It was built on the site of the old Romanesque Cathedral, which was in turn built where King Ordoño II’s palace had stood on land originally occupied by Roman thermae. Building began around 1205 in the Gothic style, inspired by the French cathedral of Reims, although it is a third smaller. One of its most striking points is that the towers are not built onto the nave, but joined to it by flying buttresses. It has side aisles and a transept. The nave has a quatripartite ribbed vault. Vertical thrusts are supported by piers with clustered columns, while exterior thrusts are channelled through flying buttresses. The ambulatory has five semi-hexagonal chapels radiating from it. In different periods and for different times, architects working on the Cathedral have included Enrique Francés, Juan Pérez, Jusquin Van Utrech (the clock tower), Naveda, Joaquín de Churriguera, Matías Laviña, Juan Madrazo, Demetrio de los Ríos and Juan Bautista Lázaro.
Three sides show Gothic imagery.
The West Front.
- The White Virgin Doorway, also known as the Doorway of Judgement. It has two lights, with an image of the White Virgin on the central colonnette. The White Virgin (Our Lady of the Snows, revered all along St James’s Way) replaces Christ in Majesty or Christ the Teacher. The tympanum shows the scene of the Last Judgement, presided over by Christ the Judge, images of St John the Baptist, angels with symbols of the Passion, St Michael weighing souls, etc.
- St John’s Doorway. It has scenes of the life of the Vigin: the Visitation, Nativity, St Joseph’s dream, the Shepherds receiving the Tidings and the Adoration of the Magi. The jambs are decorated with images of St Peter, St John, David and Solomon and there is a Locus Appellationis (a place where the king administered justice, with a feminine image of Justice.
- Door of San Francisco. He presents images of the Dormición de Maria, Maria's Coronation for the Eternal Father, prudent Virgins and the Stupid ones.
St Froilán’s Doorway. This doorway is inspired in the Sarmental doorway of Burgos Cathedral and shows the twelve Apostles presided over by Jesus Christ and the Tetramorph. St Froilán is the patron saint of the diocese of León.
Doorway of Our Lady of the Die. It still has its original polychromy, with images of the Pantocrator, the Tetramorph and the Visitation.
The Cathedral’s interior is a summary of the Medieval theologians’ concept of the world, presided over by the Creator’s Blessing. The windows illustrate three conceptual levels: typical vegetable motifs such as oak and vine leaves; heraldic subjects (windows of the triforium) and Saints, Kings and Prophets.
The pulpitum was built in the shape of a triumphal arch in the 16th century and is decorated with the subjects of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi (by Esteban Jordán), St Peter and St Paul, St Marcellus and St Isidore and Gaspar Becerra’s alabaster image of Christ Crucified.
The choir consists of two parts: the King’s Choir and the Bishop’s Choir. The stalls were carved in the Gothic style in the 15th century by Jusquín van Utrecht, Copín de Holanda and John of Mechelen (Juan de Malinas).
THE HIGH ALTAR
The reredos consists of five large panels and two small ones, all by Nicolás Francés (Nicholas the Frenchman). The Bishop’s throne has twenty panels by the same artist. The chased silver chest is by Enrique de Arfe, and the silver tabernacle by Rebollo.
This is a Gothic and Renaissance ensemble. The stone reredos is by Juan de Badajoz the Younger. There is also a relief of Our Lady of the Foro y Oferta, the tribute of the Hundred Maidens.
- St Louise’s. Baptismal font by Juan de Badajoz.
- Our Lady of Carmel. The carving of the Virgin is by Gregorio Fernández. Tomb of Bishop Rodrigo.
- Calvary Chapel. Reredos of the Calvary scene by Juan de Balmaseda.
- Chapel of the White Virgin. Tombs of Queen Sancha and King Alfonso (16th century).
- Chapel of Our Lady of the Way. Old Cathedral Library. A Gothic ensemble of the 15th century by Juan de Badajoz the Elder.