Skip navigation

Category Archives: Toulouse Road

The façade of the church of Saint Gabriel presents at first a rather enigmatic prospect. The architectural forms are composed of stylistically disparate elements. The sculptural work seems disconnected with no discernible coherent iconographic theme. St-Gabriel-Fac-1Closer inspection however, reveals a subtle narrative of human salvation composed of allegorical, symbolic and typological subjects and in which the role of the Archangelic patron is given particular emphasis.

The three human figures on the tympanum present a narrative which combines two of the Old Testament’s key scenes, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve in the Garden with the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 The style and subject matter are reminiscent of early Christian imagery, especially that found on sarcophagi. St-Gabriel-Tymp-1In the Romanesque period, the image of Daniel in the Lion’s Den was widespread, representing as it did, a typological prefiguration of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Pairing this with the scene of Original Sin would propose a thematic link with the lions as representing sin or evil and the Daniel figure triumphing over them. As a prefiguration of Christ, the figure would therefore represent the triumph over death which began with Original Sin.

 The representation of the Daniel is significantly amplified by the inclusion, in the background of the prophet Habakkuk, who was transported from Judaea to Babylon by the Archangel Gabriel to come to Daniel’s aid. Habakkuk was given a basket of food to feed Daniel.

 The upper sculptural register, the frieze placed within the triangular fronton is of the Annunciation and the Visitation.St-Gabriel-Frieze-GV

In the Annunciation, Gabriel and the Virgin each occupy separate arcades while to the right Mary and Elizabeth share a single arcade in the depiction of the Visitation.

While representations of Daniel most often referred to prefigurations of the Passion and Resurrection there was secondary aspect to Daniel’s iconography which was also as a prefiguration of the Annunciation. In chapter IX of the Book of Daniel, the prophet is visited by the angel Gabriel who describes a vision of the coming of the Messiah.

St-Gabriel-FriezeThis connection is given further substance and the inclusion of Habakkuk in the scene is given added meaning when the exegetical commentary of Honorius of Autun is considered. Honorius made explicit the notion of Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel as a prefiguration of the Annunciation by associating the miracle of Habakkuk’s basket of food passing to Daniel without breaking the seal of the Den with Christ’s passing into the womb of Mary without breaking the seal of her virginity.

Habakkuk’s basket of food becomes a symbol of the Eucharist and Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel, while not depicted becomes implicit. The typological and allegorical strands are further strengthened in consideration of the relationship between the scene of Adam and Eve and the Annunciation: the Eve of Genesis is superceded by the Virgin of the Annunciation who reopens the Gates of Paradise previously closed by her predecessor.

The whole thematic programme is symbolised by the Lamb at the apex of the fronton presiding over a lion beneath.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-2This symbolic quality is developed to an abstract level as the programme reaches it apotheosis in the oculus. The symbols of the four evangelists surround the circular form in a quadrangular formation symbolising the terrestrial element and the cardinal points. The Eagle of John is positioned to the East representing the Resurrection while Matthew as an enthroned man angel is to the West and representative of Death and the Incarnation. The Evangelists also connote the spreading of the Word to the World and the fulfilling of the Mission of the Apostles.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-3The perfect circle of the oculus implies the divine. Within the sculpted area surrounding the oculus are two registers. The outer of acanthus leaves and the inner of ten human heads. In exegetical tradition dating back to Augustine and Isidore of Seville, ten was the number of perfection and infinity. The Apocalypticism of Romanesque church facades becomes explicit, the prophecies of the Book of Zechariah speaking of “Ten men that shall take hold“. Effectively, the oculus at Saint Gabriel takes the place of the Majestas Domini.

The programme of the facade as a whole can be considered as a progression from the Old Testament’s narrative of the Fall and later prophecies of coming redemption to the New Testament’s Incarnation representing the fulfillment of those prophecies. The whole leading to the Second Coming and the Heavenly Jerusalem as symbolised in the oculus.

Biblio: J-M Rouquette Provence Romane

M. Thomieu Iconographie Romane

N Mezoughi, Saint-Gabriel en Provence : réflexion sur l’iconographie de la façade, Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, t. 8, 1977, p. 105-136.

From the summit of the Alpilles hills of Provence, one can survey the broad delta of the Rhone river extending below. Just as one reaches level ground, one finds the chapel of Saint Gabriel, all that remains of a settlement whose history goes back to pre-Roman times and was known as Eragnium. To the west is the great river and a short distance upstream, the reliquary church of Sainte Martha at Tarascon.

Pilgrims travelling from Aix-en-Provence towards the great shrine of Saint Trophimus Alpilles-6and the Alyscans would have stopped at the town of Saint Gabriel to embark on shallow boats which ferried them across the watery marshland which separated them from Arles.

Mentioned in a charter of the abbey of Saint Victor of Marseilles in 1030, the town had prospered since Roman times because of its strategic location at the western edge of the Alpilles hills where roads coming down the Durance valley and the Aurelian way met the natural obstacle of the delta marshland.  This stretch was navigable only by the special rafts constructed with inflated floats to enable them to move over the very shallow water.

 St-Gabriel-GVThe surrounding marshland has long since been drained and the church, now the sole vestige of the medieval town, resembles some stranded sea vessel set on a rocky promontory among the olive groves and cypress trees.

 The quality of workmanship of the single naved building and the extent of its sculptural decoration seem strangely disproportionate to the isolation of its surroundings but it is these very features which provide testimony to the once thriving community which existed there and  whose remains are now barely in evidence save for the long flight of worn stone steps leading up to the church porch.

 The singular impression is enhanced by the unusual design of the façade which takes some of its inspiration from the Roman amphitheatre at Arles and combines an elegant classicism with a rude sculptural style derived from paleo-Christian sarcophagi.

 St-Gabriel-Front-GVThe façade is made up of three distinct elements. The entrance is set back in a deep porch and above the door is a small tympanum with an exceptional iconographic programme which combines Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 Above the tympanum is a fronton surmounted by an Agnus Dei and featuring a bas-relief frieze divided by three arcades and depicting Saint Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Visitation.

 The third element of the façade’s composition is an oculus surrounded by the tetramorphic symbols of the four evangelists.

Biblio: J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

The church of Sainte-Marthe de Tarascon is situated on the left bank of the Rhône a few miles north east of the city of Arles.

The twelfth century southern porch sculpture is an impressive Romanesque sculptural ensemble which took its design from one of the gates of the Roman ramparts of Nîmes. The tympanum and lintel however are now completely defaced but records reveal their thematic composition. The tympanum depicted Christ in Majesty and the lintel frieze portrayed a processional composition stylistically derived from one of the many paleo-Christian sacrophagi to be found in the area.

It featured Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and a procession of ten Apostles after which came the two saints of Bethany, Lazarus and his sister Martha who holding by a rope a dragon-like monster from whose jaws are protruded the legs of a half devoured human form.

Legend tells us that fleeing persecution in Palestine, Martha and her brother Lazarus and many other disciples arrived in Provence at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, after a crossing over the sea in an oarless boat.

Martha made her way to Avignon before settling on the banks of the Rhône nearby.

The saints of Bethany were highly venerated in the medieval West. The relics of Lazarus were kept at Autun. It was he who according to the Gospel of John that Jesus was raised from the dead. Their sister Mary-Magdalene’s relics were venerated at Vézelay and Martha’s shrine at Tarascon had, it was said, been a site of pilgrimage since the fifth century at least. The first Frankish king Clovis had been healed miraculously by the intercession of Saint Martha when he came in pilgrimage in the year 500.

The legend of Martha and her triumph over the monster known as the Tarasque were recording in a chronicle attributed to the ninth century historian Raban Maur. According to the chronicle, the beast had, “Had jaws armed with sharpened teeth which made piercing whistling sounds. With its teeth and claws it tore apart all it encountered and the mere infection of its breath sufficed to take away the life of any who approached”.

The local people challenged Saint Martha, as a sign of the power of the Messiah of whom she preached to bring the beast to heel. This would be proof of divine intervention and the populace undertook to accept conversion if Martha was able to bring an end to the monster’s reign of terror. “She advanced in full view of the people who applauded her courage and entered with assurance the lair of the dragon and by the Sign of the Cross she appeased its ferocity”.

The place which had previously been known as Nerluc, or dark forest was renamed Tarascon.

The tradition of the Tarasque monster belongs to the native Celtic tribe which inhabited this region of Provence, known as the Salluvians. In accounts written by Plutarch and the Greek historian Strabo, the Romans campaigned against them in 102 BC. The Roman army led by the general Marius were assisted by a Syrian priestess and seer who was paraded around the soldiers encampment wielding a staff decorated with flowers and ribbons of coloured cloth wearing a purple cloak tied at the neck with a brooch – her name was Martha.

The iconography of the Tarasque always showed it with the limbs of the half devoured human protruding from its jaws as in the carved stone statue dating to the first century BC discovered near to Tarascon.

The miracle of Martha and the Tarasque is an archetypal triumph of Good over Evil. As Gervais of Tilbury wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Tarasque was “A serpent of the race of Leviathan, a foul serpent of the sea”.

According to Raban Maur, on her death the saint was entombed in a miraculous ceremony presided over by Christ and Saint Fronto of Périgeux. In 1187 Martha’s relics were discovered hidden in the crypt of the church.

The twelfth century church of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is situated on a low lying rocky outcrop amid the sandy plain of the Camargue region of the Rhône delta. Today, because of the incursion of the sea it stands right by the littoral but during the medieval period it was a further distance inland.

An oratory at the site, built over a sweet water source, is first mentioned in the testament of Caesarius of Arles in the fifth century. Vestiges exist of earlier cults at the location. According to the Greek historian Strabo, a line of protective towers was built along this section of shore by the Phocaean settlers of Marseille and was served by a temple to the Goddess Artemis whose cult they had brought to Provence from Ephesus. The site of the temple appears to have been located at the same point as the present church.

In 1078 the church known as Sainte-Marie-de-Ratis and dependent on the monastery of Saint Caesarius was donated to the abbey of Montmajour. In 1114 it was rededicated as Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer.

The counts of Provence maintained an interest in the monastic buildings at Notre-Dame which were fortified and presented a strategic value in protecting Arles against Saracen raids from the sea.

The Benedictine monks of Montmajour, itself an important pilgrimage centre were installed at Notre-Dame. It was during this period that an oral tradition appears to have taken root concerning the disembarcation there in the first century of important figures from the Gospel fleeing persecution from the Roman authorities in Palestine. This legend was only set down in writing in 1212 by Gervais of Tilbury, the administrator of the Kingdom of Arles, although there were earlier accounts which placed the arrival of the group at Marseille.

The church of Notre-Dame had been built and consecrated, “By disciples chased from Judaea and carried over the sea on a boat without oars, Maximin of Aix, Lazarus of Marseille brother of Martha and Mary of the Gospel, the consecration taking place in the presence of Martha, Mary-Magdalene and many others”.

Gervais described “in a tradition full of authority” that the altar contained the heads of six saintly bodies laid out in the form of a square “In the middle of which it is affirmed are buried the two Marys who on the first Sabbath came with perfume to visit the Tomb”.

These two saintly relics were therefore the Myrrophores, the women who brought perfume to anoint the body of the Crucified Christ. Mary Jacoby, mother of James brother of Jesus and Mary Salomé, mother of the Sons of Zebedee, that is John the Evangelist and the Apostle of Compostela, Saint James. The third Myrrophore was Mary-Magdalene, whose relics were then believed to be at Vézelay in Burgundy.

According to the Gospel of Mark these three were the discoverers of the Empty Tomb and the first to learn that Christ had risen.

The legend of the existence of the body of the mother of the Apostle of Compostela at this point was given added further weight by the tradition of his preaching in Catalonia, at Barcelona and then later at Zaragossa, both stories combining so that Saint James would have travelled to Provence at the same time as his mother and Mary-Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and the rest of the disciples.

The church became known as Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and because of the presence of the relics of Mary Salomé attracted pilgrims who took a branch route of the Toulouse Road at Arles to visit the church by the sea.

The Toulouse road to Santiago de Compostela had a number of variants. The Book of Saint James mentions several places along the way, notably Saint Guilhem, Montpellier and Saint Thibéry which already indicate at least one, if not more alternatives through Languedoc to reach the shrine of Saint Saturninus at Toulouse from Saint Gilles.

One of these adopted the old Celtic road from Nîmes to Toulouse. Following the course of the valley of the Orb river in order to negotiate the rugged mountain terrain, the route passed by the abbey of Villemagne and its dependent priory of Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes. Reaching the priory of Saint-Julien at Olargues where the Orb turns sharply south, the road westward to Toulouse lies along the valley of the Jaur to the abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières.

The abbey of Saint-Pons was a hugely influential and powerful monastic centre heading its own federation of  dependent monasteries, many of them beyond the Pyrenees in Spain. An indication of the regard in which the monastery  was held can be guaged by the attendance of Pope Urban II at the dedication ceremony of the new church building in 1096 as he made his way from Clermont, where he had addressed the Frankish aristocracy with his call to the First Crusade.

Already in 1094, the abbot Frotard had been one of the group of  significant clerical figures at the consecration of the new church of San Juan de la Peña, the royal Aragonese abbey and a key institution in the Spanish Reconquista. One of the dependent monasteries in Spain belonging to Saint-Pons-de-Thomières was San Pedro el Viejo, donated by Pedro Ist of Aragon after it was conquered from the Moors.

The abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières had been founded in 936 by Raymond III Count of Toulouse. Previously, at this location close by the source of the Jaur river, there had been a hermitage dedicated to Saint Martin. One year after the foundation of the new monastery, Raymond and his wife Garcinda,  daughter of the Count of Narbonne had arranged the translation of the relics of Saint Pons from Cimiez,  site of his martyrdom in 257 in the region of Nice, henceforth becoming the new patron.

Raymond and Garcinda had also requested the assistance of the monks of Saint-Géraud d’Aurillac to help them establish their new foundation. Aurillac had a strong Cluniac tradition having itself been established under the influence of the great Burgundian abbey.

With the arrival of the relics of Saint Pons a flow of donation began which led to the abbey growing in considerable wealth. Their greatest abbot, Frotard held the position of head of the abbey for thirty-eight year until his death in 1099.

With the ever increasing influx of pilgrims and its position as a station on the Compostelan road a new larger church building was required. It was this building which was dedicated by Urban II.

Emerging from the lagoons of the Camargue and facing the broad expanse of the open sea stands a tall imposing edifice, the fortified cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Maguelone. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis who visited the site in the twelfth century described it as “A narrow island, uninhabited but for the bishop, his priests and a small retinue. It is simple, isolated and impoverished but well fortified against the attacks of the Saracens, who do not cease to infest the seas.”

Situated a short distance from the old Roman road which led from Arles to Béziers and Spain, Maguelone’s cathedral stands opposite Montpellier on the other side of the highway. Beyond, along the road lay the abbey of Saint-Thibéry towards which pilgrims to Compostela were headed.

The Guide specifies that those taking the Toulouse Road to Galicia pass via Montpellier, where there was a celebrated cult at Notre-Dame-des-Tables. Maguelone had no important relic cult itself, but situated as it was by the pilgrimage road between the important shrines at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Saint-Thibéry it was, together with its dependent priories in the locality, a part of the supportive fabric of that particular section of the way. As the great ecclesiastical centre of the region it was an important player in the affairs of the day.

Originally, Maguelone was an island of volcanic origin set in the middle of the Melgueil lagoon, accesible only by boat until the construction in the eleventh century of a stone and wooden bridge spanning a distance over the water of one kilometre.

This small volcanic island in the midst of the Camargue was a centre of religious cult since prehistory and its origins as the seat of a bishopric go back to at least the end of the sixth century. After a chequered history, its period of greatest prestige coincided with the height of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the middle of the twelfth century

The cathedral and its buildings had been razed by Charles Martel in 737 in a defensive manoeuvre after the island had fallen into Saracen hands and was being used as a base for their incursions into Septimania. The inhabitants and the bishop resettled on the mainland and the see was transferred to the town of Substantion where it remained for three centuries. Maguelone was abandoned and forgotten during the period of the Carolingian renaissance in favour of the developing monastic centres at Gellone and Aniane and the growing prosperity of Montpellier. Its feudal lords, the counts of Maguelone and Melgueil resided elsewhere.

It was not until the eleventh century that Maguelone was restored to its former eminence under bishop Arnaud who had applied to Rome for assistance in rebuilding the cathedral which according to Pope John XIX, “had been reduced to nothing”. The church was rebuilt and the channel on the south side leading to the sea which had provided an easy landing point for Saracen invaders was filled in and replaced by a narrower passage facing eastwards.

In 1085, under the influence of the reforms of Pope Gregory the Great, the feudal lord of Maguelone, Count Pierre de Melgueil donated all their rights over the bishopric to Rome and thereafter the cathedral became a close ally of the Papal See. When Urban II visited on his tour of 1096, he referred to Maguelone as the second church after Rome and accorded a plenary indulgence to all who were buried on the island. A number of Popes resided as guests of the bishop, notably Calixtus II, purported author of Libri Sancti Iacobi, in 1119.

It was Pons, scion of the Megueil family who was raised to the position of one of the most powerful figures of Western Christendom, the abbacy of Cluny. Although the period of his rule from 1109 until 1122 occurred during a particularly fractious period in the history of the Burgundian monastery, Pons was actively involved in the negotiations which took place in 1120 to raise the see of Santiago de Compostela to metropolitan status.

In the middle ages, Montpellier was celebrated for a cult centered on a miraculous Black Madonna.

According to the Pilgrims Guide the southernmost French route to Santiago de Compostela “Crosses Saint-Gilles, Montpellier, Toulouse and the pass of Somport”.  This is the route generally known as the Toulouse Road, and as with its description of the other three French routes, the Guide is brief in the extreme. Historians and specialists have attempted to add more definition to these routes by including information provided in the chapter which lists the saintly relics of the road recommended for veneration. Montpellier is anomalous in this context in that there is no mention of a cult. As at Notre-Dame-du-Puy, there was a celebrated Marian cult in existence in the twelfth century but unlike in the example of Le Puy en Velay, it is not included in the designation given in the Guide.

After Arles and Saint-Gilles, pilgrims to Compostela continued to Spain by way the shrine of Saint Saturninus at Toulouse some taking the road which led them up into the mountains to reach the abbey of Gellone while others continued along the Roman Domitian highway towards Béziers and Narbonne. This route crossed Montpellier.

The origins of the city lie in the period of Saracen invasion of the region and the destruction of the nearby cathedral island town of Maguelone by Charles Martel to prevent the Saracens from using it as a foothold in the region. Refugees were drawn to Montpellier and the neighbouring town of Substantion. A good number came from Moorish Spain and the town was able to benefit from the rich cultural mix provided by this new population. This led to its development as one of the great centres of learning of the middle ages exemplified by its celebrated medical school.

The cult of the Virgin was celebrated in the church of Notre-Dame-des-Tables, so-called because of the tables used by the money lenders in the immediate vicinity. Returning from the First Crusade, Guilhem V de Montpellier brought with him two notable items. The relics of Cleopas, a disciple of the Road to Emmaus and a black Madonna which he donated to the church of Notre-Dame.

In the early ninth century the Count of Substantion had paid for the construction of a small church at Montpellier dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Consecrated in 817 by Ricuinus Ist, bishop of the abandoned cathedral of Maguelone it was established on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the Goddess Vesta. Vesta was the Goddess of the flame of the hearth. It is worth noting that the likelihood of a preexisting Druidic cult is not to be ruled out and the  Celtic name for fire “visc” would provide an etymological  link to add to the religious one of Vesta and Virgin, given that the cult of Vesta involved a sacred fire which was maintained by the priestesses of the temple who were obliged to pursue a regime of chastity, the Vestal Virgins. The sacred fire was for the protection of the city.

The most striking of the miracle stories to emerge from Notre-Dame-des-Tables seems to be the product of long tradition. When Montpellier was affected by an outbreak of plague which was decimating the town, in the fourteenth century, the inhabitants constructed an enormous circular candle with which they surrounded the city walls and set to burn. In ceremony they wound up the giant burning candle and processed to the church where it was laid before the altar. As the flame diminished so did the plague.

Vesta was referred to as Mater, the Mother who had a beneficent influence on the argicultural cycle, a reflection of this can be detected in another of the Virgin of Montpellier’s miracles. During a time when great drought threatened the harvest of the region, the Magestat Antiqua was taken in procession to the river Lez and ritually submerged. By the time the black Madonna was returned to the altar at Notre-Dame-des-Tables, the rains had already come.

The miracles of Notre-Dame-des-Tables were well known throughout medieval western Christendom. In the early thirteenth century the Cistercian chronicler, Caesarius of Heisterbach wrote, “There is at Montpellier a church dedicated to Saint Mary where the cures are so numerous and so brilliant and to which, the doctors, in spite of the resources of their famous school send their patients”.

The medieval churches of Montpellier suffered greatly during the French Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Notre-Dame-des-Tables was attacked three times, finally in 1794, leaving nothing apart from the crypt and a fragment of Romanesque sculpture.

In the valley of the Orb river in the mountainous Languedoc region of southern France is the crossroads of two ancient Celtic routes.

At this intersection the road from Nîmes to Toulouse meets the road traveling from Béziers to Cahors. Long the site of busy traffic, it had been the location of a temple surrounded by a protective network of fortified emplacements. By the late tenth century the temple had been replaced by a priory of monks dependent on the nearby abbey of  Saint-Majan-de-Villemagne.

The priory of Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes was one of several monastic establishments along the route leading westwards from Nîmes towards Toulouse and used by pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela along the Via Tolosana after having made the visit to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, one of the stops indicated by the Pilgrim’s Guide.

From there, the road led via the abbeys of Joncels and Villemagne to the junction at Saint-Pierre-de-Rhèdes. It  was then possible to take the northern route by adopting the Béziers-Cahors road to the abbey of Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare where another road turns westwards to Toulouse by way of Brassac and La Salvetat-sur-Agout.  The southern route through the Languedoc mountains continued from Saint-Pierre along the Orb valley to the important abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières and Castres before reaching Toulouse and the great shrine of Saint Saturninus.

The church’s singular appearance arises from the unusual combination of  several stylistic strains which went into its creation and which may be an effect of the strategic position it occupied. One can detect a noticeable Lombard influence such as can be seen at the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le Désert only short distance away. More surprising is an apparent similarity with churches from the Velay region around Notre-Dame-du-Puy.

Both western and southern porches feature tympana of a most original design. These feature a cross formed out of inlaid stone marquetry. By alternating black volcanic basalt and sandstone,  two cruciform images are represented. Over the southern entrance, the crosses  are surrounded by two circles of alternating stone and a sawtooth arch of triangular section of the dark stone. This form of stone inlay marquetry suggests the influence of the Auvergne and the churches at Le Puy.

Beneath the tympanum is a lintel featuring crudely carved hieroglyphic figures which have been identified as Arabic letters although crouched human and animal figures can be discerned. The columns are of antique origin, suggesting that they have been reemployed from the earlier pre-Christian sanctuary.

High up at the rear of the church, on the apse is a crudely sculpted human form of rather mysterious significance. It has been proposed that this figure, apparently equipped with a staff and gourd might be a pilgrim, a notion which gains credibility by virtue of the fact that we are on the pilgrimage road between Saint-Gilles and Saint-Sernin.  To the left, this personage has the attributes of another staff similar to a bishop’s crosier and a square object with a handle which may be a key. These have led to suggestions of a representation of Saint Peter. With arms outstretched this figure is in the orant pose, the prayer position for intercession more commonly used in Byzantine depictions.

After Saint Thibéry, pilgrims to Compostela travelling along the old Domitian highway reached the Roman bridge across the Orb river where the city of Béziers was perched on the heights above.

Béziers was an episcopal town with illustrious relics and numerous churches and monastic foundations.

According to the legends of Charlemagne’s exploits in Spain, it was told that having liberated the shrine of the Apostle Saint James at Compostela, the emperor built five churches in France dedicated to the Apostle with the wealth he brought back from Spain. One of these was at Béziers. As the fifth book of the Codex of Calixtus, the History Charlemagne and Roland recounts, “With the gold and the wealth that the kings and princes of Spain gave and presented”, Charlemagne constructed the first church at Compostela dedicated to the Apostle. The chronicle continues by telling us that, “With the rest of the gold and silver that he brought from Spain he constructed many churches on his return to France”. Of these, five were dedicated to the Apostle of Compostela, including, “another church of Saint James in the city of Beziers”.

The church of Saint Jacques at Béziers, first recorded in 967, was part of an important abbey whose abbot was lord of an entire suburb of the city which included a hospital, presumably dedicated to the welfare of Compostelan pilgrims.

Also at Béziers was a church dedicated to Mary-Madgalene as well as the relics of Saint Aphrodisius who was claimed as the first bishop of the city. Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, relates that Aphrodisius was an Egyptian who had sheltered the Holy Family during the flight to Egypt and later became a disciple. Tradition also holds that Aphrodisius was one of the disciples who fled to Provence by boat with the family of Bethany. Along with Sergius Paulus, first bishop of Narbonne, Aphrodisius set out to evanglise Septimania, arriving at Béziers mounted on a camel.  Encountering the persecution of the Roman authorities, he was beheaded under the orders of Nero. His sanctity was confirmed when he raised himself up and carried his head in the tradition of cephalorous saints of whom Saint Denis is the most celebrated example. After his body was buried the inhabitants continued to care for Aphrodisius’ camel as a mark of their acceptance of his preaching. In 858 Usuard the monk of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près author of a well-known martyrology travelled through Béziers describing it as “An illustrious city by reason of the relics of blessed Aphrodisius”.

Béziers also maintained a shrine to Saint Nazarius, traditionally considered another martyr of Nero’s persecutions,  at the cathedral which was dedicated to him.

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.