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.
One 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.
In 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
The 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.
At 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