A few days ago I arrived in the spectacular city of Leon, having spent the previous five days walking across the endless Meseta and thoroughly bored out of my mind.
Add to this a nasty bug that kept me bedridden for an entire day and it will come as no surprise to you that with two days to go before reaching the city, I had enough of walking through Spain’s version of Nebraska and decided to take the train in. May you absolve me for my trespass against the Camino de Santiago.
Leon is gorgeous and has a labyrinthine core of two thousand year old streets that intersect at odd angles, randomly interspersed plazas, and a largely intact wall dating back to Roman times, when this city was the garrison for the 7th Roman Legion.
But for once, I’m not really interested in sharing my experience of the city with you. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely place, and I’m glad I spent an extra day here.
I made a discovery while visiting the Cathedral of Leon that to me means much more than any other experience I had in the city. If you’re a fan of my adventures but indifferent to the occasional spritzer of art I throw in, wait for my next post, because this one is straight art, no chaser. You’ve been warned.
Coming from Jewish heritage and knowing full well that my ancestors in Spain were probably forced at one point or another to contribute toward the building of things like cathedrals, I try to avoid paying entry to see them. Given that Leon is especially well known for its cathedral, pragmatism trumped principle and I paid the small admission fee to go inside. Crucially, this admission also allowed me to visit the cloisters, which were inaccessible through the church.
As far as interior space goes, Leon is nothing special; I know I come off sounding like a complete art snob, but Leon, Burgos, and other Spanish Gothic cathedrals are complete rip-offs of the real McCoy Gothic ones in France, such as Chartres, Sens, and Auxerre.
That being said, the windows were extraordinarily well preserved—much better than the majority of French cathedrals. And for a heavily-trafficked building like this, the artificial lighting could even be described as tasteful.
You must be starting to wonder when I’m going to bring up sculpture though, since that’s what the title teasingly advertised when you clicked through—no worries, we’re here. After I left the Cathedral I walked around the corner to the cloisters. Mind you, they’re attached, but for whatever reason you can’t go directly from one vessel to the other. I guess it’s a reminder of how roundabout the Spanish can sometimes be.
The cloisters in Leon aren’t really much to write home about in themselves; they’re Spanish Gothic, from the 15th or 16th Century I believe, and they have an interesting sequence of murals showing the life of Christ. What makes them special is that they hold the entire collection of full-size original sculptures from the façade of the Cathedral.
These sculptures once occupied the entire width of the façade, grouped on either side of each of the three portals, and when they were put on display in the cloister some genius (I’m not being sarcastic here) put them on pedestals with diagrams showing exactly where on the façade they stood and the approximate date of creation (all within the years of 1280-1295). Let me humbly acknowledge that without knowing their position relative to each other, my conjecture would be all the more abstract (it still is, of course).
Meet the Old Testament Prophet Zacharias. He stood with a few of his other Old Testament friends such as the Queen of Sheba around the Southwestern Portal—that is, the portal to our right when we face the façade. I am showing you him (as opposed to one of the other sculptures) deliberately, and you’ll see why in a second.
Keeping Zach fresh in your memory, take a look at Saint Peter, who occupied the central portal of the cathedral and welcomed visitors to the church with a reminder that it was he who held the keys (which you can see the remains of) to Heaven in his right hand. Unlike Zach, I am showing you Pete when I could just as well show you sculptures of David, Saint Bartholomew, Santiago, Saint James the Minor, and a host of others. I just like Pete’s look, and that’s good enough for me.
Taking a closer look at our two saintly stone friends, do you notice differences in their respective appearances? Beyond what they’re holding, of course—I’ll give you some hints, in case you’re having trouble.
First, let’s start with the facial features. Wow, the facial features. When I first saw Zacharias, who was several sculptures down, the difference was so startling I had to keep going back and forth between him and a few of the other ones to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I’m sure the other tourists walking around the cloisters thought there was something odd about that American pacing back and forth between the statues—and they were right. Zach has a crinkled brow, and you can see the heavy wrinkles in his forehead. When he smiles at us, there are laugh lines in his eyes, and his cheeks are rosy and dimpled. Zach’s lips are full and his bottom lip is prominent enough to create a small shadow underneath. Moving beyond his face, notice how his long hair and beard seem to fall naturally, letting gravity pull them down but still allowing for curls to form this way and that.
Now I want you to look at Pete, and compare the same features—or lack thereof—with Zach. Pete has a slightly receding hairline, but his forehead is smooth and unwrinkled. His eyebrow juts prominently over his large, exceedingly open eyes, and his mouth is a tiny thin line. His beard and his hair are much more stylized. Unlike Zach, whose hair falls quite randomly, Pete’s hair is completely symmetrical. It curls a bit on one side, and it curls in exactly the same way on the other. Before you get the idea that I’m detracting from Pete, know that I’m not; this is merely an objective observation of one work of art in contrast to another (as an art historian, the idea of picking a “better” work is as taboo as the idea of compromise to the Tea Party. Yes, I put my pinky toe into the muddy water of politics—back to the world of art, which I much prefer).
The differences between the two sculptures are not just limited to the head. Going back up to the first two pictures of our stony friends, observe how Zach is a bit thinner on the whole, whereas Pete has a stockier, wider build. If the two played American football, Zach would be a lanky wide receiver and Pete would be a bulldog linebacker. If you look even more closely, you might also see that the two have different poses to go with their body shapes. And to me, this is where you can start leaping to conclusions about the influence behind the hands that made them.
Zach’s body shape makes a soft “S”, whereas Pete stands in the classic Greco-Roman contrapposto pose where one foot steps out in front of the other, shifting the body weight slightly backwards. We can’t see Zach’s feet, but that’s fine, because whoever was posing as Zach was probably not mimicking that exact shape—the “S” pose is about as natural as preferring a government shutdown and default over universal healthcare (whoops, did it again)—and anyways, artists have always been OK with bending bodies, gravity and the like to their will.
So, if you have already forgotten the specifics of everything I just told you, that’s totally fine, because if you’ve made it this far you have at least absorbed the point that Zacharias and Peter are not at all made by the same person. And I would go as far as saying that the sculptor who carved Zacharias—and two or three other sculptures, all located on the Southwestern portal—was most likely not from Spain at all.
As it turns out, the first architect at Leon, Enrique, was intimately aware of the cathedrals of Paris, Reims, and Amiens. Apart from emulating many facets of architectural design from these cathedrals, he may have also recruited a French master sculptor to complement the inherently French blueprint of the plan itself.
By the end of the 13th Century, the Gothic style in France had already evolved to the point where sculptures such as this one of Gabriel at the cathedral of Reims were setting the benchmark in style. It is no coincidence then that an up-and-coming powerhouse such as Leon would want to decorate its flagship cathedral with only the best sculpture. And if that meant luring talent across the Pyrenees, then so be it.
We will never know the name of the genius who summoned luscious flesh from cold stone on the façade of Leon Cathedral, but if that man knew as he concentrated on carving Zacharias that over 700 years after his own lifetime a young man from a part of the world he had no idea existed would stand enraptured at such brilliance, I think he would smile for a moment. Then he would hunch back over with his tools, his straining neck cooled by the strong wind blowing off the Meseta, his mind lost somewhere deep in thought as his hands performed the work of God Himself. The wind still blows, and still his work stands.
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