Simon Doubleday


The stained glass windows of León cathedral are one of the masterpieces of medieval Spanish architecture; in this separate 14th-century window, Alfonso (on the left) appears side-by-side with his confessor Martín Fernández, who encouraged the king’s rebuilding a new Gothic cathedral in León. Nearby, the newly restored Cacerías [hunting] window represents an extraordinary—almost carnivalesque—scene of the chase, with the king himself surrounded by his huntsmen.

The relationship between León and the kings of Castile had not always been happy. In the twelfth century, the two kingdoms had been locked in a series of fierce conflicts, and in the late 1190s, the Leonese had laid waste to Castile with the help of Muslim reinforcements, an even that left a deep mark in Alfonso’s family’s memory.

The definitive union of the two kingdoms of Castile and León in 1230, facilitated by the diplomacy of Alfonso’s grandmother Berenguela, marked the end of hostilities. The cathedral of León served as a vital iconographic arena in the king’s attempt to promote his credentials for the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Its façade cathedral, depicting the Last Judgment, would once have been a veritable explosion of color, although the polychromatic beauty of medieval church exteriors can only be recreated today using lasers, beamed onto stone, or through delicate repainting projects.