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Monthly Archives: March 2015

The façade of Santa Maria Matricolare, the twelfth century cathedral of Verona, is remarkable for the two figures which appear as sentinels guarding the entrance to the church: the Frankish heroes of Roncevaux, Roland and his companion Olivier. They are placed below a tympanum which depicts the Virgin and Child, with mounted Magi to one side and the Annunciation to the Shepherds on the other. Columnar figures adorning the jambs on either side of the doorway are the prophets holding scrolls containing passages from a sermon which in the middle ages, was ascribed to Saint Augustine.


The fame of Roland in the twelfth century was a Europe wide phenomenon of the Crusading era but there are very few depictions of the hero in Romanesque sculptural art. At Verona, there are two: one at Santa Maria and the other at the basilica of San Zeno.

Located on the northern flanks of the Po valley where it met the Adige river, Verona was a strategically vital intersection of three great roads.


The Via Claudia Augusta which led from the Adriatic over the Alps and the Via Postumia, which connected the Mediterranean at Genoa with Aquileia. At Verona they met the Via Gallica which led northwest towards the Alps and France.

Crucial events in the legend of the Roman Empire were played out at Verona. It was there, in 489 that the Ostrogoth king Theoderic defeated the Roman puppet ruler Odoacer, an event which was perhaps the defining moment in the end of the Western Empire.

At Verona almost three hundred years later in 774, the Lombards made their last stand against the future Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne who had been requested by Pope Hadrian to come to his aid. Lombardy was thereafter assumed into the Frankish domains and Charlemagne’s son Pepin was crowned king of Italy.

Verona-Olivier-4-WPOne of the more obscure chapters in the History of Charlemagne and Roland is an addendum which mentions Roland besieging the city of Grenoble. In the tenth century that city had been captured by the Saracens who were based in Provence at Fraxinet and who used Grenoble as a base to control the Alpine passes connecting France and Italy.

The Grenoble episode of the History is set at a time which antedates the main narrative of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition.

The siege of Grenoble is broken when the city walls crumble after Roland has prayed for intercession in a way which is reminiscent of Pamplona and of course Jericho. This episode presumably derives from other legendary material concerning exploits of Roland away from Spain from sources which also fed into the epic poem l’Entrée en Espagne which deals with Roland in Persia and elsewhere.

Verona-Olivier-5-WPIn 1127 lay monks were replaced in Verona by Augustinian Canons. Saint Zeno, the eighth bishop and patron of Verona was known for two important legacies. One of these was his encouragement of the canonical life among the clergy.

In the early twelfth century the Order of Augustinian Canons Regular was a promoter of the cult of all things Carolingian, especially that of Roland. His burial site at Blaye, the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux which held his Olifant and the church at Roncevaux were all maintained by Augustinians.

Saint Zeno’s other legacy was converting the local people away from the Arian heresy which had been prevalent in the area, athough this may be more of an anachronistic consequence of the memory of the Arianism of Theoderic’s Lombard rule

Verona-Prophets-1-WPThe sermon attributed to Augustine which is displayed by the sculpted prophets on either side of the doorway was largely an apology for the Trinity. This was what was denied by the Arians. In the twelfth century, Islam was seen as a heresy not dissimilar to Arianism in that it did not recognise the divinity of Christ but regarded him merely as a prophet.

Through his debate with the Saracen giant Ferracutus in the History of Charlemagne and Roland, Roland was not only a crusading knight but also a recognised defender of the Trinitarian concept.

Verona-Durindarda-WPAt Verona, the Franks’ historical role as secular defenders of the faith is given a powerful visual interpretation as Charlemagne’s two most illustrious paladins guard the way to the church. As heroes of an epic battle against the Saracens, the force of the Church militant is exemplified by Roland and Olivier and the sword which bares the inscription “Durindarda”. This was the sword Roland wielded at Roncevaux, Durendal and the precious relics contained within its hilt, which he strove to destroy lest it fall into the hands of the infidel. Three times he smashed it against a boulder, only for the boulder to break apart instead. At Verona, the tip rests against a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom and a potent image in the Crusading era.

Sources and Biblio: La Chanson de Roland dans le décor des églises du XIIe siècle, Deborah Kahn, Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 1997 Volume 40

Vénétie Romane, Gianna Suitner-Nicolini, La Nuit des Temps Zodiaque 1991

Sermon Against Jews, Pagans and Arians, Concerning the Creed, Trans EN Stone Inviersity of Washington Publications in Language and Literature Vol. 4 No. 3 pp. 195-214 March 1928

Roncevalles-19It was an essential component of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela that pilgrims were journeying through a mythical landscape. This was a world where the armies of Charlemagne had passed, where great battles had been fought and the tombs of the fallen heroes could be venerated as the shrines of martyrs.

This legendary aspect was part of an eschatological narrative which was continuing and ongoing and in which pilgrims themselves were taking part. History and legend were merged, without distinction. The transcendent distant past was mirrored in events in the recent past and then into the present day, thereby confirming the transcendence of each. This was reaffirmed by geography. To visit the place where a transcendent event had occurred was again corroborated by attending the shrine of a martyr associated with that site. Thus the world itself was invested with a numinous quality whose meaning lay in a divine plan.

Verona-Roland-1The narrative of Roland’s martyrdom at the battle of Roncevaux was the fulcrum on which all of this was balanced.

Three texts from the period describe the event. From the middle of the twelfth century two Latin accounts, the History of Turpin and the Pilgrim’s Guide, which together form books four and five of the Book of Saint James. Finally, a vernacular version in the form of an epic poem, the Song of Roland whose earliest known copy dates from the end of the eleventh century.

Roland-Angouleme-1-WPThe version in the Pilgrim’s Guide was focussed on directing attention to the sites. The account in Turpin’s History was written from a purportedly contemporaneous perspective and emphasised the connection between Roncevaux and the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. It recounted events concerning Charlemagne’s fourteen year Spanish expedition whose climax was the battle at Roncevaux. The Song of Roland deals exclusively with the battle itself.

All three versions presuppose a knowledge of each other and of a legendary tradition which preceded them.

Chartres-Roland-Ferragut-WPThe events recounted in these legends were based on recorded events which took place in the summer of 778, when Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees with the intention of besieging the Muslim held city of Saragossa.

This plan was abandoned and the retreating Franks then devastated the town of Pamplona before being attacked in a Pyrenean pass. These events were recorded albeit briefly but almost contemporaneously in various Frankish annals.

The legend of Charlemagne and Roland captured the medieval imagination and is expressed in one of the most famous stained glass narratives at Chartres cathedral. By the end of the eleventh century, what had apparently been a relatively minor affair had grown into a full blown epic and the question of what had occurred in the intervening centuries to warrant this development was naturally asked.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the theory put forward by the French philologist Joseph Bedier was that the Song of Roland as well as the numerous other epic poems of that era originated in accounts no earlier than the eleventh century. These would have been recounted by monks to visitors to the shrines which claimed to hold the relics of the fallen heroes.

In turn the legends were taken up by traveling performers who entertained pilgrims along the road to Santiago de Compostela. That theory was later abandoned.


The Turpin’s History, also known as the History of Charlemagne and Roland, interpolated into the legendary material an important thread related to the shrine of Compostela. Essentially, this was that Charlemagne’s mission in Spain was to liberate Saint James’ shrine from Saracen control.

This rendition suffers from serious anachronistic issues, most notably that the expedition of Charlemagne occurred in 778 but the discovery of the relics of Saint James occurred over thirty years later in an area which was already Christian controlled.

Furthermore, early accounts of Roncevaux mention a skirmish with Basque irregulars rather than forty thousand Saracens.

However, it could be that this analysis misunderstands the nature of the ongoing accretions in oral traditions and their mythological function. Invented legend and actual historical fact may have combined in other ways.

Sources and Biblio:

History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812 The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014 André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961 Barton Sholod. Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncevalles, Geneva Droz 1966 Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques Tallandier 2003 The Pilgrims’ Guide to Compostela Melczer Italica Press New York 1993 Romanesque Signs Early MedievalNarrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University Liber Sancti Jacobi Codex Calixtinus Ed K Herbers M Santos Noia Xunta de Galicia 1998