León history and heritage

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León, History and Heritage

Its millennial history has bequeathed the city of Leon with a wealth of heritage, which includes some magnificent examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Modern art, and even post-modern art at the MUSAC. All of our courses —but especially our Spanish Culture courses— incorporate activities and tasks that enable our students to discover and enjoy León’s historic heritage.


This is the city’s most emblematic building.

Construction of the cathedral, built in the French Gothic style, began in the 13th century on the site of an earlier Romanesque cathedral. The Cathedral of León is a jewel of Gothic art, not only due to its ogival arches and ribbed vaults but also and especially to its stained glass windows, produced between the 13th and 16th centuries, which endow the entire building with an ethereal, luminous beauty. Currently used for Catholic worship, the cathedral also houses a museum. The main body, ambulatory, cloisters, choir and chapels of the cathedral are all open to visitors. In October and November, the cathedral hosts the International Organ Festival, when residents and visitors alike can attend concerts given by prominent musicians in an extraordinarily beautiful and historic setting.


The Royal Collegiate Basilica of San Isidoro is one of the finest examples of Romanesque art in Spain. It was built between the 11th and 12th centuries, during the height of the Kingdom of Leon. The basilica contains a royal pantheon with a Romanesque mural painting of incalculable value, which is also known as the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art. It also houses a museum collection that boasts priceless pieces of mediaeval art, in particular the 11th century Chalice of Doña Urraca, which according to research by the historian Margarita Torres is the chalice that was venerated in the Middle Ages as the Holy Grail. Besides the museum, other areas open to visitors include the archives, the library, the tower and the church, which are all in an excellent state of conservation and offer multiple cultural opportunities throughout the year.


The Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí only designed three buildings outside Catalonia, two of which are in the province of Leon: the Episcopal Palace in Astorga and the Botines House. This latter was built between 1891 and 1892 and is a uniquely beautiful modernist building. Its facade is ascribed to Gaudí’s neo-Gothic period, while the modernist interior is characterised by technical innovation, sgraffito, stained glass windows and cabinetry. The Botines House currently accommodates the Gaudí museum and the headquarters of the Duero-España Foundation.


The Castile and León Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a large single storey building designed by the architects Mansilla and Tuñón, for which they won the Mies van der Rohe Award for Architecture in 2007, the most prestigious European prize in this field.

The most striking feature of this building is its vividly coloured floor-to-ceiling windows, which represent a pixelated image of the stained-glass windows in the cathedral. The City of León Auditorium was designed by the same architects, and is located only a short distance from the MUSAC.


The Convent of San Marcos was originally built beside the Bernesga River during the reign of Alfonso VII to serve as a church and hospital for pilgrims on the St. James Way, funded by a donation from his sister, the Infanta Sancha Bermúdez. By the 16th century, the mediaeval building had fallen into disrepair and was replaced by a new construction financed by Ferdinand II of Aragon. However, the present building dates from the reign of Charles I.

San Marcos is an outstanding example of Spanish Renaissance architecture, and some of the best architects of the period were involved in its construction, including Juan de Badajoz, responsible for the cloister and the sacristy, Martín de Villarreal, responsible for the exceptional Plateresque facade, and Juan de Orozco, who designed the church. San Marcos has served many functions over the years, having been variously a prison hospital, a college and a jail for prisoners of war, this latter during the Spanish Civil War. These days, San Marcos is a five star Parador (luxury State-owned hotel). Its interior hosts many pieces of art, including wood carvings, Renaissance furniture and paintings from the Flemish school and by contemporary artists such as Vela Zanetti and Macarrón.


The Sierra Pambley Foundation was created in 1887 by Francisco Giner de los Ríos, one of the main intellectuals involved in the Free Educational Institution, in order to promote education and culture. Located opposite the cathedral, the building now houses the Sierra Pambley House Museum, furnished in the style of a 19th century Enlightenment family home. The building also hosts the Azcárate Library and the Foundation’s archives. The Foundation continues to play an important and active social and cultural role.