I’m just off to pay my respects to St Isidore of Seville. I won’t be taking the train to Seville, though, but to Leon, that slightly down-at-heel capital of an ancient Spanish kingdom.
Most visitors to Leon marvel at the great stained-glass windows of the cathedral, and they are right to do so, although the style of the cathedral is not in the least Spanish, but French through and through.
St Isidore, a learned founder of the civilisation that we are just about clinging on to, lived 100 years before our own St Bede, dying in 636. He is buried in the church in Leon dedicated to his name, but the way he got there was accidental in the extreme, or so it seemed.
King Ferdinand I of Leon (who died in the year before the Battle of Hastings) was doing pretty well, once he stopped waging war against the King of Navarre, in exerting pressure on the Arab half of the peninsula, which since the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba, 30 years earlier, had been divided into a patchwork of kingdoms, or taifas as modern historians like to call them. In 1063 he despatched two bishops to Seville to collect the relics of St Justa.
St Justa is now the name of the main railway station in Seville, but she meant more to Spanish Christians of the Middle Ages. With her sister Rufina she was identified with the so-called Mozarabic liturgy – the Latin Mass and services used by Christians under Arabic rule. The two martyrs of the third century, so their legend said, died for refusing to give money towards a feast in honour of the goddess Venus.
This story might appeal to Christians living under a form of Muslim rule that was often abrasive. Indeed a more recent martyr, St Pelagius (San Pelayo in Spanish) had been put to death as a prisoner of Abd al-Rahman in 925, for refusing his advances. To him, with St John the Baptist, the royal church in Leon was dedicated.
So King Ferdinand wanted the relics of St Justa to be honoured in his own church, not left to the vicissitudes of Muslim rule. The fact that, about this time, al-Mu’tadid Ibn Abbad, the king of Seville, had thought it wise to make tribute to Ferdinand, may have eased negotiations. The anonymous contemporary chronicler of these events, a monk from Santo Domingo de Silos, gave the Arab ruler’s name as Benahabet, a Latinisation of Ibn Abbad. When Ferdinand’s envoys, Bishop Alvito of Leon and Bishop Ordoño of Astorga, arrived in Seville, Benahabet told them he was awfully sorry but he couldn’t find the remains of St Justa anywhere.
Bishop Alvito, not to be discouraged, set about praying, and while at prayer fell asleep, and in a dream St Isidore himself appeared, banging on the floor with his staff where, he said, his body was buried. Sure enough, at the spot indicated they found a coffin, from the remains of a man in which came a most sweet smell. No sooner was the coffin opened, says the chronicler, than Bishop Alvito was struck down by sickness and died within a week.
Undeterred, his brother bishop brought back to Leon the body of St Isidore, wrapped in a piece of tapestry given by al-Mu’tadid. The church of St John and St Pelagius was renamed St Isidore’s and his body is still revered there. Ferdinand and his successors were buried in the arched narthex, which 100 years later was decorated with the most accomplished murals – shepherds, sheepdogs, goats and angels, the work of the months and the killing of swine.
The relics of St Isidore were later given an ornate sarcophagus, and the 11th-century casket in which they had been laid in 1063 was put on display in the treasury. It is lined with a beautiful silk textile, with stylised birds and animals embroidered within squares (as pictured here). This, say some archaeologists, could be the tapestry that al-Mu’tadid gave. And why not?