León is an even older city than Burgos. It began as a Roman encampment in 29 B.C. As the Christians began pushing the Moors to the south, the Kingdom of León was established, and the city of the same name became its capital in A.D. 910. It was an important city in the early Middle Ages, and, like Burgos, was a stop along the pilgrimage Route of St. James. When the Kingdom of León was consolidated with the Kingdom of Castille in 1301, the city's importance declined. Today, however, León, with a metropolitan population of 500,000, is larger than Burgos.
Today I visited two of the most important medieval monuments in the city... the Basilica of San Isidro and the Cathedral.
In the early Middle Ages, the predominant style of architecture was Romanesque. Due to the limitations of technology, Romanesque buildings are not very tall, and the walls are thick with few windows in order to support the roof. The Basilica of San Isidro, built in 1063, has had some later renovations, but its style is basically Romanesque.
The Basilica contains the burial chamber of the kings of León. Eleven kings and various other members of the royal family are interred here. The vaulted ceiling of the chamber is adorned with the finest examples of Romanesque paintings anywhere. It is sometimes referred to as the "Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art".
The adjoining cloister is the oldest Romanesque cloister in Spain. It is also of historic importance because it was here in 1188 that King Alfonso IX convened the first parliament in Europe.
As medieval architects improved their technological skills they were able to build taller buildings, with thinner walls and more windows. This new style which originated in northern France was known as the Gothic style. The pilgrimage Route of St. James was a conduit for new ideas from France, and in 1205 work began on a Gothic cathedral for León.
The exterior of the León Cathedral is much simpler than the cathedral in Burgos.
Unlike the Cathedral of Burgos, very few additions were made to the interior decoration. Thus, the Cathedral of León is an almost pure expression of Gothic style. The building is most noteworthy for its stained glass windows. There are over 19,000 square feet of stained glass, and most of it is original... a rarity. It is one of the greatest collections of medieval stained glass anywhere in the world.