Romanesque frescoes in San Isidoro de León

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).

(Since photography in the museum is prohibited, the images of the art below are taken from Wikipedia or Web Gallery of Art.)

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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.

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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.

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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.


How we got to León: train from Frómista to Palencia followed by another train from Palencia to León.

Where we slept: Hostal Alda Casco Antiguo.  Price: €45 for a double.  Recommended: yes.








  1. Fabulous post, as usual. I loved this one. Great images even if they are not yours. I also get a kick out of seeing you everyday in the cold rain and snow. Not my image of “sunny” Espana. By the way, I am from Chicago, though not living there now. We need to compare notes. This trip through northern Spain has been great. Thanks for taking me along.


    1. Thank you bappel2014. I think you would really enjoyed the stained glass in Leon’s cathedral? Have you been there yet? It’s a treat (even in winter).


  2. Hi, can you tell me if there was much on the Virgin Mary in these frescos? Thanks.


    1. Yes, I can recall there was quite a dynamic annunciation, with Mary’s robes in motion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I may try to stop there this fall.


  3. Your comment about the Ark of the Ivories reminded me of a passage from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. On the topic of relics, he wrote, “We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together. I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails. Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also in Notre Dame. As for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.” Anyway, thanks for another enlightening and entertaining post. I am, of course, very impressed you found the holy grail.


    1. Oh lawdy, Mark Twain always makes me lose it! You write so much more eloquently about reliquaries than I do, but there’s that strange experience of being an outsider to this sort of thing (the endless pieces of the true cross, the crown of thorn and all St. Johns teeth), of feeling skeptical and trying not to feel skeptical at the same time. I’d like to be that person who understands relics in a historical and cultural context, but I continually fail at it.


  4. Reblogged this on astrall4real.


  5. Wow! So much going on here. I wouldn’t feel bad about laughing at that kid. That’s good stuff. I don’t know what I like more. Your descriptions with the pictures or your book-borrowing habits.


    1. Both the kid and the soldier’s expressions–“Slaughtering babies, meh, kinda lame.”

      My book-borrowing habits are the sign of a serious cheapskate (and of someone with no more room on her book shelf.)


  6. That settles it…I have to make time for Leon if we get back to Spain this year.
    And as for relics, I’m still trying to remember how many Holy Foreskins were preserved according to Peyrefitte’s The Keys of Saint Peter novel…


    1. Holy foreskins…you’re killing me! I really want to see the shape of the reliquary boxes they’re stored in.


  7. I can’t believe those are the original, unrestored frescos. The color is still so vivid! Have you ever been to the Chapel of the Princes in the San Lorenzo church in Florence? There’s a whole room full of teeth and fingers and miscellaneous bones of saints. When my family was visiting me in Florence, I made a point to take them there just to watch my younger brother turn green. (I’m such a great sister, hehe.)


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