In the Museo de la Real Colegiata de San Isidoro in León, Spain, an intriguing portable altar is on display. Its multicolored stone and long inscription detailing the material objects enshrined within invite an analysis of the artwork in terms of materiality and mobility. This article addresses the multiple questions raised by the altar, shifting away from a straightforward interpretation of patronage by Sancha of León-Castilla (ca. 1095–1159), whose name is inscribed on its face. Conceptualizing the altar as a multilayered object that can be placed within Sancha’s network of connections facilitates our understanding of this exotic artifact between León and the Levant.
In this methodological essay, I present the fruits of research carried out by an interdisciplinary group of scholars 2016–2018, which centered on the Treasury of San Isidoro de León, while also introducing the more wide-ranging comparative work going forward 2019–2022 under the auspices of a reconfigured team. By republishing our studies in open access, we aim to reach a larger community of scholars; our longer-term goal is to move further out into the consciousness of modern society, locating for an interested general public the Leonese collection within its broader historical framework and holding it up for comparison with other significant sites. Cross-cultural luxury objects oblige a shift in the direction of our historical gaze, bringing into clear focus the many collaborations across faiths and the repeated examples of protagonism by women during the central Middle Ages.
By focusing on San Isidoro de León in the central Middle Ages, this study investigates the multiple meanings behind the presence of objects from other cultures in a royal-monastic treasury, suggesting a reconsideration of the paths by which such pieces arrived. The development of the Isidoran collection is reexamined through a close analysis of a charter recording the 1063 donation together with early thirteenth-century writings by Lucas of Tuy. Documentary evidence is further weighed against visual analysis and technical studies of several key pieces from the medieval collection. In particular, the Beatitudes Casket (now at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid) is singled out to demonstrate how art historical, epigraphic, and historical research come together with carbon-14 testing, revealing that the object was assembled in a very different moment from those traditionally assumed.