The Chapel of the Most Holy

An extraordinary space for worship

The faithful of León and the pilgrims or tourists who want to participate in one of the daily masses or to confess in León’s Cathedral do it so in a beautiful chapel, the one of the Most Holy, which is accessed by the cloister at the schedule established for religious worship. As you will discover with the help of historian Iván González, this extraordinary space was the old library of the Cathedral’s Chapter and preserves some of the most beautiful sculptures, reliefs and stained glass windows of the Cathedral.

Throughout history, the different spaces which make up the Cathedral’s whole have undergone several modifications in their use, adapting to the circumstances and needs of each era. This is the case of the current chapel of the Most Holy –also known as of Santiago or of the Virgen del Camino–, which initially served as a library.

The creation of a place destined to house and study books was not something distinctive of León’s Cathedral, since from the second half of the 15th Century other similar constructions were also built in numerous episcopal sees of the Crown of Spain. In the opinion of professors Campos Sánchez-Bordona and Teijeira Pablos (2009), the main reason for creating these cathedral’s libraries was the need to improve the training of the clergy.

Conclusion

It should not be surprising that in a space destined for the custody of knowledge, its iconographic program was related to the praise of the intellectual virtues of Christianity. In this sense, Angela Franco Mata (1998) has made an iconological interpretation of the library: From the door where the Annunciation was erected, everything was under the influence of biblical knowledge. On the other hand, Carrero Santamaría (2001), believes that they would be two complementary programs, since the one of the impost would not be part of the same as the one of the stained glass windows, made later.

However, the library soon ceased to have that functionality becaming the chapel of Santiago. What were the reasons for such a transformation? According to Teijeira Pablos (2013), León Chapter’s members, taking advantage of the development of the printing, began to create their private libraries with titles of greater humanistic significance. So, the use of a common library, mainly of liturgical works, ceased to be essential. This thesis would be confirmed with the words of Ambrosio de Morales in 1572 about the library: “The library is so secure, that two pieces of supplies are before it, and they did not dare to clear it in three days, for this reason I could not see it”. The library, therefore, had ceased to fulfill its function.

The transformation into the chapel of Santiago would not be the last modification: in the mid-18th Century it was converted into a meeting space for the choir; during the Great Restoration of the 19th Century it was converted into the Main Chapel of the temple; and from the reopening of the temple for the worship in 1901, this place was used as a dressing room for canons and beneficiaries; Finally, as indicated by Gómez Rascón (2006), the Brotherhood of the Virgen del Camino –based in León’s Cathedral– commissioned the sculptor Víctor de los Ríos to make a larger-scale copy of the one present in the Leonese Sanctuary, which was solemnly enthroned in 1951, and which currently presides over the presbytery.

 

In short, this has been a brief tour through one of the few enclosures which breaks with the unity of the radiant Gothic that dominates this Cathedral. That library went from being a space for the theological knowledge to become a space for the worship. Although, in reality, we may be talking about the same thing.