When you first arrive in the city of León on the Camino, you will pass by the medieval square, La Plaza del Grano, Grain or Berry Square. Archaeological excavations of the small neighborhood that include this square discovered a Roman crypt here.
The square has a sweet church dedicated to Santa Maria del Mercado. She is an important Mary on the Camino and the people of León revere her. She also bestows blessings upon pilgrims and appears again after you leave León, at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Camino.
Santa María del Mercado first appeared to a shepherd in the 6th century. That was when León was a Visigothic town. She also appeared to a shepherd in the 16th century. In a sense, your visit in León is buttressed on both sides by Our Lady’s blessings. She has been here quite a long time watching over everyone. (That ancient Iberia was a matriarchal territory, something noted in Roman sources, speaks well of this persisting feminine lineage.)
The Roman Legio Gemina, Seventh Legion, was garrisoned here in the 1st century and gave León’s its name and Roman foundations. The town was both defensive, to protect Roman gold and silver mining activities in northwestern Spain against attack from the indigenous Celtiberians, and also offensive, to launch attacks against the Suevi in those same territories.
However, some speculate that León was also named for the Celtiberian god Lugus, related to the Celtic god, Lugh (also Lug)—god of light and craft. His name may be derived from the proto-Indo-European word, leuk, meaning “light, bright, and to shine.”
The Visigoths were the next residents, conquering the city in CE 585. It then fell under Muslim rule from 711 to around 846 when the Asturian king Ordoño I reclaimed León for his aspiring and young Christian kingdom in the north. León would eventually become the Kingdom of Asturias’ capital in 913.
By the 10th century, León’s rulers were so weak that they had to pay tribute to the Muslim south, al-Andalus, to maintain their footing. At the same time, this political dynamic infused the city with an interesting diversity of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian residents and merchants. Textiles from the eastern Byzantine world flowed in, as did other crafts from the Mediterranean world. By the 11th century, León was firmly under Christian rule again and enriched by its diverse inheritance.
Two sacred sites in the city are especially worth visiting: the Gothic cathedral with some of the most stunning stained glass in all of Spain (and France), and the Basilica of San Isidoro.
Stonemasons built León’s cathedral over the old Roman baths. First, they erected a small Visigothic church. Later builders constructed two different Romanesque churches. The final structure is the Gothic building of color and light that you see today. This structure has a strong French influence and that was largely inspired by Rheims’ cathedral in northern France.
León’s cathedral is among the most resplendent of light and color-filled churches anywhere. Upon entry it can take your breath away. In glass and stone, color and light, the interior creates a major shift to the senses.
If you have been to Chartres Cathedral or Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle you will find a familiar beauty. The windows here are the only to survive in Spain of the archaic French style of glazing stained glass windows. This was the same technique that artisans used to make Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle. It explains León’s rich, saturated and luminous colors. The cobalt blue is especially remarkable.
Nearby is León’s Basilica of San Isidoro. As with many Christian churches (and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques and Roman temples) the conquerors built over earlier pagan sacred sites. San Isidoro’s builders erected it over a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mercury. They first church that built, before the 9th century, they consecrated to Saint John the Baptist. An incursion led by Almanzor from Córdoba in the south but then destroyed this earlier structure.
The current building is from the 11th century and people rededicated it to San Isidoro of Seville (CE 560-636). That was when Fernando I of León and Castile (1015-1065) brought the bones of this Visigothic saint and scholar, here for safekeeping. San Isidoro had performed many miracles, but his specialty was curing the deaf, dumb, and paralyzed. He would have been a popular saint for medieval pilgrims to visit.
San Isidoro’s basilica also contains some of the most complete and evocative Romanesque frescos from 12th century that survive anywhere. They reflect not only sacred stories but also seasonal life in medieval León. They are located in the basilica’s cavern-like royal pantheon in the crypt below. The arches are low and allow the visitor to take an intimate look at the paintings.
It has barrel vaults and is divided into three naves with 46 capitals and columns. The capitals and vaults are all painted. The Byzantine-inspired frescoes capture Biblical stories. One is the Annunciation to the shepherds. Another shows Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents. Depicted here too is the Last Supper and Christ in Majesty.
Along the arches are images of the seasons, each represented by the agrarian activities of each month:
January shows a person looking at both the new and old year, the past and future. February shows a person warming himself by the fire. March depicts someone pruning the grape vines.
April is all about planting. May is a knight on horseback seeking love. (The Middle Ages’ way to talk about sex and reproduction in the heady month of May.) June shows a man harvesting the hay.
July, bringing in the wheat. August is the month for threshing wheat. September is the grape harvest.
October is for gathering wild acorns to fatten the pigs. November shows the slaughter of those pigs. Lest, December is the month for rest: a man sits and puts up his feet and enjoys the food and drink from his hard labor.
The Camino continues to León’s celebrated Mary at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Camino.