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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Arles is generally considered the first substantial station on the Toulouse Road and tradition has it that pilgrims congregated beyond its city walls at the ancient necropolis of the Alyscans before making their way to the cathedral.

Just twenty miles from the Mediterranean shore, the city of Arles is situated on the main branch of the Rhône river as it spreads to form the broad plain of its delta region. It was an important crossroads of trade and culture from Roman times.

At Arles, the Via Aurelia which connected Rome with Southern France ended at the eastern gate. The city was linked to Spain by the Via Domitia. The fluvial axis of the Rhône was the main artery between the Mediterranean world and the North.

The proliferation of important Roman buildings, including an amphitheatre, circus, and a triumphal arch are testament to the existence of a thriving city known as Arelate. It was regularly used as a temporary seat of government by a succession of emperors, notably Constantine the Great.

The unusually high concentration of celebrated reliquary shrines in its immediate vicinity would have been sufficient in itself to afford Arles its elevated status as a pilgrimage station of high order but this was added to the town’s association with the very beginnings of Christianity in Roman Gaul. As early as 417 it was elected Metropolitan see of the Gallic church.

Its connection to the Compostelan pilgrimage was fundamental. This is strikingly illustrated by the sculpture of the Emmaus story in the cathedral cloister. Here one of the favourite St-Trophime-Pilgrim-1themes of Romanesque art depicts the story of Christ’s appearance to two followers after the Crucifixion.

To the right of the figure of Christ one of the disciples is shown with the badge of the pilgrim to Santiago, the scallop shell displayed on his pointed bonnet.

During the medieval period,  having venerated the numerous saintly relics at the Alyscans, notably those of Caesarius and Honoratus, pilgrims would proceed to the cathedral in order to visit the tomb of the confessor Saint Trophimus, whose mortal remains were translated there from the Alyscans in great ceremony in 1152.

The cathedral’s western façade features life size sculptures of the College of the Apostles each holding the Gospel Texts with their names inscribed. Trophimus’ inclusion is a reference to his Apostolic status, conferred by the mission given to him personally by Peter and Paul to evangelise Gaul.

On their way out of Arles, pilgrims were able to stop by the tall marble column in the village of Trinquetaille, which still bore the blood stains of the martyr Genesius.

Genesius had been the victim of a wave of persecutions in the early fourth century and was a highly regarded saint who captured the popular imagination. Several writers from Late Antiquity had noted the powerful miracle working effects of the relics and the numbers of pilgrims who chose to be buried next to them in order to await the final Resurrection.


Much of Christian eschatological thought was predicated on the notion of the four empires of the world from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, an important text in the medieval period. This dictated that the span of earthly time was to be divided into the dominion of four empires, the last of which would be a tyrannical and evil power. Its ultimate destruction in a great battle would inaugurate the Apocalypse.

These empires variously consisted of The Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Roman. The advent of the Babylonian and Roman empires caused much stirring of Apocalyptic pronouncements for Jews and Christians as they were oppressed by each in turn. The Book of Revelation carries an implicit idea that it is Nero’s first century Rome which is the final evil empire, however with the conversion of Constantine  and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the empire that view was revised.

The sack of Rome by the Goths and the barbarian invasions of the early fifth century brought fresh prophetic proclamations however it was with the Arab invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century that the notion of a Last Roman Emperor took root.

Originating initially in a text attributed to a Bishop Methodius writing in the Byzantine empire then suffering the first wave of Arab conquests, the prophecy identified in dramatic terms its contemporaneous upheavals with the arrival of the last evil empire. It told of a sleeping emperor who would awake and lead an army against the forces of the Antichrist. As the victor of a great battle which brought an end to the strife endured under the evil empire, the Last Emperor would go to Jerusalem and place his crown on top of the Cross at Golgotha. By this act he would surrender his temporal authority, thereby ushering in the events of the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on earth.

These beliefs concerning Apocalyptic prophecy were translated to the West as the Arab invasions progressed across the Mediterranean and, it can be reasonably speculated, partly informed the attitude of the medieval Christian church towards Islam and the Saracen presence in the Holy Land and Spain.

With Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, the torch of responsibility for fulfilling these predictions seemed to be passed on to the Franks. Around the year 950, Adso the abbot of the Cluniac monastery at Montier-en-Der wrote a text in the form of a letter to the Frankish queen Gerberga on the subject of Origin and Life of Antichrist. Adso was an important writer of the tenth century and his manuscript made full use of the prophecies concerning a last emperor.

“Even though we see that the Empire of the Romans is for the most part destroyed, nevertheless, as long as the kings of the Franks, who possess the Roman Empire by right, survive, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not perish altogether”, wrote Adso, clearly identifying the Frankish kings as the inheritors of the Roman Imperial authority.

“Indeed, certain of our learned men tell us that one of the kings of the Franks, who will come very soon will the possess the Roman Empire in its entirety”, he continued,  “And he will be the greatest and last of all kings. He, after governing his kingdom prosperously will ultimately come to Jerusalem and lay down his sceptre and crown on Mount Olivet. This will be the end and the consummation of the Empire of the Romans and the Christians. And immediately, according to the aforesaid opinion of the Apostle Paul, they say that the Antichrist will soon be at hand.”

In Romanesque sculpture a recurrent theme is that of the Victorious Rider. There are numerous examples along the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. The horseman, always presented riding over a cowed figure beneath, represents the military strength of the temporal champion of Christianity with which the legends of Constantine and Charlemagne are endowed and which is assumed into eschatological thinking by the prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, all of which fed into the Crusader mentality of the medieval world.

Notable examples of the Victorious Rider are to be seen at Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Parthenay-le-Vieux

Situated on the French side of the Pyrenees, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a cathedral town since the sixth century was a major pilgrimage station on the way to Compostela because of its strategic position at the bottom of the Aspe river valley which led up to to the 1,600 metre high Somport Pass.

This was the preferred entry point over the mountains for pilgrims travelling the Toulouse Road.

Making use of an old Roman road which had connected the city of Illoronensium in the province of Novempopulania with the Hispano-Roman city of Saragossa, the town of Oloron benefitted from the traffic in pilgrims and trade with its counterpart Jaca, on the Spanish Aragonese side of the peaks.

After suffering at the hands of Norman raiders in the tenth century, the town’s fortunes were revived by the growth of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the eleventh century. Close links with Aragon led to a repopulating policy that was current in the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north following the reclamation of lands from Saracen domination.

After 1080 when the Viscount of Béarn conferred the status of free men on its inhabitants and restricted the powers of the church and lord, a merchant class developed which took advantage of natural surroundings rich in the salmon rivers and pork farming depicted graphically on the porch sculpture of the cathedral of Sainte-Marie.

The building of the town’s two major Romanesque churches, the cathedral and the church of Sainte-Croix coincided with the return from the Holy Land in 1104 of the Viscount Gaston of Béarn. Gaston had been one of the key figures of the first Crusade having devised the moving towers which had proved decisive in the successful outcome of the siege of Jerusalem.

Soon after his return from Crusading in the East, Gaston joined forces with one of the most prominent figures of the Spanish Reconquista, Alfonso El Batallor of Aragon. Their joint campaigns against the Moors culminated with the conquest of Saragossa in 1118.

Its proximity to the ongoing war of Reconquest in Spain, meant that Oloron was both a pilgrimage centre on the Compostelan road as well as a vital point of departure for Crusaders heading to fight for Christendom in the Holy War against the infidel.

This militant Christianity is reflected in the design of the porch sculpture of the town’s cathedral. Giant atlante figures at the base of the trumeau are clearly identifiable as Saracen prisoners.

A Victorious Rider sculpted unusually in  the round, at the top of the right side jamb reinforces a Crusader conception. This figure of a horseman riding roughshod over a man trampled beneath is one of the great themes of Romanesque sculpture.

It appears all over France and northern Spain most notably on the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. It is most frequent on the Tours Road. Appearing in the Poitou region at Parthenay-le-Vieux, Airvault, Aulnay, Melle, Saint-Jouin-de-Marne, and Poitiers. In the Saintonge examples are to be found at Saintes, Chadenac and Pons among others and in Spain on the Camino Francès at Sangüesa, Carrión de los Condés , León and Compostela itself.

Whether the figure represents the emperors Constantine or Charlemagne or simply an archetypal militant secular leader, the cowed figure below seems to imply the triumph of Christian might over paganism.

This recalls the Crusader spirit of the times but perhaps also the legendary prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, who it was predicted would awake from a long sleep and make war with the forces of the Antichrist. Having successfully defeated his foe, the emperor would ascend to Golgotha, placing his temporal crown on top of the Cross which had been erected there by the emperor Theodosius in the fifth century.

This symbolic act relinquishing temporal authority was the necessary prelude to the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on Earth. The eschatological implications of the porch sculpture are reinforced by the Twenty-Four Elders carved onto the outer archivolt.