Turismo Prerrománico > Countries > España > REAL BASÍLICA DE SAN ISIDORO


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Historic environment

Originally it was a royal monastery founded by King Sancho I ‘El Gordo’ (956-966), son of Ramiro II. The remains of the Cordovan child martyr San Pelayo (whose sculpture is on the main façade together with that of San Isidoro, the two owners of the site) were deposited in it. The community was made up of the nuns of the Infantado de Palat del Rey, among whom was Sancho’s sister, Elvira Ramírez. This first monastery was destroyed during Almanzor’s raid on the city of León before the year 1000.

Alfonso V (999-1027), rebuilt the monastery, with poor materials according to the chronicle of Lucas de Tuy and his own inscription (clay and brick = ex mourning et latere). It was located next to the church dedicated to San Juan Bautista that he also had built. As in the first foundation, a community of nuns belonging to the royal institution of the Infantado was established again. At this time, an event of great relevance to the history of the complex takes place: Alfonso V orders the transfer here of the remains of the kings of Leon who were scattered throughout different churches, including those of their parents King Vermudo II and Queen Elvira. Thus, the germ of a real pantheon is created.

Under the reign of Fernando I (1037-1065) and Doña Sancha, daughter of Alfonso V, the monastery was renovated, rebuilding it in stone. Again the place, in this case the portico of the church, was arranged as a burial place for the kings. The church was reconsecrated under the dedication of San Isidoro de Sevilla, whose remains were solemnly transferred here (1063) together with those of San Vicente de Ávila. The translation entailed the donation of rich objects, liturgical and personal, which made up the so-called ‘Treasure of León’. The daughter of Fernando and Sancha, the Infanta Doña Urraca (+ 1101), enlarged the church in full Romanesque style in relation to other creations on the Camino de Santiago, which were beginning to characterize that period, and its treasure, with new donations among which highlights the famous gold and agate chalice.

The church was again enlarged and reconsecrated in 1149, under the reign of Alfonso VII and with the patronage of his sister Sancha Raimúndez.



The church of San Isidoro is the result of several construction stages, the first of which were directly linked to the Leonese monarchy. The current building has a basilica plant in a Latin cross. Its classroom is divided into three naves separated from the triple apse by a transept, from which its large polylobed arches stand out. The main apse, with the same light as the central nave, was replaced in the Gothic period by another larger rectangular one covered with a ribbed vault. Of the Romanesque head, the smaller lateral apses remain, as well as the beginnings of the central one.

San Isidoro de León, despite being an emblematic monument widely studied, presents a great diachronic complexity. Its construction stages are still being debated. At the beginning of the 20th century (Mélida 1910) archaeological excavations were carried out in the northwest area of the interior of the church, discovering the foundations and plan of the first church, interpreted as having three naves covered with a barrel vault, and three straight apses, reminiscent of the typology of pre-Romanesque Asturian churches. The remains were associated with the 10th century church.

In 2011, archaeological excavations were carried out in the area of the south atrium, in ethe framework of the restoration of the façade on this side of the church (directed by the archaeologist J. I Murillo) . Several burials were found, two of them sarcophagi and part of a medieval wall, located in front of the Puerta del Cordero, which could have been part of the funerary chapel of the nobleman from Leon, Juan Caballero, from the 14th century. The shallow depth of the intervention -0.80 m- prevented finding architectural and anthropic remains of the first construction stages.

The last building study, carried out by M. A. Utrero and J. I. Murillo (2014) determines the following construction sequence: “A building, of possible Roman origin and of indeterminate function, is amortized by the construction of a new one in the middle of the 11th century. This, in turn, will be reused throughout the second half of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th century in the execution of a new and ambitious project that conceives a great vaulted basilica with a transept. Disproportionate dimensions and excessive loads combine to ruin this work, which is nevertheless rebuilt in a short period of time and, possibly hastily, finished in the second half of the 12th century. In this way, the construction, ruin and reconstruction of San Isidoro occur over time, conditioning its shape in the Romanesque period and its current state of conservation”. Therefore, on the surface, seen, they would not preserve remains of the first construction phases, destroyed or hidden among the later factories. The Roman chronology for the structures excavated at the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the proposal of Prof. M. Torres, who in 2008 carried out a ˜sweep’ of the building with georadar, locating under the cloister a large building with a rectangular, vaulted and flanked by rows of columns.


Its chronology must be prior to the last reconsecration of the church (1149), leaving the pantheon decentered from the new church. It was created in the space of the western portico, at the foot of the church. In it rest 33 members of the Leonese court, highlighting 12 queens and 11 kings. It is a quadrangular space divided into eight sections organized into three naves separated by arches supported by Romanesque, vegetable and ornate capitals, some with scenes from the Old Testament such as the Sacrifice of Isaac or Daniel among the lions.

The most striking are its six vaulted vaults painted in tempera on white stucco, which were described as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art’. It presents a rich iconography that narrates the annual cycles and the liturgical cycles, from the ‘Annunciation’ to the ‘Crucifixion’. A Pantocrator surrounded by the theatermorphs is also represented right in the central vault of the pantheon.

ISAAC SASTRE DE DIEGO (Archaeologist, researcher) for URBS REGIA

Other interesting information

Open every day, in the morning and afternoon that changes depending on the time of year (see Museum of San Isidoro de León)

Admission: 5 Euros (4 Euros for groups of more than 20 pax).

5 Euros (4 Euros for groups of more than 20 pax).



J. R. Mélida (1910): ‘La basílica legionense de San Isidoro’, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia LVI, pp. 48-153.
-J. Williams, (1973): ‘San Isidoro in León: Evidence for a New History’, Art Bulletin 55, pp. 171-184.
-T. Martin (2000): Queen as King. Patronage at the Romanesque Church of San Isidoro de León, Phil. Diss. University of Pittsburgh, 2 Bde., Ann Arbor.
A. García Martínez (2005): ‘Aproximación crítica a la historiografía de San Isidoro de León’. Estudios Humanísticos. Historia, nº 4, pp. 53-93.
(2007): Real Colegiata de San Isidoro. Relicario de la monarquía leonesa, León.
Mª.A. Utrero; J. I. Murillo (2014): ‘San Isidoro de León. Construcción y reconstrucción de una basílica románica’, Arqueología de la Arquitectura, nº 11.


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