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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Arles-St-Honorat-church-VLSThere were seven churches at the Alyscans, the ancient necropolis where pilgrims congregated before setting out on the Toulouse Road to Compostela. In the Pilgrim’s Guide it was written that “the remains of numerous holy martyrs and confessors are resting there”.

These relics were powerful enough to assure salvation at the final Resurrection. One of the seven was the imposing pilgrimage church of Saint Honoratus, a founder of western monasticism, whose mortal remains were held in the crypt.

Arle-St-Honor-tower-from-saThe body of Honoratus was entombed at the Alyscans following his death in the late 420’s in a church which was dedicated at that time to Saint Genesius.

According to his biographer Hilarius of Arles, Honoratus was so revered in his lifetime that the whole city of Arles came out to be near his body. “Who, from within the walls of our city, did not come to this church, as though stricken by a personal grief? The people considered it a privilege to have touched his bier or to have carried it on their shoulders”, it was declared.

Hilarius was a close disciple of Honoratus and was his immediate successor as bishop of Arles. His account of the life of Honoratus was delivered in the form of  funerary sermon on the first anniversary of his death. He describes how the townspeople of Arles snatched pieces of the shroud as the body was being conducted to the tomb, considering the cloth to be sanctified by its contact with the body.

Already by the time of his death, it appears, that like Saint Martin, Honoratus was considered a saint. As Hilarius wrote: “it is a rare confidence which is given to us by the Grace which surrounds his tomb, as we are certain that he whose relics we have conserved here, protects us in heaven.

By the twelfth century a new Romanesque building dedicated to Honoratus had replaced the original church.  Pilgrims at Arles were enjoined to venerate his relics:  “In the cemetery of the said city, the assistance of the Blessed Honoratus, bishop, should be invoked”.

Honoratus followed quickly in the wake of Saint Martin and Saint Augustine in founding one of the first monastic communities in western Europe.

Lerins-WP-2A date of 410 has been given for his arrival at the island of Lerins on the coast of Provence. He was accompanied by a small group of followers to this small deserted island, reputedly infested with serpents. It was said that “He went forward without fear and dissipated by his assurance the fears of his companions”.

Miraculously, the serpents fled and the previously dry island now flowed with sweet water.

This miracle story was intended to associate Honoratus with the Seventy Disciples of the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you”.

St-Honorat-Sarc-3Initially the monks lived separately in small cells dotted around Lerins but already by 427,  Saint John Cassian, who visited the island then, recorded that the initial group had swollen its ranks to form an “immense community”.

Word of Honoratus’ monastery spread throughout Gaul very quickly and it was soon accepting newcomers from as far as northern France. It’s reputation was of a brilliant monastic school and many who were later to hold high ecclesiastical office were formed in its vigorous intellectual atmosphere, including two bishops of Arles, Hilarius and Caesarius.

St-Honorat-Sarc-1Honoratus, himself was called to hold that office at the end of his life. The church at Arles was undergoing a period of strife at the time, the preceding bishop having been assassinated. Honoratus was to die only two years later.

Caesarius writing a hundred years later declared that “we firmly believe that he received martyrdom without enduring the passion”. In other words, Honoratus was a confessor saint, one who had achieved sanctity through his life rather than death.

Biblio: M. Labrousse, Saint Honiorat Fondateur de Lerins et Evêque d’Arles. Vie Monastique No. 31, Abbaye de Bellefontaine. W. Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

Tours-Rd-at-St-Savin-WPThe Tours Road to Compostela was especially redolent of the legend of Charlemagne and his Paladins. Book Four of the Liber Sancti Iacobi, the History of Charlemagne and Roland, relates the emperor’s long struggle against the Saracens of Spain  and vividly combined it with the legend of Saint James.

According to this epic narrative, the Franks had fought three great battles along this pilgrimage road; in the Saintonge, at Agen and most famously of all at Roncevaux in the Pyrenees.

The fallen heroes of these epic tales were also buried along the road. Roland was entombed at Blaye and his celebrated horn the Olifant was held at the monastery of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux.

At Belin, a single grave contained the bodies of other paladins of Charlemagne who had been killed at Roncevaux. Pilgrims were enjoined to visit these sites and venerate what were considered holy relics.

Parthenay-45These epic tales are reflected in the sculpted images of Imperial Riders which are found on church facades along this road.

At Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou, on a variant of the Tours Road to Santiago, there is the best preserved of all the Romanesque Riders. Wearing crown and flowing cape, the mounted figure sits astride his prancing mount, a falcon perched on his arm as he tramples his vanquished enemy underfoot.

The church at Parthenay has been dated to the late eleventh or early twelfth century, therefore at the very height of the first wave of Crusading fervour which swept across Europe and led to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

Parthenay-40The Parthenay rider forms part of a particular group of such sculptures which are found in the Poitou and Saintonge regions. In a heavily arcaded church façade, the rider is placed in the north niche while another figure, usually a lion wrestler presents a complementary image in the southern niche.

Samson wrestling a lion was a frequent subject in Romanesque art, the subjugation of the beast was considered a prefiguration of Christ’s triumph over death.

The placement of these two sculpted reliefs on either side of the main doorway is suggestive of the complementary roles of church and state in the Crusading era following the Gregorian reform. Such symbolism encourages  identification of the rider with the emperor Constantine, the Roman ruler who first defended the authority of the Church.

Yet Romanesque iconography occasionally intends King David rather than Samson as the subject of the image of the lion wrestler, referring the imperial rider to Charlemagne who demanded to be named David by his court.

Both Constantine and Charlemagne, the idealised medieval Christian ruler propounding the notion of a single and universal Christendom.Persian-Rider-WP

The image of the rider of Parthenay derives certain stylistic traits from Islamic art found on Persian ceramic ware and carved ivory boxes from El-Andalus.  These would have found their way into Christian hands in the form of booty, ransom payments and diplomatic gifts. The falcon on the rider’s arm evokes an idea of an eastern or Andalusian potentate.

As with architectural spolia, the absorption of cultural and stylistic traits was often a way of appropriating and mitigating power.

The surrounding voussoirs feature representations of naked women in baskets. Similar captive women appear in other Islamic designs. The placement of imagery in the voussoirs is often reserved for apotropaic subjects such as Vices. Parthenay-Basket-Women-1-WPThe History of Charlemagne and Roland combines moralising passages among the tales of knightly bravery when dealing with the temptation presented to Frankish warriors by captive Saracen women.

The image of a warrior together with the evocation of vice recalls the large scale representations of the Vices and Virtues of Prudentius’ Psychomachia which are a particular trope of Romanesque sculpture in the region.

From the early eighth century, Aquitaine had been associated with Frankish victories over the Moors. The dukes of Aquitaine and the counts of Toulouse saw themselves as perpetuating a tradition that began with the Battle of Poitiers of 732 and the victory Eudes of Aquitaine at Toulouse. It was a long tradition which included that most popular hero of epic legend Guillaume d’Orange.

Parthenay-56The Parthenay rider combines myth and perceived historical fact to produce an image of a symbolic, generic Christian ruler whose ultimate meaning finds both expression and assumes Apocalyptic dimension in the legend of the Last Roman Emperor. This mythical sovereign would awaken after a profound sleep to defeat the Antichrist and then relinquish the attributes of his secular rule on the Mount of Olives. By this act, the Apocalypse would be initiated.

Biblio: R Crozet: Nouvelles Remarques sur les Cavaliers Sculptes. L Seidel :Constantine and Charlemagne 1976 Gesta 15 237-9, L. Seidel: Holy Warriors: The Romanesque Riders and the Fight Against Islam in  TP Murphy ed. Holy War. The Medieval Legend of the Last Roman Emperor and its Messianic Origin: Paul Alexander Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes 41 1978