León Cathedral: the house of light
From the plaza it appeared like a fortress, towering high above our heads in solid stone, an imposing presence bristling with spires and sturdy buttresses. The late afternoon sun illuminated the church’s west front as I pushed open the heavy wooden door to a cool, refreshing silence – a far cry from the sounds of the Spanish summer. Muffled footsteps echoing on the stone, we walked in awed reverence, craning our necks at the ceiling as dappled colours fell across the walls and floor, a tapestry of light flowing down from rows of luminous stained glass windows.
Begun in 1255, and largely finished some sixty years later, the Cathedral of Santa María de la Regla takes pride of place in the historic centre of León. It stands atop the ruins of second century Roman baths, marking an important stop along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James.
More than 1,000 years old, it leads to the legendary burial place of James the Greater, one of Jesus’ apostles and the patron saint of Spain. Even in medieval times, the Camino was not just a popular pilgrimage route; it was also a conduit for exchanging ideas and artistic knowledge, a vital link to the nations on the far side of the Pyrenees. Via the Camino, Romanesque and Gothic art filtered into the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, where French-influenced Gothic would find its highest expression in what is still known as Pulchra Leonina, the “Leonese beauty”.
León took its inspiration from the royal cathedrals of Reims and St-Denis, but one can draw a comparison to Chartres, thanks to the exceptional volume of stained glass. Spread across 137 windows totalling an area of nearly 1,800 square metres, the vast majority are original pieces from the 13th-15th centuries. Together with Chartres, it constitutes what may be one of the most important collections of its kind in Europe, if not the world.