The León Cathedral is a regional interpretation of different church building traditions.
The use of capitals and pediments hints to Greek and Roman influences. At the same time, the monument reflects the transition from Baroque towards new architectural and artistic expressions typical of the 19th century.
It is the largest Cathedral in Central America and, since 1531, one of the oldest dioceses in the Americas.
The León Cathedral was built between 1747 and 1814 in the regional Antigüeño Baroque style (originating in Antigua Guatemala). Because of the strength of its walls, it has survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of the Cerro Negro and wars.
Map of León CathedralLoad map
When the León Cathedral entered the List in 2011, many will have wondered “Do we really need another cathedral?”. After having now visited this Nicaraguan monument, my answer would be: “It’s different”. It’s essentially a Central American structure, not purely Spanish-colonial as so many others (although its construction was started during the late colonial years). Also, it’s a Single Monument that carries the weight of being a WHS on its own – not “just” as part of an inscribed city center.
León is Nicaragua’s second city in size. Its slogan is “Primera Capital de la Revolucion” – here’s where the demise of the Somoza regime started. León has been a Sandinista stronghold since. Right next to the cathedral survives a long political mural from the 1980s, painted jointly by German and Nicaraguan artists. The cathedral has been used for military purposes also in the insurrection of 1979.
The cathedral is León’s pride, and it stands impressively in the center of town. It’s so huge and there are so many turrets and domes on its roof, that it is a great landmark to find your way again when you’re lost somewhere in the city. They are in the process of repainting the whole structure. The facade is still a bit off-white, but the roof already has been rendered totally snow-white.
Visiting this Cathedral isn’t as straightforward as with other cathedrals and churches. Of course, the main body is open all the time, to give the local people space to pray and contemplate (and they do so in great numbers). Its interior isn’t exuberant or otherwise very remarkable. Two of the more interesting aspects can only be visited with a separate ticket: the roof and the cloister. Such a ticket can only be bought during limited opening hours (think: late start, long lunch, early leave) from a small kiosk at the back of the church across from the market.
The roof is accessed via another hard-to-find entrance. After climbing a flight of stairs, you’re requested to take off your shoes. They clearly want to keep the roof clean and white! The restored rooftop and bell tower are impressive. All of it is covered with stucco plaster, making it look like one big birthday cake.
Entrance to the cloister known as Patio del Principe involves another hurdle: the ticket lady told me I would find a “joven” (young person) in the main church, who would guide me to the Patio. There were lots of jovens inside of course, so I just waved my ticket. A girl approached me and said: “Go to the front of the church, there will be a girl sitting on a bench reading. She will be your guide.” (I now felt that I was on a secret mission). She went to get the key, and together we entered the Patio. After all the trouble, I found it a bit disappointing. The “typical Nicaraguan” aspects were lost on me.
The Cathedral also hosts El Cristo Negro de Pedrarias, possibly the oldest catholic image in the Americas. I looked for it during my visit, remembering it as being a painting and unsuccessfully asking the guide in the cathedral about it. While re-checking the nomination file later, I noticed it was a wooden statue instead. It was brought from Spain by Pedro Arias de Ávila himself in 1514: first to Panama, and later to Leon Viejo until 1610. So it’s one of those rare objects that moved from one WHS to another. The statue received a hit by a pirate’s saber in 1685, who wanted to be sure that it wasn’t made of precious metal.
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The cathedral, supposedly the largest in Central America, dominates the square and its massive walls are most impressive. Despite the citation's reference to natural light I found the interior dim and many of the paintings darkened by age. There are several other churches in Leon of note, though none approaches the size of the cathedral. The mix of styles may be more apparent to art historians than the casual visitor and those who have visited the silver and gold laden cathedral of Mexico City or the churches of Cuzco and Quito may be underwhelmed by the ornamentation of this cathedral.
The city of Leon itself is an interesting contrast to the more visited Granada, Leon's historical rival, in both its architecture and culture. (Unlike Granada, Leon was a battleground during the fight to oust Somoza in the 70s and there are many reminders of this struggle throughout the city.) It is well worth a visit.
There is frequent bus service from Managua and the ruins of Leon Viejo, another world heritage site are nearby as are some interesting "fumoroles" or steam vents from the nearby volcanoes.
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León is one of Nicaragua's 3 main cities. Its white domes provide an easy landmark to locate the cathedral from anywhere within the city.
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