Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The basilica of San Isidoro (La Real Colegiata Basilica de San Isidoro) was dedicated in 1149 in the presence of King Alfonso VII and several bishops including the archbishop of Santiago. The importance accorded to the church at the time is due to the fact that it was a church honoring the 7th century archbishop of Seville San Isidoro, Doctor de las Españas, one of the most celebrated academic and theologian of that era; the older part of the church, Pantéon de los Reyes was the resting place of royalties of not only the kingdom of León, but also some royalties of Castile; and the two bishoprics of Santiago de Compostela located in the kingdom and León had a close tie between them.

San Isidoro stands on the site of a Roman temple. The first Christian structure on this site was a church dedicated to St. John, the Baptist and San Pelaya, which was destroyed in the Moslem invasion by Al-Mansur (Almanzor) in 996. After the devastation and repopulation, Alfonso V of León established a monastery, and a new church was built in the early part of the 11th century. Alfonso’s daughter, the infanta Sancha would marry Count Ferdinand of Castile, and he would ascend to the throne as Ferdinand I. When the relics of San Isidoro were brought from Seville in 1063 through Ferdinand’s diplomacy, the church was dedicated to the saint in December of that year.

The basilica of San Isidoro stands facing the spacious Plaza San Isidoro to the south. As the basilica abuts the older Pantéon de los Reyes to the west, the main entrance, la Puerta del Cordero is located on the south façade leading into the south aisle. Above the Puerta del Cordero is placed the 18th century equestrian statue of San Isidoro. Also on the south façade is located a second door at the south transept, la Puerta del Perdón.

León-Basilica de San Isidoro 01sm

The church of San Isidoro has gone through a major restoration of its exterior in recent year, and the beige toned exterior is rather unexpected and refreshing to the eyes of visitors who were used to the centuries old patina before the restoration. One view of the restored exterior of the Puerta del Perdón and the southern apse amply illustrates the striking difference.

Southern apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Southern apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The west end of San Isidoro is anchored by the Romanesque Torre del Gallo right on top of the medieval city wall.

Torre del Gallo, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Torre del Gallo, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

San Isidoro is built on the basilica plan: the nave with two aisles, projecting transepts and three apses on the axes.

Plan, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León)

Plan, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León)

Of the standing church, the Pantéon de los Reyes (church IV to borrow Fernie’s classification), is the earliest, probably the latter part of the 11th century, thought to be under the patronage of Doña Urraca, the daughter of Ferdinand and Sancha. The Pantéon is a three bay by three bay structure abutting the Roman wall to the west, ending at the western wall of the present church, but not aligned to the axis of the old foundation on which the present church was built. The church of San Isidoro in most part, however, is from the church V and VI from the period of Alfonso VII, the son of Ferdinand and Sancha.

The nave (church V), with a gallery, or a tribune over the three western bays, is covered with barrel vault with semi-circular transverse arches defining each bay, most of them springing from the capitals of the engaged columns.

Nave, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The second transverse arch from the crossing, however, springs from responds on the nave walls for some reason.

Second transverse arch, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Second transverse arch, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The barrel vault surface of the nave is plastered, and painted with a burnt clay color. It is thought that the nave was covered with flat timber roof initially, and was rebuilt with stone vaulting some decades later, probably by the master builder of the church VI. The aisles are built of groin vaults between semi-circular arches, again thought to be a replacement of flat timber roofs. There are columns located in front of windows on both the north and south aisle walls, indicating that they were added in order to support the additional load of the vaulting.

Side aisle, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Side aisle, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave arcades are slightly elongated half round, with extension of the straight sides, rather than half round resting on capitals.

Nave arcades, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave arcades, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The intersection of the nave and crossing presents a marked visual difference in the colors of masonry as well as the stone joinery. The transepts (church VI) are built also with barrel vaults, probably contemporary to the nave vaulting. The crossing, where one would expect a crossing tower, is covered with a barrel vault running east-west, continuing the flow of the length of the nave.

Crossing vault, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Crossing vault, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A new sensibility is imparted in the north and south transept arches of the crossing, however, in their scalloped stone work, a nod to the Moslem influence.

Transept arches with scalloped stone work, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Transept arches with scalloped stone work, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel (also church VI) was the section of San Isidoro that was built the last with the rib-vaults of the mature Gothic style.

Gothic rib vaults, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Gothic rib vaults, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The shape of the central apse was intended to be semi-circular when we look at the plan, but it is built as a flat end, with slightly faceted masonry on the exterior. It is unusual for a medieval church that the name of the master builder should be known, but the builder of the Church VI is Petrus Deustamben, and he is buried in the church with an epithet, which states that he built the “upper part” of the church, presumably referring to the vaultings of the nave and aisles, the crossing, as well as the chancel.

Apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Apse, Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Real Colegiata Basilica de San Isidoro is important monument of Romanesque architecture on the pilgrimage route which has benefited from the royal patronage of the successive kings of León due to its being the home of the Pantéon de los Reyes. It recalls the position of San Salvador de Leyre in Navarre, another important work of Romanesque architecture contemporary to San Isidoro, which also housed the Pantéon for the royalties of the kingdom of Navarre.

Location: 42.600702° -5.570983°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

One response to “Basilica of San Isidoro, León (Castile-León) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm

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