The Chicago Public Library once had a book on Romanesque art I repeatedly checked out, renewed the maximum amount of times, and then immediately put on hold again. I’d leave bookmarks inside of the artworks I planned to visit, and the book would usually return to me with my bookmarks intact. One of the bookmarked pages was of the frescoes in San Isidoro de León, so finally getting to see these lovely frescoes was obviously a high point of our trip to Spain. (In case you’re curious, I did finally buy the book, but only after the spine of the library copy broke and they took it out of circulation).
This is the Basilica of San Isidoro. The frescoes are in a building attached to the church, which is now a museum.
Here I am enjoying winter weather at the entry to the museum of San Isidora, one of the world’s greatest entirely unheated museums. You have to enter the museum as part of a tour—our tour was in Spanish, but fortunately I brought my own information (including photocopies of the aforementioned Romanesque art book).
What a wonderful opportunity to see Romanesque painting in situ! These frescoes are original, unrestored since they were painted around 1180. They are elegantly rendered in a restricted palate of brown, gray, white, black and ocher. Most of the murals are New Testament narratives, but there are enticing bits of secular León life mixed in, along with an outstanding Labors of the Month calendar.
Supposedly there are Spanish royals interred in the those coffins scattered about, but I admit I didn’t pay much attention to them, what with such amazing art overhead. Sorry dead kings, you’ve been upstaged.
An angel, lower left, announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds, sheep and goats (notice how a dog is sneaking a sip of his master’s bowl of milk while he’s preoccupied by the angel’s announcement).
“I’m Christ Pantocrator, all-powerful and wearer of gowns with cool sleeves.”
Please pay attention to the squiggly blobs around the edges of this image, between the apostles. These are officially known as Squishy Romanesque Details. I adore them.
Slaughter of the innocents. Every time I look at this I giggle, and then feel guilty about it….
The Ark of the Ivories, 1059. Inside is reliquary of John the Baptist’s jaw. (No lie, I’ve seen reliquaries of St. John’s teeth or jaw in dozens of museums and churches. How many teeth can one man have? If John the Baptist were Native American his name would be John Thousand Tooth.)
I had no idea that the Museum of San Isidora contained so much fantastic art, such as the exquisite ivory decorated box above. Fortunately, the tour guides didn’t rush us so we could take our time viewing the work.
This goblet had it’s own room in the museum. While I think it looks like a prop in a high-school musical theater show, it’s apparently literally the holy grail of relics, said to be used by Jesus during the last supper.
The top floor of the museum if full of priceless illuminated manuscripts, including the León Bible of 960. The page above is showing David before the the Covenant in the Temple of Solomon. This Mozarabic treasure had me squirming with joy (you can flip through a fine reproduction of it in the museum gift shop). The big hands! The curtains! The blue angel wings!
This altered sign outside the museum was almost as exciting as the fresco paintings inside.
Where we slept: Hostal Alda Casco Antiguo. Price: €45 for a double. Recommended: yes.