In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol stands a bronze statue of a burly bear standing on its hind feet as it searches for fruit among the leaves of a strawberry tree. This statue was created by the sculptor Antonio Navarro Santafé at the behest of the Spanish government and was inaugurated in 1967. It portrays an animal deeply symbolic to the city of Madrid and the subject of much local folklore.
The first known use of the bear as a symbol of Madrid occurred in 1212 when knights from the city charged into the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Moors carrying standards emblazoned with a bear and the seven stars of the Ursa Minor constellation. But the bear and the strawberry tree as a heraldic emblem was first used a decade later when, in 1222, the image was included as a seal to sign a decree by King Alfonso VIII.
This royal decree was written to end a dispute over land rights that had emerged between the church and the city council. The king, in an act of diplomacy, proposed that the trees and woodlands, represented by the strawberry tree (a common species in the region), were to be the property of the city. The animals and the plains, represented by the bear, were to belong to the church. This decree solved the quarrel, and subsequently resulted in the symbol being adopted by the city as its official emblem.
Both the items the king chose have symbolic value. The strawberry tree was a significant plant, as people in Southern Europe once believed its leaves could help cure the plague. Folktales relate how the image of the bear was included as a tribute to a she-bear killed by a king during a hunt. He was apparently so impressed by this animal’s courage in facing death that he chose it as a heraldic symbol.
However, the roots of the use of the bear as a heraldic emblem likely pre-date even the medieval era. The symbol is likely to have become first associated with the city during Spain’s past as a Roman colony. Back then, the area was known as Ursalia, which translates from Latin as “Land of the Bears.” This name reputedly referenced the large numbers of bears that once roamed the forests and plains. These creatures were hunted and captured for use in the beast fights held across Hispania.
Brown bears are now sadly extirpated in Madrid and indeed across much of Spain, although the species can still be found in regions of the north in the Cantabrian mountains of Asturias. However, the statue of the bear and the strawberry tree stands in the heart of the city reminding Madrilenos of their rich cultural, historical, and natural heritage.
Know Before You Go
The statue is easy to find as it is located in the centre of the city in the Puerta del Sol square.