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REAL BASILICA DE SAN ISIDORO, LEÓN

 

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The large art / history guide books and smaller numbered monographs published by León based Edilesa are consistently high in content and photographic quality, cover most of the significant medieval Christian buildings in northern Spain, and are often available in English translations.  You can find them at www.edilesa.es, though the link between this and getting their books is a bit of a mystery.  Second hand Edilesa published books are findable on the web.

 

Link to Wikipedia Page on the Basilica of San Isidoro

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basilica de San Isidoro in León (aka the Royal Collegiate Church of St Isidore of Seville, León) started life as a simple monastery built in the 960s by King Sancho the Fat.  The mark I buildings did not last long before being flattened by the awful al-Mansur (c938 - 1002 (64)) on his way to wipe out Santiago in the late 990s.

 

The monastery was rebuilt by Ferdinand I and his Queen, Sancha, consecrated  in December 1063, and designated as the pantheon of the Kings of León, as well as being given the remains of San Isidore to look after.  Later in the 1000s Princess Urraca extended the buildings put up by her parents, and the present day church and its narthex and museum date from this time.  

 

The remaining two thirds of the complex is 1700s Baroque, but sympathetically done.  The west side of the complex is the original Roman wall of the city and the main facade (below) is the south side of the church.  There is a set of Zodiac signs on the archivolts of the main church door, called the Doorway of the Lamb.

 

The monastery museum and library contain some rare and outstanding treasures from the 900s, 1000s and 1100s. 

 

 

The museum still contains San Isidoro's reliquary chest (1063) and several other seriously old and beautiful artefacts which have survived very much against the odds.   The museum and library possess over 35,000 volumes, including 150 codices and documents dating back to 951. 

 

The Royal Pantheon is in the narthex at the west end of the church.  A few of the original 25 king and queen tombs have survived the ravages of time (and most aggressively Napoleon's rabble troops at the end of 1808),  but looking up is even more rewarding as the pantheon has one of Europe's oldest surviving frescoed ceilings (1100s) (complete with monthly labour images - see below), and 21 of Spain's earliest narrative capitals.

 

San Isidoro (of Seville) lived in Visigoth (pre-Islamic) Spain from 560 - 636 (76) and is recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  He was Archbishop of Seville for 30 years and the greatest church scholar and promoter of scholarship of his era and  to emerge from Spain.  He wrote the first known encyclopaedia in western civilization (called  the Etymologiae).   He shares a place with Saint Bede the Venerable from northern England in Dante's Divine Comedy.

 

 

 

 

On the archivolts of the "Doorway of the Lamb" on the south nave wall, is a backwards set of zodiac signs:

 

Left archivolt (top row):  Pisces (Feb-Mar), Aquarius (Jan-Feb), Capricorn (Dec-Jan), Sagittarius (Nov-Dec), Scorpio (Oct-Nov), Libra (Sept-Oct)

 

Right archivolt (bottom row):  Virgo (Aug-Sept), Leo (Jul-Aug), Cancer (and spare fish) (Jun-Jul), elderly Gemini? (May-Jun),

Taurus (or S Italian Lukian intruder!) (Apr-May), Aries (Mar-Apr)

 

Links to all Paradoxplace pages about medieval illustrations of Labours of the Month, Zodiac Signs,

Cardinal Virtues and Sins in Western European churches.

 

 

 

 

Like Toledo Cathedral, the anti-photographer policing here is aggressive ... we did however manage to sneak the photo above and on the right of the famous 1100s frescoed ceiling of the Royal Pantheon, including the last third of an arch with roundels depicting monthly activities. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A postcard photo of dramatically condemned November pig.  Notice the English spelling of the last syllable of the "~ber" months below.  A similar phenomenon exists in Italy.  The modern syllable is "bre" in both languages.  We don't know what it was in Latin!

 

 

Two faces for the old and new years   -   Foot warming up by the February fire   -   Trimming vines in March

Life returns to the fields in April    -    Knight looking for love in May    -    Cutting hay in June

 

Scything wheat in July    -    Threshing wheat in August    -    Picking grapes in September

Harvesting acorns in October   -   Killing a fattened pig in November   -   Cooking the pig in December

 

 

This is a guidebook photo showing all the monthly labour roundels on the arch, starting with January at the top left.  The images commonly found in such monthly labour cycles are also explained in the Paradoxplace page on Labours of the Month and Zodiac Images in Medieval European Churches.

 

 

 

 

The room  above the narthex - the Royal Tribune - is still atmospherically accessed by the same narrow stone spiral stairway that the Princess-Queen Doña Sancha used when the place was her private apartment in the 1100s.  Nowadays it is a museum which contains some beautiful old treasures which somehow survived centuries of looters and latterly other museums!

 

Above is San Isidore's Reliquary Chest which dates in whole or part from 1063.  The lid is lined with embroidered cloth said to have been from the mantle of Isbalyan (Seville) ruler al-Mutadid (ruler 1042 - 1068), which it was said he placed as a protective cover over the bier containing the saint's remains when they were brought from Seville to León.

 

Below is another box - made in 1059 and called "the Casket of the Ivories" it was covered with sheets of gold (since disappeared) and was a sort of master container for famous relics.  The 25 bas relief ivory plates which adorn the box's outside are original.  Ferdinand and Sancha had an ivory workshop which produced these and many other beautiful pieces.       

 

 

 

 

    

Postcard photos

 

 

Left:  Chalice of Princess Urraca Fernández ( late 1000s) made from Agate, Gold and Semi-Precious Stones.

 

Right:  Ivory Crucifix of Ferdinand and Sancha - 54cm high and dated 1063.  Confiscated on 25 April 1869 by the Archaeological Museum of Madrid, who have not given it back (yet).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The archives and library possess over dozens of codices, hundreds of medieval documents, and thousands of valuable books.  Two of the oldest documents are royal grants of privileges and donations to the monastery.

 

The most famous of the archival possessions is the "Codex Biblicus Legionensis" - a generously illuminated Visigothic-Mozarabic Bible completed on 19 June 960, unique of its genre, and unique in the quality of its preservation (cover on left). 

 

As a result of an ambitious project at the turn of the millennium, there is now available a magnificent limited edition facsimile, if you have a few thousand Euros to spare Here is a more detailed description of this 517 leaf 48.5cm x 34.5cm masterpiece - accurately cloned down to the tears and holes in the pages..

 

The library also has a 617 leaf Romanesque illuminated bible dated 1162.

 

 

San Martino (c1130 - 1203 (73)) - a globe-trotting pilgrim and internationally recognized theologian, latterly ran the Queen Berenguela funded scriptorium at the Basilica de San Isidoro and wrote "Concordia" - an encyclopaedia of theology and commentaries on the scriptures.

 

 

 

South west corner of the cloister - the south passage (below) is the old part

 

 

 

 

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All original material © Adrian Fletcher 2000-2014 - The contents may not be hotlinked, or reproduced without permission.