The Architectural Wonder: the Cathedral of León

The cathedral of Santa María in León has walls that soar almost 100 feet high and are filled with almost 2000 square feet of stained glass, spread over 130 church windows and 3 rose windows. To stand inside and survey what look like walls of glass, supporting a roof of stone, is to understand why this building has the nickname “House of Light.”

Improbable amounts of stained glass
The cathedral of Santa María in León has almost 2000 square feet of stained glass

 

And to understand that it was built between 1205-1301 is to appreciate the incredible complexity of a project like this. So much glass, with so little stone around it, seems like an engineering disaster waiting to happen. The slightest miscalculation would send the whole thing tumbling down. (Actually, in the 17th century part of the central vault of the transept collapsed due to the frailty of the building. It was rebuilt in the 19th century.)

Today’s #CaminoTuesday theme is Architectural Wonders Along the Camino. And if the Gothic cathedral in León isn’t near the top of the list architectural wonders of the Way of Saint James, I don’t know what would be. Built at the heyday of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago, the cathedral-under-construction would have drawn the prayers (and donations) of up to a quarter million pilgrims per year—roughly the same number as now.

Going to the chapel...
Saturday tourists and wedding guests converge outside the cathedral of Santa María in León

Today, the cathedral is a destination for tourists—on our 2015 walk on the Camino Frances, Eric and I took a rest day in León that happened to fall on a Saturday, and we paid our fee and meandered slowly through the interior of the building with phone-like audio recorders pressed to our ears, listening to the self-guided tours. Later, we sat at a café across the street and watched expensive cars drop off families in formal wear for private weddings.

It didn’t feel like a sacred or spiritual place, in other words. But as a work of art, and a connection to the early pilgrims? I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The cathedral in Leon made me stop to appreciate the enormous effort that medieval Christians put into their expressions of faith.

Cathedral of Leon

Imagine:

Engineered by master builders without computer design software… or even calculators.

Carved by hand—one generation of stonecutters teaching the skill to the next generation, and then the next, for a project they knew they would never see finished.

Not just a wonder of architecture, then, but also a wonder of human commitment.

Leon Cathedral at Dawn

 

For the truly architecture curious, here’s a bit more from Architecture Revived:

As with all Gothic cathedrals, designers aimed for a maximum height and as much window space as possible, while using stone walls and vaulted ceilings. The technical challenge was even greater at León due to the Roman bath ruins underneath the floor and the quality of limestone available.

To solve this technical challenge, the flying buttresses spread over quite a horizontal distance and parts of the building gain structural independence. They rise above the building, indicating a greater height may have been expected. The front two towers are pushed outwards so that the buttresses are visible from the front. The walls and buttresses become considerably robust as they meet the ground, and they are capped by tall spires to pin them down. The builders placed large boulders in the ground to support this considerable weight.

 

What are your favorite architectural wonders along the Camino de Santiago? Add your story, with the hashtag #CaminoTuesday, on your blog, or on Instagram/Twitter. (And while you’re there, follow me on Instagram and Twitter, too!)


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