Madrid resident and author of the best seller Hidden Madrid, Peter Besas explains Madrid´s fallen angels.
If you walk to the large circular intersection of the Paseo del Duque de Fernán Núñez and the Paseo de Cuba in the Retiro (entry through the Puerta del Ángel Caído, on the Avenida de Alfonso XII), you’ll come to what is thought to be the only artistic statue in the world representing Lucifer, a.k.a. the Fallen Angel. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer was one of the chief angels in Heaven, the “light bearer”, whose pride and envy caused him to rebel against God and to be thrown out of Heaven into Hell.
The strikingly dramatic sculpture in the park was fashioned by Ricardo Bellver (1845-1924) while he lived in Rome, and won for him a Medal, First Class, in the National Fine Arts Exhibit held in Madrid in 1878. The statue was then cast in bronze and presented at the Universal Exhibit in Paris that same year, causing much comment and arousing great enthusiasm from critics and admirers.
At around this time, the Duke of Fernán Núñez, who had raised financing to lay out sections of the park for horse and buggy traffic, decided to purchase the statue and give it a place of honor in a crossroads he was constructing in the Retiro.
However, as the statue was about to be erected, controversy arose, since to many, especially religious folk, it was unthinkable that a monument to Lucifer (or “Luzbell”, as he is many times referred to) be placed in a public park. But Fernán Núñez managed to convince the public and the authorities that the statue should be erected, in view of its masterful artistic workmanship and also as a reminder and metaphor of the fate that may await those showing excessive pride.
The Fallen Angel was finally mounted on a huge pedestal and surrounded by a fountain with eight jets of water issuing from gargoyle-like heads, designed by José Urioste. It was unveiled in 1885 doubtlessly for a while becoming the talk of the town due to its subject matter and striking execution.
Of the public statues in Madrid, this is one that is worth making a detour for. Lucifer is depicted as a winged naked youth, crying out in agony as his right hand and both legs are entwined by a gigantic seven-headed serpent that is pulling him towards the nether world. Bellver has modeled a number of other public statues in Madrid, such as a Saint Andrew and a Saint Bartholomew, both in the Church of San Francisco el Grande, the coat-of-arms on the façade of the Agricultural Ministry, and the funerary monument to Goya, Menendez Valdes and Donoso Cortés located in the San Isidro Cemetery. But none is as electrifying or popular as The Fallen Angel.
The statue of Lucifer conceals several secrets. For years it has been rumored that it was placed exactly on the spot in the Retiro where its altitude is 666 meters above sea level. Clearly this is surprising and significant, since in the New Testament, in Apocalypse, 666 is the “number of the beast”, usually associated with Satan and the Anti-Christ. Knowing that the average altitude of Madrid is about 650 meters above sea level (as is the case in the Puerta del Sol), the hypothesis did not seem too farfetched.
So we set out to determine the true altitude of the site of the statue using the latest cutting edge technology…meaning, we checked Internet, where, on a world map, you can pick out a specific place and be given the coordinates of the site, along with its altitude. Clicking exactly on the center of the Plaza del Ángel Caído (the site of the fountain), we discovered that it stands at an elevation of 665.424 meters. Even though it isn’t 666, the result is surprising.
Another of the statue’s secrets is that the serpent that is dragging Lucifer down into the abyss is not your garden variety of serpent. Due to the height of the pedestal on which the statue stands, it is hard to see some of its details, but if you look carefully, perhaps taking a snapshot of it with your mobile phone and then enlarging it, you will see that the snake has seven heads. Why seven? –and it’s not the seven deadly sins. Well, in the Bible the number seven usually represents “perfection”, although it can also symbolize “perfect evil” or the culmination of evil, as is the case here.
Also difficult to appreciate from a distance is that the statue bears evidence of having been hit by bullets, probably during the Civil War. The small holes can still be seen on the angel, distributed as follows: two impacts on the back of the right wing; one on the left hip and one on the front of the right wing, near the elbow.
On the occasion of an exhibit called “The Forging of an Artist: From Leonardo to Picasso” that was held in the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, the Artistic Molds and Reproductions Workshop of the Academy obtained permission to make a replica in polyester and fiberglass of the statue of the Fallen Angel in he Retiro. The head of the workshop, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez García, told us how in mid-September of 1989, when they were preparing to set up the scaffolding around the fountain in the Retiro, a serious problem arose. Having drained the water out of the fountain, they discovered that its depth was much greater than they had anticipated. The bottom was more than three meters deep (10 ft.), a veritable “abyss”, well in keeping with the monument’s subject. Hence, they had to postpone setting up the scaffolding until the following day at which time they brought extensions to overcome the “hellpit.” (At present, the depth of the fountain is much less, hardly a meter, since it was feared that there might be an accident if someone fell into it, so the authorities set to work decreasing its depth.)
Once the mold of the statue had been completed, consisting of 60 pieces made of silicon and plaster, they took it to the Academy workshop, where a cast was made and then, after sanding off possible defects, an exact replica of the original was built made of polyester. This reproduction presently stands on the upper landing of the entrance staircase in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. You can here examine the magnificent statue standing only a few inches away from it, and discover all the details previously mentioned, such as the bullet holes and the seven heads of the serpent.
By chance, when we were interviewing Sr. Rodríguez in the Academy workshop, he told us that just at that time they were working on yet another replica of the Fallen Angel. He explained that Ricardo Bellver’s grandson, Mariano Bellver Utrera, who is an art collector living in Sevilla, had just placed an order with the Academy. Mariano, now close to 90 years of age, wanted to include in his collection a replica of his grandfather’s magnum opus: the statue of the Fallen Angel.
In order to make this new copy, a new mold of the original statue was carried out. Sr. Rodríguez led us up to the roof of the Academy building, into the open air where any kind of toxic fumes can be avoided, and showed us where the casts for the various pieces that make up the sculpture were being prepared. Once the new copy was completed, it was shipped to Sevilla and is now on display in the museum.
The list of “fallen angels” does not end here. In 2007, as we were walking near the Plaza Mayor taking pictures and stopping to read plaques on buildings, we made yet a new discovery. Upon looking up, on the corner of the Calles Mayor and Milaneses we saw a statue of what seemed to be an enormous green angel with its wings outspread and its arms akimbo, falling open mouthed on to the roof terrace of a nearby building. We excitedly asked each other, “Could this be another Fallen Angel?” To find out, we headed to a bar located on the ground floor of the same building and inquired if anyone knew anything about the statue. The barman kindly jotted down the sculptor’s phone number and we subsequently had the opportunity of talking to him.
The sculptor, Miguel Angel Ruiz, amicably explained to us that his work was neither a Fallen Angel nor Icarus, nor anything of the sort. “The work is called Aerial Accident”, he said. “The statue is that of a winged Being who has been flying over the Peninsula since time immemorial, for 10,000 years. When he returns after a flight, he flies backwards, looking up at the sky and frolicking with the clouds. Since in olden times there were only wide meadows, he unexpectedly arrives in modern Madrid with its skyscrapers and accidentally hits one of its buildings.”
The bronze statue, with a copper patina, weighs more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds). When it was installed, in January 2006, it had to be positioned with a huge crane from the street and was anchored with great care, since it can sometimes be exposed to high winds and bad weather. The statue was commissioned by the owners of the building, who are friends and clients of the artist. Though the statue may not be Lucifer, it is certainly a curiosity worth seeing.