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Monthly Archives: September 2009

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In 1147 Saint Isidore appeared in a dream to King Alfonso VII of León-Castile who was campaigning against the Moors in Andalusia. Isidore assured the king of his aid.

Leon-Isidore-23 On the field of Baeza the following day, the saint was to be seen mounted on a white charger, leading the Christian forces to victory.

It was Alfonso’s gandfather, Fernando Ist who in 1063 had brought Isidore’s relics from Seville to León where they had been placed in a magnificent silver and gold reliquary casket which had no equal in western Christendom at that time. The embossed figures depict the narrative of Adam and Eve and the penitential figure of Fernando himself. Leon-xxx-3-Corr

It was written that during Fernando’s siege of Seville, the ruler of the the Taifa principality had offered the relics of the martyr Santa Justa to persuade the Christians to spare the city. Isidore had miraculously intervened to be substituted in place. Fernando was concerned about the salvation of his soul and Isidore was a saint of sufficient stature for him to be buried alongside.

The choice of Isidore as the patron of León was also explained by the symbolism of the gesture which brought his relics to the northern Christian kingdom. Isidore was the father of the Spanish church and his connections with the Spain of the Visigoths before the Arab Conquest were both political and religious. He was the sixth century archbishop of Seville and as such had been close to the centre of power of the Visigothic kingdom.

Isidore was a prolific theolgical writer having produced a handbook which consolidated the Visigothic liturgy and a monastic rule book.

isidore_TO_mapHis most celebrated work is his great encyclopaedia, the Eytmologiae. His theological and encyclopaedic writings were widely disseminated throughout medieval Christendom.

As a Hispano-Roman he came from an educated aristocratic background which the Visigoths were keen to be associated with and Isidore had been commissioned to write the History of the Gothic people in order to exalt the rulers of Spain.“Of all the lands from the west to the Indies,” Isidore had written, “you, Spain are the pride and the ornament of the world, the most illustrious part of the earth, in which the Gothic people are gloriously prolific, rejoicing much and flourishing greatly”.

Isidore died at the age of eighty in 636 having relinquished all his earthly possessions and performed a public penance.

Because of its nature as a palatine basilica with a cloister on the north side and the Royal Pantheon to the west,

Leon-Corderon-1

the church of San Isidoro features two substantial southern entrances. The passage to the nave was through the Puerta del Corderón or Door of the Lamb, so called because of the Agnus Dei which surmounts the sculpture of the porch tympanum.

Two spandrel figures loom down from either side of the tympanum – Saint Vincent and Saint Isidore whose relics were guarded by the monks of the royal abbey.

Depicted on the sculpture above the doorway is the Old Testament narrative of the Offering of Isaac.Leon-Corderon-9 From the Visigothic church of San Pedro de la Nave near Zamora to the capital relief at Jaca, this subject seemed to hold a special fascination for the  Christians of medieval Spain.

At León the full import of its meaning is manifest. The separate fates of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac were central to medieval Apocalyptic prophecies concerning the conflict between Christianity and Islam.

The Offering of Isaac, according to numerous exegetical writings was considered Leon-Corderon-27a prefiguration of the Crucifixion, a connection made clear at León with the presentation of Isaac riding towards his fate at Moriah on an ass, as Jesus made his Entry to Jerusalem before the Crucifixion.

In the Genesis text it is written of Abraham’s seed of the line of Isaac that a great nation would be born and that they would come to possess the gates of their enemies.

Ishmael, Abraham’s son from his bondswoman Hagar had been exiled to the desert, however and the race of Ishmael had long been identified with that of the Arab invaders of Spain.

It was helpful that Saint Isidore himself, had made this equation in his Etymologiae. “The Saracens live in the desert”, he wrote. “They are also called the Ishmaelites, as the book of Genesis teaches, because they are descended from Ishmael. They are also called Hagarenes because they are descended from Hagar. They also, as we have already said, perversely call themselves Saracens because they mendaciously boast descent from Sarah”.

On the tympanum of the Puerta del Corderón, opposite Isaac and Sarah are IshmaelLeon-Corderon-35 and Hagar. Hagar with her skirt raised in the licentious pose associated by the Christians with the Saracen race and Ishmael, an archer as recorded in Genesis, wearing the attributes of a contemporary Saracen cavalry warrior, a turban and the short stirruped saddle.

The identification of the northern Christians in their war of Reconquest against the Moors of Spain with the triumphant destiny of Isaac’s line had an established tradition deriving from a previous exegetical text known as the Chronica Prophetica which promised the liberation of the Visigoths from the yoke of the Ishmaelites. Leon-Corderon-55The Chronica, written in 883 drew upon Ezekiel’s Apocalyptic warnings concerning the people of Gog. ”Certainly Gog is to be understood as the people of the Goths and just as Ishmael is written above to signify all of the race of the Ishmaelites when the prophet says, “Set your face against Ishmael.”

Above the patriarch Abraham, a pair of angels hold aloft an image of the Lamb in a pose of apotheosis.

The Lamb is both that of the Eucharist, signifying the New Covenant and Apocalyptic in fulfillment of the prophetic context of the Genesis story and the medieval conception of the war between Christianity and Islam as part of the eschatological working of history towards the End of Time.

Although historians have not been able to give a definitive dating for the Puerta del Corderón, the decade of the 1140’s is often favoured. This coincided with the reign of Alfonso VII and the escalation of the Reconquista into a contest for the whole of the Spanish peninsula and the visit of the abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable who had begun the institution of an ideological war against Islam.

The city of León was situated at the confluence of two major Iberian Roman transport arteries; the north south road from Baetica to Asturias met the road from Pamplona heading west towards Galicia.  At this important intersection the Roman seventh legion had been stationed, protecting the plains from the Cantabrian tribes. The name of the city which grew up around the garrisoned legion reflected its origins, León.

Leon-xxx-2-CleanBy the middle ages these were major pilgrimage routes: the Camino Frances and the Via de la Plata. This last road led from Seville bearing pilgrims to Compostela from Andalusia. No other city in Spain contained as many churches and monastic establishments as León and it was the last of the major stations of the pilgrimage before Compostela itself.

Taken by the Arabs in about 714, the fate of León was indicative of the slow progress of the Reconquista. Christian attempts to recover it proved indecisive until 882 when it was reconquered definitively by Ordoño Ist and his son Alfonso III who moved his capital there from Oviedo in 909.Leon-x-3 By this gesture, Christian Spain had made a decisive move away from the protected regions behind the Cantabrians to the more exposed lands of the meseta table.

The relics of Saint Pelayo were acquired and a church was built dedicated  to this saint, a child martyr of Cordobá and a potent symbol of Saracen oppression.

It was therefore a prime target for Al-Mansur’s punitive raids of the late tenth century which also affected Santiago de Compostela. León was razed in 988 and the church of San Pelayo burnt to the ground.

After the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordobá in 1031 the fortunes of the city began to change as Christian forces began to advance on Saracen territory. With Fernando Ist’s annexation of the kingdom of León in 1037 and the formation of the new Christian superpower of León-Castile, it assumed the role of capital of the Reconquista.

Leon-Isidore-9 This was fully established in 1063, when, two years before his death, Fernando arranged the translation of the relics of Saint Isidore from Moorish Seville.

Besides being a show of power on Fernando’s part in retrieving Christian relics which had been kept in Moorish hands, the choice of Isidore as the new patron of León was highly symbolic.

Isidore was the sixth century bishop of Seville, last of the great patristic figures he was the father of the Spanish Church and an emblematic link between the world of classical antiquity and the middle ages.

More importantly, Isidore’s relics provided a connection between the Visigothic Christian Spain which had existed prior to the Arab invasion, which had devastated it and the new Christian Spain. Fernando  was keen to create the impression of an unbroken link between the two. Leon-Corderon-7

The acquisition of Isidore’s relics did much to achieve this ambition. Whereas Saint Pelayo was a reminder of Christian Spain under the Arab yoke, the memory of Isidore looked back to a seeming golden age and the renewed possibility of Christian hegemony on the Iberian peninsula.

The new church of San Isidoro and the legends of miracles which began to occur there heightened the flow of pilgrims and increased their sense of expectation as they headed beyond León towards Compostela.

In the Liber Sancti Iacobi it is described as “a royal and courtly city, filled with riches”.

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