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The Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art

Museo San Isidoro de León

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Daniel Esparza - published on 05/27/22

The Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore de León houses the remains of Saint Isidore of Sevilla. Its mural decorations have earned it the title of the “Romanesque Sistine Chapel”

The Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidoro de León is one of the most important Romanesque complexes in Europe. More than a thousand years old, the building has gone through significant transformations, from originally being a nunnery dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, to housing the Royal Pantheon of the Kings of León, and even being used as barracks and stables for the Napoleonic troops invading Spain in the early 19th century. Its mural decorations have earned it the title of the “Romanesque Sistine Chapel”.

One of the most important moments in the history of this church is the transfer of the remains of the sixth century saint and scholar Isidore of Seville, “the last scholar of the ancient world,” in the year 1063.

Saint Isidore was originally interred in Seville, where he served as archbishop for more than 30 years. His tomb became an important place of veneration for the Mozarabs, Iberian Christians living in Andalusia after the Arab conquest of Visigothic Hispania. By the mid eleventh century, as Christian holdings in the Peninsula strengthened and the Califate weakened after being split into taifas (independent Muslim principalities), Fernando I of León and Castile managed to transfer the remains of the saint to what is today the Collegiate Church of León.

Fernando I, Doña Sancha, and Doña Urraca.

The Royal Pantheon was built by Fernando I (“The Great”) and Doña Sancha, who reunited León and Castile in 1037. Under their rule, numerous works of art were commissioned, including the magnificent Beatus de San Isidoro de León, the most valuable illuminated medieval manuscript preserved in the National Library of Spain. Their cultural patronage had both a religious and political interest.

One of the daughters of Fernando I was Doña Urraca. Urraca was certainly an exceptional (and fearsome) woman. She eventually became the first reigning queen in European history. She ruled over Castilla, León, and Galicia, and claimed the titles of both Empress of All Spain and Empress of All Galicia. During her marriage to Raymond of Burgundy, she introduced herself as the “ruler of the Land of St. James:” Urraca managed to seize the relics of Saint James from the Portuguese and handed them over to the then-Archbishop of Compostela, Diego Gelmírez, who deposited them in a golden chest. She herself commissioned the mural decorations of the Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore de León that made it the “Romanesque Sistine Chapel”.

The Basilica

The Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidoro de León was originally a church built over the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury, housing a community of Benedictine nuns. But when Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir (938-1002) conquered León, the church was destroyed. The city was soon repopulated, and a new church and monastery established by Alfonso V of León, the father of Doña Sancha, who would eventually marry Fernando.  

It was Doña Sancha who chose the new monastery as the site of the royal burial chapel, the Royal Pantheon. Kings, queens, and many Iberian nobles are now interred under its richly decorated vaults. After the relics of of Saint Isidore were transferred to the chapel, a community of canons was established to maintain the monastery, ward the relics, and take care of pilgrims: the church is part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. It is only natural, then, that numerous artists wanted to work in it.

The basilica is still a collegiate foundation, and the canons’ office is celebrated daily.

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