The collegiate palatine basilica of Saint Isidore at León lay on the pilgrimage road to Compostela. The church featured two, south facing entrances, both bearing important Romanesque portal reliefs. The Puerta del Corderón was near the western end of the nave.
The portal of the south transept was known as the Puerta del Perdón and it was the entrance used by the pilgrims.
On their way to Santiago they came to León to venerate the relics of Saint Isidore.
Its carved tympanum is composed of a triptych design. A central image of the Deposition from the Cross is flanked by panels on each side which attest to Christ’s victory over death. On the right the Discovery of the Empty Tomb and on the left, the Ascension.
On either side of the tympanum are spandrel reliefs of the apostles Peter and Paul.
The porch bears a strong resemblance both in architectural design and iconography to the Porte Miègeville at Saint Sernin de Toulouse.
The sculptural style, which has been attributed to the same Master Esteban who worked at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, can also be considered to have a degree of similarity with that of Toulouse.
The Deposition panel depicts Jesus being brought down, after he has died on the cross, by Nicodemus who is wielding a pair of pliers to extract the nail from his left hand.
Joseph of Arimathea cradles the dead body as it is lowered.
A grieving Mary holds her cheek against the right hand. Her presence at the scene is not mentioned in the canonical gospels but is included in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus.
To the right an angel opens the lid of the sarcophagus indicating to the visiting Myrrophores, the three Mary’s, Magdalene, Salome and Jacobi, who have come bearing perfume to embalm the corpse, that the tomb is empty.
The sarcophagus is shown with two columns on either side which bear foliate capitals and a spiral design. Records show that traffic along the pilgrim road went both ways and the canons of the cathedral of Compostela travelled to the Holy Land.
A tenth century monk of León, a certain Jacinto, returned from Jerusalem with an account of his journey which included a detailed description of the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre.
The original church of the Holy Sepulchre had been destroyed in 1009 and Jacinto’s account would have recorded the Emperor Constantine’s original Anastasis rotunda.
On the left of the tympanum’s Deposition is an Ascension, almost identical to that of the Porte Miègeville, in which a very human Christ is being lifted up by two angels.
This Ascension appears even more of a struggle than the one at Toulouse with Christ using the wings of the angels to lever himself up.
The inscription on the moulding adjacent to the Ascension declares, “Ascendo ad patrem meum et patrem vestrum”.
These are words taken from the Gospel of Saint John and were spoken to Mary Magdalene, first witness to the Resurrection.
They follow the famous Noli me Tangere words, “Touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father”.
Such a conjunction between the Resurrection and the Ascension, as was implied by the inclusion of these words, was a way of introducing a fourth element into the triptych.
It was a pattern which, with variations, which could be seen elsewhere. On a series of ivory plaques created at León around the same time, four carvings show the same scenes as on the tympanum except that the Ascension, notably, is replaced by the Noli me Tangere. An additional fourth scene is of the Disciples at Emmaus.
The cloister of the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Castile featured six corner reliefs on the theme of the Resurrection which included among them, the scenes of the Deposition, the Discovery of the Empty Tomb, and the Disciples at Emmaus.
It was traditional to depict the latter scene as one of medieval pilgrimage.
At Silos, Christ is shown bearing the scallop shell of the Compostelan pilgrimage on his pouch, by contrast, the ivory plaque of León’s reliquary depicts Christ on the road to Emmaus with a cross on his pouch, signifying Jerusalem.
At León there was a church of the Holy Sepulchre located in the suburb of Santa Maria del Camino whose cemetery was used for the burial of pilgrims who had died en route. The church also benefitted from a hospital for pilgrims.
The detailed image of the Holy Sepulchre on the tympanum of the Puerta del Perdón was part of a broader connection between León and Jerusalem.
The association of the Ascension with the first appearance of the resurrected Christ combined the whole of the tympanum relief into a representation of Easter and the penitential liturgy associated with it.
This pictorial formula also emphasised the role of Mary Magdalene since she was directly identified with both the Discovery of the Empty Tomb and the Noli me Tangere.
Mary Magdalene’s role in the church had been radically elevated by Pope Gregory the Great who saw her as the archetypal sinner redeemed.
At Villafranca del Bierzo, eighty miles further along the pilgrimage road, there was also a porch doorway at the church of Santiago designated the Puerta del Perdón, where pilgrims who were too sick or lame to continue their journey were granted the same absolution they would receive at Compostela itself.
It is likely that the same intention was implied at León.
Sources and Biblio: Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003
Etude sur les sculptures de Sainte-Foy de Conques et de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse et leurs relations avec celles de Saint-Isidore de Léon et de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.Deschamps Paul. In: Bulletin Monumental, tome 100, n°3-4, année 1941. pp. 239-264
León Roman. Antonio Vinayo Gonzalez. Ed La Nuit des Temps ed. Zodiaque 1972