tomb of Santiago

an angel and Santiago with shields depicting his symbols

another important part of completing the Camino and visiting the Cathedral is ascending the steps behind the altar to embrace a statue of Santiago and then descend into the crypt to see relics of the Saint and two of his (also saintly) followers, Teodoro and Atanasio.

even though much of the crowd attending the noon mass cleared out rapidly once the botafumeiro stopped swinging, our burgeoning hunger diverted us from visiting the tomb the day we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. (after all, we’d been up since 5:00 a.m. and walking for nearly all of it.) I felt particularly desirous of some kind of huge (vegetarian-friendly) victory luncheon, as standing during the mass had left me somewhat flushed and rather watery in the leg department.

Santiago Peregrino in glass

it was drizzly when we returned to the Cathedral the following day. whereas numerous people milled about on the morning when we arrived — tourists snapping pictures of the Cathedral, peregrinos grinning madly as someone took a picture of them in their Camino gear, a school group visiting the government building on the opposite side of the plaza — weather dissuaded people from lingering and the hour (about 10:00) meant that most peregrinos arriving to Santiago that day hadn’t made it to the Praza do Orbadoiro yet.

this meant, fortunately, that there wasn’t much of a line to visit the altar and crypt. we briefly explored the areas of the Cathedral we hadn’t seen the previous day, headed for the roped off queue that wrapped around behind the altar. while shuffling forward, we saw one of the few stained glass windows in the Cathedral, depicting Santiago holding his scallop-topped staff and distinct cross emblazoned on his chest.

the Altar Mayor is an explosion of Baroque-era decoration, with numerous pieces venerating Santiago, both the warrior and peregrino, and depicting all manner of heavenly creatures and other Biblical themes. there’s an 18th-century baldachin depicting the cardinal virtues, with Santiago Peregrino standing beneath; there’s a statue of Santiago Matamoros from 1677. and up the narrow stairs in a camarín (a tiny chamber still visible from the altar), there’s a painted stone sculpture of Santiago, seated on a silver throne.

unlike many other religious shrines, peregrinos (or any visitors) are welcome to embrace this depiction of Santiago and pilgrims to Compostela have always been allowed to touch or embrace the statue. one account from the late 15th century describes how peregrinos would climb the stairs of the then-wooden shrine and place the silver crown gracing Santiago’s head on their own, to facilitate the reception of religious goodwill. the crown was later reported as gold but at some point disappeared and peregrinos took to embracing the statue instead. I didn’t feel moved to embrace the statue as I passed through the camarín but could readily understand why some people might be moved to do so.

from the tiny upstairs chamber we descended to a tiny underground chamber — the crypt containing the relics of Santiago and his followers. the crypt mimics the Roman mausoleum in which Santiago’s bones originally resided, and illuminates the substructure of a 9th century church that stood on the site prior to construction of the existing Cathedral.

as previously discussed, over the course of centuries the location of Santiago’s bones has gone in and out of focus; once they were rediscovered, political and religious turmoil frequently threatened their safety. in an effort to protect them from Dutch and English incursions, the relics were “relocated” from their place on the altar to a “safe location” in 1589. sometime thereafter their location got even “safer” as they went undiscovered until 1879. following this rediscovery and authentication of the relics by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, the silver reliquary which now houses them was crafted in 1886 by Jose Losada, who had designed the botafumeiro three decades earlier.

while most people simply walked through, pausing briefly to look at the reliquary, there was one man taking his time before the relics, kneeling on a prayer bench. there was a small box for offerings, though no items left behind by peregrinos, such as their scallop shells or walking sticks; I don’t know if the Cathedral has cracked down on the practice of bringing and leaving items from your Camino in the crypt, but at one time enough got left behind that they had to haul everything out at night and develop a plan for dispensing items to appropriate  parties. frankly, I couldn’t shake a feeling of slight claustrophobia — the means of entrance and egress from the crypt were narrow and steep. moreover, despite the fact that the Cathedral has stood on its current foundation for nearly a millennium, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all those tons of marble pressing down from above, onto this low ceiling, could collapse and pulverize anyone or anything in that tiny space. as fascinating as it was to see and be in that space, I was hugely thankful to get out, and back into the open air plaza in short order.

tree of Jesse & the Pórtico da Gloria

one of the more striking scenes in “The Way” is when the motley group of peregrinos arrive at the Catedral de Santiago. in turn, each of the peregrinos enters the Cathedral by way of the middle doors in the Pórtico da Gloria, past the Tree of Jesse, which is grooved from hundreds of years and hundreds of thousands of peregrinos placing their hand on the carving to acknowledge and express their devotion.

the Pórtico da Gloria was erected between 1168 and 1188 under the direction of Maestro Mateo in a Romanesque style. in order to construct it, he had to build up from the basement to create an adequate “porch” for a narthex. Ferdinand II of León provided the funds for the project, a sum of money every year for twenty years. in addition to the intricate stonework, at some point during the 12th century the work was polychromed and then repainted during the 17th century; traces of color remain today.

the entire Pórtico depicts the Last Judgement, though each architectural element has its own theme. the left door illustrates themes from the Old Testament and Judaism, as precursors to Christianity; the central door focuses on the resurrection of Jesus and features an array of musical instruments and musicians; stonework on the right door proclaims the “promise of the future;” depictions on the door jams of the central door represent a holy kingdom on earth.

at the top of the middle pillar is Santiago, holding a scroll proclaiming “Misit me Dominus” (the Lord sent me) — acknowledgement that Santiago de Compostela is watched over by a higher, divine power. (for more on that, may I recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles, which not only depicts the terrain we covered but also discusses a siege and liberation of Santiago during the Napoleonic wars.) beneath Santiago is the Tree of Jesse, outlining the family heritage of Jesus. Maestro Mateo’s work greeted weary peregrinos to the Catedral for nearly six centuries before the now resplendent facade facing the Praza do Obradoiro was completed in 1750 and enclosed the porch

in “The Way,” the more religious of Sheen’s companions, the Dutchman Joost, approaches the central pillar on his knees, penitently, before placing his hand where so many faithful had done before. there are finger holes worn into the carving where the fingers of hundreds of thousands of peregrinos have placed their hands. it’s not unlike the stairs in Old Main at Knox though, I must confess, more awe-inducing. we couldn’t follow that example — the pillar is now guarded by metal fences that keep you well back from the Tree of Jesse, as well as away from the self-portrait Maestro Mateo carved of himself on the other side of the pillar, kneeling in prayer looking up towards the altar. tradition held that those who knocked heads with the Maestro’s statue would benefit from his genius; students would often visit the Catedral in advance of exams for a different kind of preparation.

ritual and the botafumeiro

Compostelas in hand, we dropped our packs at our hotel, a neat, modern place just beyond the limits of the old city walls, then headed back to the cathedral for the noon peregrino mass — featuring the botafumeiro! 

while the exterior facade of the Cathedral (added in the 1750s) is quite stunning, the inside is pretty plain, particularly in comparison to some of Europe’s other grand cathedrals, though well kept and clean. I suppose, when one stops to think about it, it isn’t the fanciest cathedral in Spain by a long way, and perhaps not even the snazziest cathedral on the Camino; simply the most enthusiastically anticipated. I suppose the organ pipes jutting out over the heads of peregrinos in the middle aisle is rather striking…

we arrived “late” to the peregrino mass, a mere fifteen minutes before the hour, and all the seats, as well as the best of the standing room, were taken up by others eager to hear the Mass or see the botafumeiro in action, depending on religious persuasion. we still managed a decent spot standing near the intersection of the nave and transept which afforded us with a closer view of the action. they delivered a pretty standard and benign (at least to my non-Catholic ears) homily. it got somewhat heavy-handed and blunt at times about the importance of having the Church and Jesus in one’s life, which Andy was luckily immune to by virtue of not understanding Spanish. they began the service, however, by listing all the home countries (or cities, if they were from Spain) of the peregrinos who’d arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the previous 24 hours. (as I write this in January, 5 peregrinos arrived in Santiago today.)

as a non-religious person who could count on one hand the number of times attending a Catholic Mass of any variety, it was interesting to attend a Catholic Mass in a Catholic country with a group of people that includes those who walked at least 100 kilometers to reach Santiago. there was a young-ish woman standing immediately to my left who knew all the words and all the ritual of the Mass by heart; it was somewhat arresting to observer her and so many others go through the routine of their devotion. the last time I remember memorizing something to repeat it back on command was in my 10th grade French class — La Cigale et La Fourmi par Jean de la Fontaine — and I haven’t had reason to recite it in more than a decade and probably couldn’t muddle my way through it now.

homily concluded, they prepared for the event many people came to see — getting the censer to swing from the roof on onside of the nave to the roof on the other side of the nave. there are several vessels they use for this demonstration; we probably saw La Alcachofa (literally: the artichocke) in action that Friday in June. the Botafumeiro is an alloy of bronze and brass, plated with silver, was crafted in 1851 by a silver and goldsmith named Losada. it’s normally on display in the cathedral library. it’s one of the largest censers in the world and stands at 1.6 meters tall. La Alcachofa was crafted in 1971 and can be filled with about 40 kilograms of incense, which wafts over the heads of peregrinos in the transept as it swings from side to side at speeds of up to 68 kph. the top of the swing is about 21 meters up and takes about 17 swings by eight red-robed tiraboleiros to reach that speed, after about 80 seconds of pulling.

some hold that the use of the botafumeiro dates back to the 11th century; there was need to deaden the smell of the arriving peregrinos, weary, sweaty, unwashed and it was believed that the incense smoke also served the purpose of deadening “plagues” or epidemics carried in by peregrinos. in the 15th century Louis XI donated money to replace the silver medieval thurible; Napoleon’s troops stole it in 1809.

while it’s well secured by the ropes that the tiraboleiros pull on, there have been several instances of malfunction ranging from the botafumeiro flying out a window to simply tipping coals onto the ground. the most dramatic incident came when Catherine of Aragon stopped in Santiago while on her way to marry Arthur in England — during the swing, the botafumeiro flew out the Platerias window (over the south entrance to the Catedral), but somehow managed to not injure anyone. the last incident occurred in 1937. it was smooth sailing for La Alcachofa for our visit.

getting our Compostelas

since the first experience I detailed when starting blogging our Camino de Santiago was our arrival at the Cathedral, I’ll move on from that to what we did immediately after our giddy “I can’t believe we made its!” and celebratory pictures — standing in line at the oficina de peregrino to obtain our Compostelas, or certificates of completion. it is weird experience to happily stand in such a long line (about 40 minutes) with so many people who have endured similar experiences and are just as happy to stand in that same long line with you. some people wait to get their Compostelas after resting or attending the mass, but it seemed most of the people we stood in line with hadn’t made any stops or left any luggage behind before arriving at the oficina de peregrino.

the Compostela stems from the same idea as Jubilee years and plenary indulgences, wherein the faithful are given a degree of absolution from sin for completing a good work or act on behalf of the faith (such as making a trip to the Holy Land and/or dying on the journey). in early years, peregrinos would mark the completion of their trek by carrying a scallop shell as evidence they visited the tomb of Santiago in the cathedral. of course, merchants took to selling shells to peregrinos as they entered the city and the Church had to take steps to crack down on these practices, going so far as to threaten excommunication of anyone caught selling shells fraudulently.

during the 11th century, the Church began issuing particularly generous indulgences for those willing to participate in the reconquest of Spain; many claim that Pope Calixtus II (he of the Codex Calixtinus) granted Santiago de Compostela the authority to grant plenary indulgences to those who visited Santiago’s tomb in a Holy Year (when the Saint’s day falls on a Sunday), made a donation his shrine, gave confession, attended mass, and pledged to perform good works. the document that subsequently made that offer perpetual is now considered a forgery dating from the 15th century; the earliest documentation of indulgences granted for the Camino dates from the mid-13th century and the first Holy Year in which it would have applied stems from 1395.

the earliest documents to illustrate completion of the Camino were “evidential letters,” sealed and handwritten documents with confirmation of communion and confession pasted on, initially known as la autentica. it was handy in that it granted peregrinos access to the royal hospital established by the Catholic Monarchs in the 16th century; a Compostela entitled them to three nights lodging and attention for their various Camino-related ailments. (the building was converted into a Parador in 1954, but they still serve meals to the first 10 peregrinos to present their Comopostela every day.)

the Compstela became a printed documents in the 17th century and the communion and confession requirements were dropped sometime in the 18th century. the changes wrought by modern transportation innovation in the 20th century prompted the Church to require further evidence, by way of the stamped credencial, that peregrinos receiving the Compostela completed the last 100 kilometers by foot. after standing in line, you are directed to a counter where an official takes your name, (and inquires after your reason for undertaking the Camino — religious, cultural, spiritual, sport — to determine which version of the Compostela you’ll receive), translates it into Latin, and writes it on the form, the text of which has remained relatively unchanged for the last two centuries. though it’s technically free to obtain, donations are encouraged (and can get you a handy tube for storing your completed and irreplaceable memento, if you ask the nice volunteer line attendant politely).

I discovered today that the office keeps and publishes statistics about the numbers of peregrinos who arrive everyday. I couldn’t find a record of how many peregrinos received their Compostelas the day we arrived in Santiago, June 8, 2012, but they do have a break-down of all the people who did in the course of the year (over 192,000, about half of which came from Spain and just over half of which were male. for more details, check out this PDF.). or you can just find out how many people have completed their Camino today

we got Compostelas framed, along with our credencials and a map detailing the Camino Frances as we hiked it. they look spectacular.

O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

Villafranca del Bierzo

thinking back, it’s kind of impressive how much stuff got crammed into day 26 on our Camino — the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, TAL episode #465, tasting at Cuatro Pasos, taking a potentially risky shortcut to shave off a couple of kilometers at the end of the day, Brent Spiner on the Nerdist, and the second-craziest shower I experienced while in Spain. I suppose it should come as no surprise then just how relieved we were to stumble into our boutique hotel in Villafranca del Bierzo, Hotel Las Doñas del Portazgo. (if you ever find yourself in Villafranca del Bierzo, I recommend it).

the earliest settlements around Villafranca date from the neolithic age and there’s evidence to suggest it served as an important hub for communication during the Roman period, sitting as it does at the confluence of two rivers (the Burbia and Valcarce) at the western edge of the Bierzo basin and at the foot of the narrow pass that ascends to O Cebriero and Galicia beyond. in the 11th century, the sister of Alfonso VI granted a church to Cluny for establishing a monastery that began cultivating wine. this, along with the explosion of peregrinos during the 12th century, gave rise to a sizable foreign population including many French who aided developing wines. by the middle of the century more than half the town’s inhabitants were foreign.

the city flourished for several centuries because of the Camino and in 1486 the Catholic Monarchs established the Marquesado in the town; the second man to hold the title, Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, built a castle though the one that overlooks the valley and town dates from the 1490s and was recently restored to clean up the damage done when the French burned it in 1812. following the second Marques’ death, the city endured its first of many significant hardships that concluded with the burning of the castle by the French. the plague decimated the town’s population in 1589; a flood washed out much along the river in 1715; during the Peninsular War the town served as headquarters for the Galician army and was sacked three times by the English until finally, after the municipal archives were burned, churches robbed, and castle wrecked in 1810 Spain regained control of the area. sort of — the French briefly occupied the town following the expulsion of the English. twelve years later el Bierzo was declared an independent province with Villafranca as its capitol; that lasted two years.

much of the late medieval and Renaissance character remains in Villafranca (as much of the modern industrial revolution passed the city over) including several well-preserved churches. subsequent to its construction in 1186, the Iglesia de Santiago offered ailing peregrinos an alternative to crossing the remaining 187 kilometers of the Camino; if you were too ill or too injured to continue on to Santiago you could pass through the northern entrance — the Puerta del Perdon — and receive a pardon for your sins as you would at the cathedral in Santiago if only you were physically capable of continuing onward. along the narrow streets are facades you might imagine lining prosperous towns of the middle ages — sturdy construction with impressive stonework — though care for these buildings varies widely.

our hotel stood at the end of one such street; it used to serve as the gatehouse for the bridge over the rio Burbia and has been attentively restored and updated; while the entire place exudes comfort, during the update process they left elements of the original building exposed to give a sense of what the place might have felt and looked like a century ago. while the hotel at the end of the road was lovingly restored, there were many other buildings along the way that hadn’t received the same attention. from the refurbished window balcony of one updated home you could look directly into the dilapidated and burned-out husk of another once-magnificent home that hadn’t received the same attentions. Villafranca del Bierzo was clearly thriving, but it didn’t take much to see signs of the common challenges afflicting the rest of Spain.

Castillo de los Templarios

one of the more unexpected discoveries we made in the last stages of the Camino was the Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada, the last large town before entering the eagerly-anticipated province of Galicia. the modern city is situated at the convergence of the Sil an Boeza rivers in the middle of the Bierzo plain (known for wine, among other things!) though the earliest settlement on the site date from pre-Roman times. it thrived as a mining district under Roman control but suffered destruction with Visigoth and Moorish invasions prior to the 11th century. the name derives from a bridge, built to transport peregrinos over one of the rivers, that had reinforcing elements made of iron (Pons Ferrata = Iron Bridge).

towards the end of the 12th century, the kingdom granted control of the city to the Knights Templar as a base from which they might protect peregrinos as they traversed the Camino. though the influence of the Templars proved short-lived (as they found themselves expelled from Spain about a century later), their legacy endures in the enormous Castillo de los Templarios perched on a hill overlooking the confluence of the two rivers. in 1178 Fernando II donated the ruins of a Roman (and later Visigoth) fort to the Templars for the purpose of building their own fortifications. they completed the massive structure (which now encompasses about 16,000 square meters, or more than 172,000 square feet) between 1218 and 1282 — insanely fast for something so expansive — but lost the castle some 20 years later when all the Templar Knights were placed under arrest by the Pope who ultimately dissolved the Order in 1312.

— an aside: in 2001 a researcher discovered a parchment in the Vatican archives that someone misfiled in 1628. dating from April of 1308, the “Chinon Parchment” demonstrates that, prior to completely dissolving the the Order, Pope Clement V absolved all the Templar Knights from the charges levied against them. compounded by other evidence on the issue, the Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges that the persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust, nothing in their order was inherently wrong, and that the Pope suffered undue pressure from the King of France (who was also his cousin).

after the Knights lost possession of the castle dispute over control raged for centuries, passing back and forth between noble and royal families and enduring sieges and attacks from all manner of opponents. in one more unbelievable series of exchanges, following an unfavorable judgement Rodrigo Osorio took control of the castle in 1483 in opposition to Fernando & Isabel; after a settlement he vacated temporarily in 1485 but shortly changed his mind and re-took the castle; the scenario repeated itself again in 1507, but Fernando, fed up with the game, finally confiscated the castle permanently for the Crown. in 1558 the caretaker appointed by the crown (the Marques de Villafranca) purchased the castle from the Crown; in the 17th and 18th centuries a city magistrate oversaw care of the castle on behalf of the Crown. in the early 19th century during the War of Independence it served as garrison and was once again attacked. in the 1850s, the city began to sell stones from the building for use in the construction of new buildings and sidewalks throughout the city. preservation and restoration began in the 1924 when the site received recognized status as a national landmark.

due to an unfortunate consequence of timing, we couldn’t do much beyond walk up to the (closed) front gate of the castle and then enjoy breakfast in view of its massive walls. if we’d read ahead more thoroughly and known the castle stood on our route we might have pushed on beyond Moliaseca and stayed in Ponferrada — it would have made the climb down from the Cruz de Ferro more challenging, but would have made the hot, challenging trek to Villafranca del Bierzo slightly less arduous. three more kilometers would have proven challenging, but … the castle was built in two phases — under the Templars in the 13th century and again under unknown direction in the 15th century. the south-facing entrance has a bridge over a moat and a double gate including barbican. the coats of arms over the front door illustrate the changing oversight of the castle.

exploring inside one of the Camino’s cathedrals

as impressive the history of the construction of the cathedral, the interior offers remarkable sites and has a fair bit of story as well. the fact I found most impressive: most of the stained glass (some 1,800 square meters of it) is the original glass and dates from the 13th to 15th centuries — something nearly improbable for me to comprehend having seen so many restored or battle-scarred cathedrals across Europe. moreover, the cathedral in León has more glass and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain; it’s sometimes known as the “cathedral without walls.”

without question the windows impress in their detail, color, and diversity. designs include scenes of traditional medieval life as well as depictions of “heavenly” saint-types and “earthly” saint-types. the northern windows, done in darker colors and which receive less light, depict the “heavenly” scenes — apostles and biblical scenes from the Old Testament. the south-facing windows, which receive more light, depict more mundane, “earthly” images, including vegetables, as well as stories from the New Testament.

on the wall of one of the south transept, mimicking that on the wall of the north transept, and tucked beside the door and beneath one of the rose windows, stands the tomb of Bishop Rodrigo, who oversaw the early stages of construction of the cathedral. he died before its completion and was laid to rest under an impressive and intricate sculpture. the Bishop of Zamora lies in a similarly designed tomb to the north.

there were some other unique features — a wall (transcoro) that cut the choir off from the front of the church fronted with alabaster plaques in a distinctly different style than the rest of the cathedral’s artwork; carvings in the back of all the choir seats of various noteworthy people (monarchs, Apostles, prophets, saints) in the 15th century style; a retablo behind the altar that went from five panels to a great deal more stretching up and obscuring the stained glass windows and back to five in one of the more modern restorations. and in the Capilla de la Virgen de la Esperanza there’s a sculpture of a pregnant Virgin Mary something my audio guide highlighted as unusual. can’t say I’ve ever seen one like it elsewhere … and it certainly stuck out from all the other art I saw in the cathedral. while the windows were my favorite aspect of the cathedral, as well as the openness of the space, the gaps in the stained glass — where white light streamed onto the floor — was almost as magical.

view of the Catedral de León

the community of León became a bishopric under the Romans and a full two hundred years before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. the cathedral in León is the second of three massive sacred sites along the Camino — the cathedrals in Burgos and Santiago de Compostela being the other two. three other structures occupied this site, beginning in the 10th century with a Visigothic-style church over ruins of the Roman baths, with the churches lasting only about a century before replacements were deemed necessary. (church one begun about 924; church two, in 1084; church three, in 1175; church four — the current cathedral — in 1205.)

the first, simple structure, built on lands donated by Ordoño II, was replaced after a century under the direction of the bishop with a more impressive Romanesque building. the second building, which included a palace, library, and hospice for peregrinos and the poor, saw the coronation of Alfonso VII as emperor of Castilla and León in 1135 with all the major monarchs and rulers across Spain in attendance. work on the third church began 40 years later and its designers aimed at creating something to rival other monumental churches on the Camino and effectively demonstrating the immense wealth and political clout of León.

work on the Gothic cathedral that stands today began in 1205 and continued for just under a century, though the south tower wasn’t completed until the 15th century. the plan largely copies that of the cathedral at Reims, but at two-thirds scale, and shares elements with other major French cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Paris, and Saint-Denis. financial backing from both the the monarchy of Castilla y León and the papacy meant progress moved smoothly and concluded in near record time. according to my reference book, Alfonso X “contributed handsomely, in part to compensate morally for never having repaid a loan the Pope had given his father Fernando III for his war to conquer Sevilla.” for his generosity, Alfonso (as well as other major contributors to the project) received an indulgence and part of his father’s loans were forgiven.

one of the more remarkable facts about the cathedral is the length gone to restore it in the 19th century. essentially, they removed the roof, reinforced the walls, and put the roof back on — all while more than slightly concerned the building might collapse entirely when the roof went back on. from early on, weaknesses in the foundation and poor structural integrity of the stones used posed major problems for the cathedral. part of the south transept collapsed in the mid-17th century and was rebuilt. discussion about restoration began in 1844 when, in an effort to highlight the importance of the building, the cathedral was named a national monument; it took another four decades before restoration got underway in earnest, however, and lasted two decades. it reopened to worshipers in 1901 and the fortification efforts worked. it was reputedly one of the most complicated and risky restoration projects in 19th century Europe. the project’s primary architect, Juan de Madrazo, posthumously received a gold medal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts for his work on the project. it’s undergoing another round of restoration now to clean and restore the facade.

Convento de San Marcos – a site to behold …

while sufficiently impressive as a structural marvel, the building occupying the Plaza San Marcos — once a monastery, now an up-scale hotel — has a rather remarkable back-story to go with it. in the 12th century, Alfonso VII provided funding at the behest of Dona Sancha to construct a simple building outside the walls of León to serve peregrions, later becoming headquarters for the Knights of the Order of Santiago. by the mid-15th century, however, the structure was mostly in ruins and offered little in the way of services for peregrinos; improvements were recommended but little done for another eighty years or so, when a grant from Ferdinand prompted the demolition of the modest accommodations for replacement by the far grander building that stands today.

consecrated in 1524, the church and attached convent was designed by architect Juan de Orozco (church), with help from Martin de Villareal (facade) and Juan de Badajoz (the Younger — cloister and sacristy). Ferdinand fired the original architect when the project did not proceed at his desired pace; this decision proved only partially successful as it took a further two hundred years to complete the structure.

one of the most impressive examples of a plasteresque facade in the Renaissance style, work on the the front of the building in San Marcos began in 1515, was interrupted in about 1541 and resumed in 1615, and features an array of portraits of important historical and mythical figures. the medallions sought to exemplify human virtue and include such notables as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hercules and Hector, El Cid … and an array of Spanish political figures of the period whose names have largely faded into obscurity. to say some seemed out of place next to momentous such momentous figures of history, religion and myth is a monumental understatement. (yes, yes I did that on purpose.) the plinths above all these medallions were designed to display sculptures but funding ran out; seems in the best for the impressive array of grotesques adorning the rest of the facade — sirens, sphinxes, winged horses, dolphins, dragons, and more. in 1715, the crowning piece was installed over what is now the entrance to the Parador — a Baroque depiction of Santiago Matamoros (Santiago the Moor Slayer … have I discussed that story yet?). in addition to grotesques and medallions, the buildings are also covered in scallop shells — the sign of Santiago.

Santiago Matamoros