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Category Archives: Romanesque

The church of Saint Etienne de Tauriac is situated a short distance from the Tours Road. It lies near the right bank of the Dordogne River midway between the major Compostelan halts of Blaye and Bordeaux.

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The sculptural ensemble of its west facade is especially enigmatic and original.
The structure of the existing church features elements from several  campaigns suggestive of rebuilding necessitated by the violent history of the Gironde region. Some elements date from the Paleo-Christian era and could originate from a very early church existing at the site.
The remarkable west facade dates from the late eleventh century or early twelfth.

Tauriac-Rider-2-WPThe style of the facade is in the arcaded style of churches of the Saintonge region and it bears some similarity with the church at Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou, further north on the Tours Road. Notably in the two blinds arcades on either side of the main doorway. Each of the arcades features a sculpted tympanum.

The left hand tympanum features an equestrian figure, such as we have seen elsewhere on the Tours Road in an identical placement, as at Airvault and Parthenay. In the case of the rider at Tauriac, he holds a lance horizontally indicating the attitude of a charge. The tip of the lance features a pennant. The poor condition of the relief maybe the reason we see no crouching figure beneath the rider, as at Parthenay, Oloron and other sites where such an image is widely taken to represent the triumph over paganism, most often identified with the Emperor Constantine.
Tauriac-Rider1-WPHowever, taken together with the pointed lance, this absence of the figure of the pagan, draws us away from the Constantinian identification. Given the proximity of Tauriac to the burial sites of the fallen heroes of Roncevaux at Blaye, Saint Seurin of Bordeaux and Belin it seems eminently plausible to suggest that the equestrian figure actually represents a scene from the battle of Roncevaux, possibly even Roland himself.
Whereas at Parthenay the horseman is paired, on it’s opposing tympanum with Samson prising apart the jaws of a lion, at Tauriac the right hand tympanum features the Lamb of God.
Tauriac-Lamb-3Presented within a circular mandorla held by a pair of doves. The attitude of Lamb of Tauriac is contorted so that although facing right its head is turned round towards the left where a crucifix surmounts a standard. The Latin inscription on the mandorla and scroll beneath are from the Agnus Dei liturgy of the Eucharist.
Beneath a false lintel, two lions with scrolls emerging from their tails and jaws echo the twelve leafy scrolls surrounding the tympanum, symbolic of Christ as the Vine.
Tauriac-Lamb-1-WPThese clear Eucharistic references should not preclude wider signification, particularly with reference to other similar facades and not ignoring the location on the western end of the church.
The Lamb of Tauriac performs a similar function to the Samson at Parthenay, which is to symbolise Christ’s victory over Death.
In both cases, the emplacement of secular horseman indicates the military aspect of the Christian church during the Crusading era.
Biblio: Guyenne Romane, P Dubourg-Noves, Vol. 31 1969 La Nuit des Temps, Zodiaque

La-Ch-Trans-14-WPThe tympanum sculpture of the Transfiguration at the Cluniac priory church of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy ranks as one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculptural art evincing similarities with the Languedocian style of Moissac.

It is the only large scale Transfiguration in twelfth century Romanesque sculpture, apart from the putative remnants now situated above the Platerias Portal at Compostela.

The Transfiguration was a rare subject for art. It was a late addition to the liturgical calendar celebrated only in monasteries belonging to the Cluniac order from 1132.

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The subject of commentaries by Saint John Chrysostom and Peter the Venerable, the twelfth century abbot of Cluny, it was considered by them a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

According to the accounts described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the vision was witnessed by three disciples only, Peter, John and James.

This narrative of the New Testament was key to the importance attributed to Saint James in the medieval world. That he was witness to the appearance of Christ’s divinity was of huge significance.

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There is little variation in the three gospel accounts: the disciples were led up a mountain by Jesus, which although unnamed in the Gospels was recognised by medieval tradition as the Mount Tabor situated a few miles from the shore of lake Galilee.

There, Jesus was seen talking to two men, Moses and Elias and “transfigured” becoming bright as the sun. A hand emerged from the clouds and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.

Afterwards, Jesus bound the three disciples to a vow of secrecy as to the scene they had witnessed telling them, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again”.

The disciples are confounded by this remarking that Elias, according to the Book of Malachi was to return before the Day of Judgment. Whereupon Jesus tells them that Elias has already returned in the form of John the Baptist.

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Surviving from the sixth century only three large scale Byzantine mosaic representations are known. At Ravenna at the church of Saint Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, the Christ is represented by the Crux Gemmata, the bejewelled cross which had been set on Golgotha by the emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century. He is attended by Moses and Elias while beneath the disciples are depicted as sheep.

As at Ravenna, the mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery at Sinai is set in the vault of the apse. The disciples are in human form crouching beneath a Christ in mandorla. Another mosaic depiction exists at the Euphrasian basilica at Parenzo in modern Croatia.

A contemporaneous account mentions a Transfiguration mosaic scene in Constantine‘s church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. In the destroyed cathedral of Naples it was associated with the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse.

Biblio: Les Grands Portails Romans, Yves Christe, 1969

A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966

The iconography of the reliefs on the double tympana of the Puerta de las Plateriás at Compostela was intended as a direct thematic extension from the scenes of the Expulsion from Paradise on the north portal. Platerias-Temp-3-WPWhere the former represented the victory of Satan in the form of the Serpent in the Garden, the Plateriás reliefs show Christ triumphing over Satan and Death

Discarding the elements added when it was decided to enlarge the space from its original lunette form, it is apparent that the subject of the left hand tympanum is the Temptation of the Lord

Depicted is the narrative in the gospels of Matthew and Luke where Jesus has gone into the wilderness for forty days and nights.

Platerias-Tempt-3-WPThere, he meets Satan who offers him three temptations; one to assuage his hunger by turning stone to bread, a second whereby he should jump from the pinnacle of the temple and depend on angels to rescue his fall and a third where he is offered all the kingdoms of the world in return for prostrating himself before Satan.

In a gesture which can be seen in Byzantine mosaics, Christ is turned towards his left where two winged demons, hands clasped in supplication implore him to surrender himself before Satan.

A tree stands between Christ and the demons alluding to the Tree of Knowledge, through which the serpent Satan is entwined. An image of Christ in dialogue with Satan, Christ’s gesture with his right hand is a visual representation of his words “Get thee behind me Satan”.

Platerias-Tempt-Demon-1-WPOn either side of the Christ figure angels are ministering, which according to Matthew’s Gospel they did after Satan had left, defeated. The angel immediately above is emerging from clouds waving a thurible just in front of the serpent’s head.

The angel behind Christ appears to be holding aloft items which may be liturgical appurtenances, corresponding to the thurible held by the first angel.

Elsewhere on the tympanum of the Temptation are reliefs carved by the Master of the Porta Francigena which were included when the design was enlarged.

Platerias-Temptation-2These include a slab with three ape-headed demons and notable a seated woman cradling a skull on her lap.

The author of the description of the cathedral in the Book of Saint James, makes much of this, referring to it as an image of a woman taken in adultery. The writer however has shown himself to be unreliable elsewhere in his readings of the sculptural imagery.

The Woman Bearing the Skull would seem to have been intended for the north portal where as Eve, the Mother of Death, the image would have complemented the others from the Genesis cycle.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009

The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992

Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

 

Thematically, the portal reliefs of the south transept entrance of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela follow directly from those of the Porta Francigena. Platerias-LS-2-WPEach of its two doorways has a stone carved tympanum relief sculpture, one of the Temptation of the Lord and the other of the Instruments of the Passion.

The original design for the twin reliefs at the Puerta de las Plateriás were for relatively small lunettes. However this plan was immediately revised and each lunette was enlarged into a more substantial tympanum. In the process the coherence of the iconographic programme was affected detrimentally.

The original reliefs were carried out by the same sculptor or workshop responsible for the capitals in the church and cloister at Conques. Platerias-Temptation-TympThe same hand has been attributed to several capitals in the eastern end of the cathedral at Compostela and subsequently, to the celebrated Last Judgment tympanum at Conques abbey.

On the left hand tympanum the theme of these initial carved reliefs was of the Instruments of the Passion. These featured the Coronation of the Crown of Thorns, the Scourge, the Nails of the Crucifixion and the Pillar of the Flagellation. The Cross itself is included, borne significantly not by Christ but by Simon the Cyrenean, since the subject was not the Passion but its Instruments. These scenes were to be surmounted by the Adoration of the Magi.

Platerias-Flagellation-2The Incarnation was represented by the Epiphany and the Instruments of the Passion, which were known as the Weapons of Christ symbolised the Triumph over Death.

This programme, although still recognizable, was never realized in its original form when the decision was taken to amplify the spaces over the doorways. Additional reliefs were required for the enlarged space and some elements were repositioned. This is the case with the Adoration of the Magi, which was moved from an intended position towards the right in order to accommodate the new reliefs which were carved by the same sculptor responsible for the Porta Francigena.

An angel bearing a nailed crown was placed to the right of the Virgin and on the first register, the Instruments of the Passion now included additional reliefs of the Arrest of Christ and the Curing of the Blind Man. Platerias-Betrayal-2Above the Three Magi, a horizontal angel with star admonished Mary and Joseph to avoid Herod’s men.

The Plateriás entrance led directly to the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, inside the southern transept, which functioned as the cathedral’s baptistery and the theme of baptism was intentionally invoked in the tympanum’s sculptures by the Instruments of the Passion, an allusion to the blood of Christ washing the sins of humanity.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009

The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992

Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

The name of Platerías given to the south transept entrance of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is generally considered to refer to the silversmiths whose stalls proliferated on the square below, selling trinkets to pilgrims. Platerias-LS-WPThe basilica was an integral part of the urban topography of the town of Compostela and the two arms of its transepts connected the pilgrimage with the city as though it were a street.

Accordingly, there have been suggestions that the name Plateriás derives from the Latin word “platea”, meaning a public way and which by the medieval period had come to indicate a location where judicial ceremonies were performed. This was indeed the function of the space immediately in front of the south transept doors.

At the end of the eleventh century large scale sculptural ensembles began to be introduced over the doorways of Romanesque churches. In a practice long abandoned since the end of Antiquity, such images placed within the hemicycle formed between the lintel and arch over a doorway and known as a tympanum were now being revived.

St-Sernin-Miegeville-WP-1Controversy still exists with regard to the dating of these first large Romanesque programmes. Saint Sernin de Toulouse begun in 1070 at the eastern end, did not feature a carved portal relief at the south transept entrance. However by the time construction reached a second portal further west along the nave, a large scale relief was included. The tympanum of the Ascension of the Porte de Miegeville is a brilliantly accomplished work of sculpture and architecture with a fully realised iconographic programme. It is generally considered to have been created in the first half of the first decade of the twelfth century.

Platerias-GV-2-WPIn contrast, the double reliefs of the Puerta de las Plateriás believed to date from 1101, seem far less successful. It may be that the deficiencies of the tympana are due to poor planning and craft and that the technical problems of fitting sculpted stone slabs into the inherently problematic area afforded by a tympanum had not been fully considered. The result is a seemingly confused arrangement of differing styles and materials lacking any obvious coherent thematic significance.

Furthermore, the apparent confusion of the sculptural arrangements cannot be ascribed to the depredations of long centuries, since the description provided in the Pilgrim’s Guide is remarkably true to what remains to this day.

This is because major revisions had already been effected within the first decade of the initial work.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009

The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992

Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Platerias-MajestyAccording to the Pilgrim’s Guide, the cathedral of Compostela had three great portals.

Expressed through the iconography of the sculpture above their double doorways, they combined to present a history of the Christian redemption narrative through the medium of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

The north portal was the entrance known as the Porta Francigena, and is described as the one used by those arriving from France. This was the way pilgrims arrived at their destination.

At the great cathedral of Compostela, the pilgrims were greeted by an image of everything which their long journey had been intended to overcome. This was nothing less than the Fall of Man, presided over by a Christ in Majesty, hand raised in benediction.

On the square immediately in front of the portal was a large stone basin.

Francigena-Basin-1-WPIt was surmounted by four lions whose mouths acted as water spouts, continuously filling the basin. Intended for the refreshment of the pilgrims, the fountain symbolised, after the completion of their journey, the transformation of the Four French Roads  into the Four Rivers of Paradise.

The lions alluded to Christ the Redeemer providing the Water of Life and the ribbed exterior of the basin was shaped to resemble a scallop shell, transforming the whole fountain into a symbol of the theme of Resurrection.

Platerias-ExpulsionThe fountain was the centrepoint of an atrium or parvis and an intentional evocation of the Paradisus of Constantine’s basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. This reminder of Eden was the prelude to the carved Genesis cycle of the Fall of Man depicted above the entrance to the cathedral. As the first volume of the Jacobus declares, “Adam is considered the first pilgrim”.

The depiction of the Fall on the north portal supplied the context for pilgrims arriving at the Apostle’s shrine. Their journey was one necessitated by Original Sin and that, through the intercession of the saint whose mortal remains where held beyond the portal, they could obtain a return to Paradise.

Platerias-SagittariusThe Pilgrim’s Guide provides a description of the iconographic programme. Above the right doorway a series of reliefs showed the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Reprimand after Original Sin and the Expulsion. According to the Guide’s account, this scene is surrounded by a multiplicity of images, “and other creatures whose aspect and characteristics we cannot provide here due to their great number”.

Platerias-PiscesSurviving sculptural elements suggest that these included the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Months. Representing the passage of earthly time, they were a discourse on the consequences of the Fall.

Thus a Sagittarian Centaur shoots arrows and pierces the heart of a Siren representing Pisces, an allegory of the destructive nature of passion. A Crossbowman preparing his weapon is a symbol of Discord.

A man rides a rooster indicating lust. An Eve suckling the baby Cain recalls the words of Genesis, “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”.

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The scenes of the Fall are counterpointed by Old Testament figures who were considered prefigurations of Christ. Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac and King David the Musician. This promise of future redemption was made explicit in a depiction of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin which was located above the left doorway.

Maps of the world which were included in the illuminated manuscripts of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse featured depictions of Paradise. It was represented by the Four Rivers, the Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates which the Book of Genesis mentions as emanating from Eden. The Beatus maps depicted the Apostles in those places where they had fulfilled their mission. The Beatus copy from the cathedral of El Burgo de Osma of 1086, features only two, Peter in Rome and James at Compostela.

The Porta Francigena was destroyed in 1757-8, however many of the reliefs found their way onto the Puerta de las Platerias, where they can be seen today.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009

The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992

Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003

The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

Hidden behind an eighteenth century baroque outer casing at Santiago de Compostela, is a vast and intact twelfth century Romanesque pilgrimage basilica. Platerias-Tymp-GV-1In its time it was a building which for size and prestige stood on equal footing with perhaps only four or five others in Western Latin Christendom.

Many commentators believe that in the twelfth century Compostela eclipsed all saintly shrines as a pilgrimage destination. Ultimately, the manner in which it acquired such prominence may remain a matter of conjecture, the fact remains that the authorities there, both secular and ecclesiastical believed they were in a position to elevate the shrine of Saint James to a status equal with that of Rome and Jerusalem.

Platerias-Col-7-WPFor a hitherto, dimly regarded and peripheral location in western Christendom, this seems on the face of it, a fairly startling presumption. In the preceding two and a half centuries only two fairly modest churches had successively existed at the site of the mausoleum which, it was said contained the relics of Christ’s Apostle.

For the pilgrimage, which had been long and arduous and was now a Europe wide phenomenon, a fitting goal was now required.

In 1075 the emperor king of León and Castile, Alfonso VI returned from a successful campaign against the Moors of Granada with a train of booty which he donated to the see of Compostela for the purpose of building a new church which would be commensurate with the status which was aspired to.

Construction began in 1077, as always at the eastern end and the finished building was consecrated in 1211. During that time there were several revisions to the original design.

Platerias-Col-13WPThe work commenced under the direction of bishop Diego Pelaez and was then continued, intermittently by his successor Diego Gelmirez who is regarded as the most dynamic promoter of Compostela, obtaining archiepiscopal status from Rome in 1120.

The fifth part of the twelfth century Book of Saint James offers us a detailed and extensive description of the church, its decorative elements and liturgical appurtenances even as it was under construction.

One of the intentions was to achieve a building whose symbolic expression was to represent the spiritual function of the shrine within. This would culminate in a massive stone relief of the theophanic vision of the Transfiguration, the New Testament scene attended by the same Apostle who was commemorated by the basilica, and which was a prefiguration of the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.

It was a narrative of redemption emanating from within the shrine itself, which contained that prodigious conduit with the celestial, the very body of the Apostle.

Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997

Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000 The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009 The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992 Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010. Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003 The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

At the beginning of Revelation an enthroned figure holds the Book of Life bound by the seven seals. Of those in attendance, neither the Four Living Beasts nor the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apoocalypse are deemed worthy to open the book.

Jaca-Tymp-6-WPThen a voice proclaims,“ Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof”.

The sculpture above the west entrance to the cathedral of Jaca, dated to around the year 1100, is possibly the earliest carved tympanum in Europe.

It differs radically from the figurative sculptural ensembles which emerged at Toulouse and Compostela by the nature of its deeply allegorical and quasi hieroglyphic style.

Two lions in heraldic pose are positioned either side of a Chrismon. The Jaca Chrismon is made up of the traditional P and X forms of the early Christian symbol with the addition of a cross, from which hang the Alpha and Omega of the Apocalypse. At the base of the cross is an S and in the eight spaces between the arms of the two crosses are flowers of eleven petals. All are enclosed within a wheel, so that the whole resembles a fiery sun, one of the earliest symbols of Death and Resurrection and a reminder that the Roman Emperor Constantine had worshipped the Sun god, Sol Invictus. The inscription around the wheel of the Chrismon describes it as an image of the Trinity.

Jaca-Tymp-CU-6-WPThe lion to the right has a ferocious aspect and holds its right paw over a bear while a basilisk is seemingly imprisoned beneath. In medieval bestiaries both animals symbolised Death. The basilisk was a hybrid creature, said to be born of a serpent’s egg and hatched by a cockerel. According to Pliny the Elder, anyone who looked at it fell dead on the spot. The adjacent inscription reads, “The strong lion is destroying the empire of Death”.

The lion to the left has a regal aspect and stands, without trampling, above a prostrate human figure holding a snake. The inscription reads, “The lion can spare the one prostrating himself and Christ, whosoever is penitent”.

Jaca-Tymp-CU-4-WPIt was medieval practice to hold prolonged liturgical rituals for penitents at Lent before the west entrance to a cathedral such as Jaca. An atrium or porch might provide shelter for the participants, encouraged to remain there for the whole forty-three days separating Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

The portal marked the threshold from which they were excluded until the purification had been completed and the carved reliefs of the tympanum provided the backdrop to the penitential liturgy.

Penance in medieval liturgical practice was related closely to Baptism. Both dealt with purging and purification.

Jaca-Tymp-CU-9-WPIn a seventh century Spanish Visigothic exorcism ritual performed as a preparatory to Baptism, a bishop would make three appeals to purge the catechumen, the third declaring that “The lion of Judah hath conquered”.

The symbolism of the carved tympanum is complex and multifarious. The two lions signifying simultaneously the dual aspect of Christ as Redeemer and Victor over Death and the Lion of Judah of Revelation revealing the Book of Life loosed of its seven seals, denoted here by the Chrismon.

The association made at Jaca between the Chrismon and the Book of Life was repeated further along the pilgrimage road, at San Miguel in Excelsis at Estella in Navarre. There, the tympanum sculpture of the Apocalypse presents Christ holding the Book of Life, which is adorned with the Chrismon.

Given Jaca’s long history as a beleaguered Christian enclave within Moorish Spain, the exceptional allegorical emphasis of the tympanum reliefs may have had roots in an awareness of the Islamic injunction against the portrayal of the human form, allied with an iconoclastic sensibility derived from Byzantium, itself a response to the first waves of Arab conquest in the east.

Sources: S.H. Caldwell, Penance, Baptism, Apocalypse: The Easter Context of Jaca’s west tympanum. Art History .3/1 (1980), 25-40

R. Bartal, The survival of early Christian symbols in 12th century Spain. Principe de Viana 48 (1987), S. 299-315

S. Moralejo-Alvarez, La sculpture romane de la cathedral de Jaca: Etat des questions. Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa (10): 79–106

‎Canellas-Lopez A.- San Vicente A.‎ · ‎Aragon Roman Edition Zodiaque 1971. Collection la nuit des temps 35

Huesca-Chrismon-2-WP Images of the Crucifixion are rare in large scale Romanesque sculptural ensembles. In the Church’s militant period of the Crusading era, a more triumphalist symbol was to be preferred. At many locations along the pilgrimage roads this was  rendered by depictions of the Apocalyptic Christ in Majesty  taken from the Book of Revelation.

In northern Spain, this was conveyed in the form of the Chrismon and is frequently found, most particularly in Aragon and to a lesser degree in Navarre.

Huesca-Chrismon-1-WPAt the  monastery of San Pedro el Viejo in Huesca, there are two large scale Chrismons. In each case the Chrismon is flanked by angels. The tympanum above the north door features the most striking and well executed of the two, featuring the Lamb of the Apocalypse in the centre. Above the south door which leading to the cloister, a second Chrismon, once more held aloft by a pair of angels is carved over a lintel depicting the Adoration of the Magi.

This arrangement echoed Roman funerary apotheosis imagery. The reuse of classical sarcophagi for medieval burial goes some way to explaining the repeated instances of such this form in Romanesque art.

Compostela-Chrismon WPA variation of this design was conceived whereby the flanking angels were replaced by lions producing new symbolic connotations. Such a scene is to be found on the central spandrel of the Puerta de la Platerias at Compostela.

In Aragon this arrangement was developed to a significant degree. On the tympanum of the bell tower porch at  San Martin de Uncastillo a lion to the right rears above a prostate human form and while the lion to the left dominates a serpent. The church of Navasa also has a tympanum with a Chrismon flanked by beasts, however the design is quite different. To the right an animal that resembles a wild boar has a bird perched on its back while to the left a man stands over a crouching lion.

Sta-Cruz-Chrismon-1-WPOn the  pilgrimage road itself, a short distance beyond Jaca, the royal convent church of Santa Cruz de la Seros also has tympanum made up of a Chrismon flanked by two lions. The letters of the monogram on the are not in their usual arrangement. The right hand lion stands over an eleven petalled marigold, while on the left the lion, tongue extended to lick its raised paw. Both lions are characterised by a ferocious demeanour.

The theme of lions is repeated in the capitals on either side of the porch with a depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Daniel was an antetype of Christ in medieval exegesis and the episode of the Lion’s Den an allegorical reference to the Resurrection. Sta-Cruz--Daniel-WPThe single marigold beneath the right hand lion alludes to the Eucharist, an association first proposed by the sixth century Poitevin writer Ventantius Fortunatus. Such an interpretation corresponds to the narrative of Daniel in the Lion’s Den wherein the prophet is aided by the Archangel Gabriel who sends Habbakuk to supply him with a loaf of bread. This also was considered an Old Testament antetype of the Eucharist and the separate elements of the story are present in one of the capitals of the west tympanum of the cathedral of San Pedro at Jaca where the most comprehensive representation of the theme of the Chrismon flanked by lions, is to be found and is very likely the original source for all the others.

Biblio: DL Simon,  L’art Roman, source de l’art Roman, Cahiers de St Michel de Cuxa 11 (1980) pp 249-67.

S.H. Caldwell, Penance, Baptism, Apocalypse: The Easter Context of Jaca’s west tympanum. Art History .3/1 (1980), 25-40

Honorius-Chrismon WPWhile it largely disappeared from Western European Christian art of the medieval period, the Chrismon continued to be used in Spain and its near ubiquitous presence in Romanesque Aragonese sculpture arises from a specific set of circumstances.

The Chrismon was first and foremost an adaptation of a Roman military standard called the Labarum. This was a standard topped with a draped banner surmounted by a Chrismon. In Christian legend it would be associated with the account by the historian Eusebius of the Roman Emperor Constantine’s victory at the battle of the Milvian bridge. Later, at the battle of Adrianople Constantine ordered it to be deployed to whichever part of the field his troops were struggling, such was its talismanic value.

A second Constantinian connection with the Chrismon arose from its function as a symbol of the Trinity, Constantine having presided over the formulation of the Trinitarian Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

In Spain, however, the Visigoths maintained the Arian heresy, denying the Trinity long after it was outlawed in the rest of Christendom. It took a further two hundred and sixty years before the Nicene creed was adopted at the Council of Toledo in 589. Presided over by King Reccared, a contemporary chronicler declared that at the council the king, “Like Constantine among the bishops of Nicaea, anathemitsed Arius”.

Chrismon-Ronda-400-600

This must goes some way in explaining why the Chrismon appears to have held particular meaning  for late period Visigoths before the Arab invasion, appearing in numerous instances all over the peninsula.

The use of the Chrismon began to enjoy a ressurgence once more in Spain in the ninth century coinciding with the first period of the Reconquista. A Chrismon is to be found in the apse of the church of San Salvador de Valdedios built by Alfonso III in 893.

This followed a tradition which began with the first Christian victory against the Saracens at Covadonga in 722, when it was said that the leader of the small Christian force, Pelayo went into to battle under the banner of the Chrismon, in clear imitation of Constantine.

Whether this is true or not, the association was perpetuated by his heirs who forged the kingdom of Asturias in the wake of Pelayo’s victory. In 908 a gem encrusted cross said to be the original wooden cross which Pelayo had carried to victory was donated to the cathedral of Oviedo by his descendant King Alfonso III. Crucially this cross bore the inscription “By this sign you shall conquer your enemies”, which intentionally echoed Constantine’s motto for the Chrismon. Alfonso’s Victory Cross also bore the Alpha and Omega of the Apocalypse at each end of the horizontal arms, as did the Romanesque Chrismons of northern Spain.

Jaca-Tymp-CU-2-WPThus, the Spanish kings of the Reconquest saw themselves as the natural heirs of Constantine, victorious Christian rulers and defenders of the true faith. By the eleventh century the Chrismon was prevalent in the sculptural decor of Navarrese and Aragonese churches, the two kingdoms most associated with the early Reconquista and were particularly associated with royal establishments.

Sources: Canellas-Lopez A.- San Vicente A.‎ · ‎Aragon Roman Edition Zodiaque 1971. Collection la nuit des temps 35

R. Bartal, The survival of early Christian symbols in 12th century Spain. Principe de Viana 48 (1987), S. 299-315