The Lion and the Knights

A lion stands guard in the Cathedral square in León, Nicaragua.

"La muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de León Santiago de los Caballeros"(the Most Noble and Loyal City of Leon of the Knights of Saint James)" of Nicaragua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in a plain next to Lake Xolotlan.  León quickly became a bustling Spanish city, with prolific agricultural lands and economic opportunities to those newly arrived from across the seas; but after the murder of their Bishop (Fray Antonio Valdivieso) and the frequent earthquakes that threatened to destroy it, life in León soon turned distasteful, and the city was dismantled and abandoned in 1610.  León then became a New World Pompeii, drowned by the ashes of the majestic Momotombo.
The Archeological Site of "León Viejo", a World Heritage UNESCO site.  Nicaragua.
Momotombo watches over León Viejo.
The "Leoneses" then settled next to the city of the Subtiaba people, where in the 16th century the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas had protected and advocated for a humane treatment of the natives.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, built in 1698.  Barrio de Subtiaba in Leon, Nicaragua.
The Sun god of the Subtiabas shines over the nave of the Church of Saint John the Baptist. 
Barrio de Subtiaba in Leon, Nicaragua
Surrounded by its fertile lands and proximity to the port of El Realejo, the new León flourished and soon became a cradle of wealth, culture, art, and architecture.  The city became divided in "barrios" whose life centered around the church (that gave name to the neighborhoods) and its square.  Private life, on the other hand, revolved around the cool, central courtyard onto which all the rooms of a house opened.  Houses in León looked inward, guarding their dwellers from the heat of the Tropics with thick masonry walls (sometimes over a meter in girth), and keeping the sun at bay with heavy doors and shutters:

Colonial house in the "Recolección" neighborhood.

Colonial house in the "La Recolección" neighborhood.
The austerity of León's domestic facades is contrasted with the delicate carving of the wood columns surrounding the courtyards, and the luxurious green of its interior gardens.

This colonial house has been transformed into an entertainment center, complete with restaurants, shops, and a movie theater.  León, Nicaragua.

This colonial house now houses the Fundación Ortiz Gurdián, León's premier art gallery.

Many important civic buildings were built in the years following the move from the lake shore, and in 1706 work for a new cathedral began according to the designs of Guatemalan architect Diego Jose de Porres y Esquivel in the Baroque style so prevalent at the time.

"The Most Distinguished and Royal Basilica and Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary".  A World Heritage UNESCO site in Leon, Nicaragua.

More on the Cathedral in my next post...

Other remarkable buildings from this period include the church of "Our lady of Mercy" (known today simply as "La Merced") erected in 1762, and the church of  "The Recollection" (known as "La Recolección) built in 1786.  Both buildings exemplify the exuberant colonial Baroque style that we have to come to associate with church architecture in Mexico, Guatemala, or Peru, and they stand in contrast to the sober elegance of the Cathedral.

The church of "La Merced" in Leon, Nicaragua.
The church of "La Recolección" in León, Nicaragua.
In the decade after the foundation of the second city, the first school was created with a curriculum of Castillian language, arithmetic, and christian doctrine.  Later in the century, in 1680, the first seminary (Colegio Tridentino San Ramón) was established, laying down the foundation for the National University and of León's long history as an eminent center of learning.

The door of the "Colegio Seminario Tridentino de San Ramón" in León, Nicaragua.
León's apogee as a cultural center happened in the 19th century, which witnessed the works of musicians like José de la Cruz Mena (1874-1907), and poets like Rubén Darío (1867-1916).  León's first university was founded in 1812 by the Courts of Cádiz, being the second university founded in Central America, and the last one established under the Spanish crown.  The university's first academies offered degrees in Roman Canon Law and Medicine, a tradition that continues to this day.

The National University's original seat today is used as the Administration Building.  León, Nicaragua.
The front court of the National University's Administration Building.  León, Nicaragua.
The Convent of San Francisco was founded in 1639 as the first such institution of the city, and in 1829, when a government decree ended recognition of all religious orders, the convent's buildings were bequeathed to the city and they became the prestigious Instituto National de Occidente.  Today the convent buildings no longer house the Institute, instead, a restoration that loving erased the ravages of earthquakes and war has transformed the convent into a hotel.

The Convent of San Francisco, now the "Hotel El Convento" in León, Nicaragua.

Today León is bustling university town, its streets ever full of the young, its courtyards full of legends, and its music hall and galleries full of national talent.  It was the beauty and gravitas of León's buildings that first inspired me to be an architect, and I believe that the lessons learned in those heavy walls as a child remain in me to this day.  Viva León, jodido!*

All images by Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.
*Lyrics of León's popular anthem "Corrido a León".


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