly take the opportunity if you are able.
Part taken from “Exploring Murcia – Murcia City” by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” and “Exploring Murcia – Cartagena” are available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), or phone Patti on 646 005 017