Skip to content

León Cathedral: the house of light

West front, Cathedral of León

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.

Gothic portals

Gothic portals

Stories in stone

Stories in stone

The cathedral's west front

The cathedral’s west front

Medieval faces

Medieval faces

Sunlight striking the rosetón (rose window)

Sunlight striking the rosetón (rose window)

Solemn sanctuary

Solemn sanctuary

The apse and gilded retablo (altar screen)

The apse and gilded retablo (altar screen)

A beautiful chapel

A beautiful chapel

Prayer

Prayer

Out of Bethlehem

Out of Bethlehem

Beneath the transept

Beneath the transept

The cathedral by night

The cathedral by night

Small-scale restoration

Small-scale restoration

'Pulchra Leonina'

‘Pulchra Leonina’ – Leonese Beauty

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow…

    James, I say ‘wow’ every time I read one of your posts…. but this one…

    ‘Wow”…

    September 3, 2013
    • I’m flattered, Elizabeth… 🙂

      September 3, 2013
  2. Congratulations I’ve nominated you for The Versatile Blogger award! You can find out more info here http://savvybookkeeping.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/the-versatile-blogger-award/
    Best wishes – Savvy Bookkeeping.

    September 3, 2013
    • Thank you for the nomination, and best wishes to you too!

      September 3, 2013
  3. This is absolutely stunning. The stained glass, and how you photographed it is fantastic. I just visited the cathedral in San Antonio, Texas….not quite as elaborate (but still beautiful). Amazing the amount of craftsmanship, time, and money put into these houses of worship.

    September 3, 2013
    • I couldn’t agree more, Angeline… and to think that these churches often took decades, if not centuries to build! Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever have the patience and dedication to construct anything of such size, approaching that level of handmade detail.

      September 3, 2013
  4. I always love your posts on Spain, James! As you rightly put it in one of your previous posts that the country’s position makes its history and architecture so rich that no other European country can match. It seems like this cathedral in León is one of the finest examples of the finesse of Spanish architecture.

    September 3, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed this, Bama! Thanks to its location on the historic frontier between Europe and the Arab/North African world, Spain is a remarkably diverse nation. Visiting León, I didn’t expect the cathedral to feel so “French” – it’s easy to see why some consider it the finest Gothic church in all of Spain.

      September 3, 2013
  5. Stunning. I hope to visit this one day!

    September 4, 2013
    • It was easily one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen!

      September 5, 2013
  6. Wow, your pictures are spectacular. I lived in southern Spain (and Madrid) for a year and this is making me regret not taking any trips further north. Thanks for sharing the experience.

    September 4, 2013
    • I feel the same way about the south… In the nine months I lived in Salamanca, I only managed to visit Sevilla, Córdoba and Cádiz. Granada was on my wishlist but the Alhambra (specifically the Court of the Lions) was under renovation, so I decided to save that for the future!

      September 5, 2013
  7. For a moment I thought this church was in France. Awesome to see it solidly standing in its entirety after almost 700 years! I do feel those colorful yet intricate stained glass windows above the nave and chancel give balance to the otherwise very ‘pointy” appearance of its Gothic architecture.

    September 4, 2013
    • I think the exterior has gone through several changes during the Baroque period – but much of that was reversed in a 19th century restoration. But you’re right, it’s the stained glass that really gives life to the building.

      September 5, 2013
  8. Very beautiful!

    September 4, 2013
  9. Cassandra #

    Beautiful shots, Europe really does have the most beautiful churches!

    September 5, 2013
    • Definitely! I don’t think I could ever get tired of these gorgeous structures.

      September 5, 2013
  10. Absolutely amazing photos, James! I’d only heard about León about a year ago. Since then, I’ve decided I will one day visit there (and, in general, Spain – as I’ve not yet been there)!

    September 5, 2013
    • Thank you Stephen! León may be on the fabled Camino de Santiago, but it’s well off the tourist trail… most visitors seem to only stick to Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

      September 6, 2013
  11. I’m in love with this cathedral. Another stop on my travel list now.

    September 8, 2013
    • It was magical – and such an underrated gem!

      September 8, 2013
  12. Reblogged this on Just Go Places.

    September 18, 2013
  13. I visited this place when it was being renovated, so I couldn’t see much, so nice to re-experience the cathedral through your photos!

    October 26, 2013
    • They were starting the renovations when I was there, but the scaffolding didn’t cover any of the stained glass windows. Guess I was lucky!

      October 27, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: