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Category Archives: Tours Road

L'Isle-5-WPThe city of Bordeaux was a major halt on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. It was on the Tours Road, which led through western France via, Tours, Poitiers and Saintes.

Bordeaux was the metropolitan see of Aquitaine, a domain which at the time stretched from the Loire all the way to the Pyrenees.

The abbey of Saint Seurin held numerous important relics for pilgrims to venerate. In addition to the Olifant of Roland and the Frankish warrior martyrs of Roncevaux there was the tomb of the city’s illustrious saint which was located in an imposing setting in the crypt.

Saint-Seurin-3-WPThe saint’s sarcophagous was elevated high off the ground on a series of columns. It was said that the candles that burned there, miraculously lit themselves without human agency.

The relics were guarded by a chapter of canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine. It was this same monastic order, which presided over the other notable reliquary sites on this road, which perpetuated the legacy of the Roncevaux legend at Saint Romain de Blaye and Notre Dame de Roncevaux.

Severinus had been a holy man in the early years of the fifth century.

St-Seurin-19-WPAccording to his legend there was at that time a bishop of Bordeaux named Amandus. In a vision Christ appeared to him and ordained Amandus to go out of the city. He would meet a holy man on the road who came from the East. Amandus duly went out and met Severinius.

Immediately, Amandus recognised the sanctity of the stranger, and brought him into the city in great ceremony. Soon after he relinquished his position as bishop and placed Severinus in his stead, deeming him more worthy.

St-Seurin-10-WPAfter his death Severinus was buried in an oratory outside the city walls in Bordeaux’s Late Antique necropolis. A cult developed around the relics and Severinus was said to have performed numerous posthumous miracles. He came to be regarded as the patron and protector of Bordeaux.

A church was built over the tomb where the inhabitants would gather whenever their city was threatened by natural or manmade disaster, offering prayers to Severinus.


The saint of Bordeaux’s miracles were celebrated and in the sixth century both Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours wrote of them.

According to Gregory, the citizens “knew that whenever their city was either invaded by an illness or besieged by some enemy or disrupted by some feud, they would immediately be delivered.”

When the region was attacked by Goths a few years after Severinus’ death, the saint caused a miraculous fog to descend, which protected the people from attack.

The saint protected Bordeaux at various times from flooding caused by a torrential rain, plague and drought.

The Pilgrim’s Guide admonished that, “In the city of Bordeaux one should visit the remains of the Blessed Seurin, bishop and confessor”.

Biblio: Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990. Autour de Saint-Seurin: lieu, mémoire, pouvouir. Des Premiers temps chrétiens à la fin du Moyen Âge – Actes du colloque de Bordeaux (12-14 octobre 2006) ed. Isabelle Cartron, Dany Barraud, Patrick Henriet, Anne Michel Bordeaux 2009 Ausonius Editions – Mémoires 21

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.


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

Blaye-4-WPPilgrims to Santiago de Compostela who traveled along the Tours Road were enjoined to venerate the relics of the fourth century Saint Romanus at Blaye. There is no other mention of the saint in the Pilgrim’s Guide since his tomb was overshadowed by that of Roland.

Nevertheless, well before Roland’s legendary interment at Blaye, the town and abbey were important in their own right and it was with reason that Charlemagne chose to have his preferred paladin taken there after his martyrdom.

Blaye-26Because of its location on a rocky promontory on the Gironde estuary, Blaye had served as an important defensive emplacement for the protection of Bordeaux further along the estuary.

The Romans had favoured Blavia as an important station on the road which linked Bordeaux with the capital of Aquitania, Saintes and in the late third century an important fortress was erected there.

Blaye-29-WPLocated close by the border of Aquitaine and Gascony during an extended period of conflict between the Franks and the Gascons, Blaye’s strategic importance continued throughout the Carolingian period. It was occupied by Charles Martel when he reconquered the region.

Romanus was important to the Merovingians and later the Carolingians also. It was Martin of Tours, the patron of the Franks who had ordained Romanus as a priest and on his death, arranged his entombment at Blaye.

The burial site overlooked the Gironde and Romanus’ miracles protected those at sea on that busy waterway. Gregory of Tours declared that “Often through the display of his power he rescues people who are about to die from being shipwrecked in the river”. Gregory personally attested to one such occasion when trying to cross the estuary himself, he was held back by “overpowering mountains of water that were tossed up causing great terror among the onlookers”. When Romanus was petitioned to intercede, the storm abated.

Blaye-24-WPThe importance of the abbey of Saint Romanus is further attested to by the burial there of Charibert II, son of the Merovingian King Clotaire II in 632. Charibert had ruled as King of Aquitaine.

These lands extended over a large area which included the cities of Saintes, Périgeux, Cahors, Toulouse and Agen. His subjugation of Gascony fed into the later legend of the Basques at Roncevaux. The ruins of the Merovingian crypt can still be seen at Blaye.

By the time pilgrims came to Blaye in the twelfth century, an immense romanesque church had been erected over the original Merovingian edifice.

Biblio:  Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990

With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais

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

Parthenay-GV-1-WPThe town of Parthenay lies approximately thirty miles west of Poitiers and the great shrine of Saint-Hilaire on the Road of Tours, the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela. It is just to the south of the abbeys of Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes and Airvault.

Treasurers to the abbey of Saint-Hilaire who counted archbishops of Bordeaux among their number,  the lords of Parthenay were prominent figures in medieval Aquitaine.

 At the crossing of the river Thouet a fortified bridge was built and was named the Pont Saint-Jacques after the Apostle of Compostela. The main town is perched on heights above.

 Parthenay-Fac-3-WPSaint James was also the designation given to one of the suburbs of the town. These toponyms suggest that the authorities were keen to identify Parthenay with the passage of an important artery on the pilgrimage to Spain from an early date.

The town benefitted from two churches. Notre-Dame-de-la-Couldre was in the elevated quarter.

In the late eleventh century a new quarter was established known as Parthenay-le-Vieux around the priory of Saint-Pierre which was a dependency of the Benedictine abbey of La Chaise-Dieu.

Both churches, Notre-Dame and Saint-Pierre, feature the same iconographic programme. A relief of an equestrian figure to the left and on the right a man wrestling a lion.

Parthenay-64The latter figure has most often been identified as a representation of Samson in a story from the Book of Judges.  This image was intended to evoke Christ triumphing over Death and His representative on earth, the Church.

Similar riders to those featured at the Parthenay churches are a recurrent motif on twelfth century Poitevin facades such can be found at Airvault and elsewhere. Many have been lost, disfigured and dismantled as at Aulnay or replaced as at Melle. The rider at Parthenay-le-Vieux is the most complete that remains.

The continuing association of the Parthenay family with high ecclesiastical office led to them adopting the name Parthenay-l’Archevêque. The secular function of local lord was passed onto the brother or son of the cleric, who assumed the title of Vidame. The church of Saint-Pierre was possibly founded by either by Joscelin Archbishop of Bordeaux or by his brother Ebbo, Vidame of Parthenay.

Having originally shared and then contested the role of Vidame with another brother Gelduin, Ebbo Parthenay-45committed fratricide to take over as sole ruler of Parthenay. It was in this capacity that he travelled to Jerusalem and fought with the First Crusade.

The sculpture on the facade of Parthenay-le-Vieux may be a way of rendering the dual role of the local lords. The one representing the Archbishopric and the Church, the other the Vidame of Parthenay, secular Defender of the Faith.

Biblio Y. Labande-Mailfert, Poitou Roman

Moissac-St-MartinMartin of Tours was the first Confessor Saint. Tours was a royal Frankish city and the Merovingian kings kept Saint Martin’s legendary cloak as a sacred relic and carried it with them into battle.

Martin, a fourth century soldier in the Roman Imperial Guard had met a naked beggar outside the gates of the town of Amiens. Taking pity on the man, he divided his cloak in two with a sword stroke and offered one half to the beggar. In a dream that night  Martin had a vision of Christ who identified himself as the beggar.

Converted to Christianity, Martin became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers. He spent time as a hermit on the island of Gallinaria off the Ligurian coast before taking a highly active role in evangelising Gaul and establishing the first monastic community there. He was elected bishop of Tours.

Martin’s reputation as a thaumaturge or miracle worker and exorcist was so established during his lifetime that despite having died a natural death in 397, he was declared a saint, a status until then, uniquely reserved for martyrs.

The Pilgrim’s Guide declares: “He is the magnificent one who has resuscitated three dead, and further that he rendered much-desired health to the leprous, the St-Hilaire-fresco-swordpossessed, the insane, the lunatics, the demoniacs, as well as to others who were sick and ill”.

Gregory of Tours reports that the dust from the area surrounding Saint Martin’s tomb could be mixed with water to provide curative benefits and the reputation for the relics to produce miracles meant that during the middle ages the shrine was a celebrated pilgrimage destination.

Already within sixty years of Martin’s death a new and larger church was required to be built over his tomb in order to accommodate the large crowds of pilgrims who came.


Behind the shrine was an atrium where pilgrims could remain for considerable periods in order to pray in proximity to the relics.

Saint Martin’s shrine at Tours was a pilgrimage centre of the first order and pilgrims of the twelfth century would have venerated his relics in the massive Romanesque abbey church there. It was built on the same model as the other great pilgrimage churches of the time, Saint Martial of Limoges, Saint Sernin at Toulouse and Santiago de Compostela.

As the Guide describes, above his tomb, “An immense and venerable basilica has been erected in his honour, similar to the Church of the Blessed James”. The great church was destroyed during the French Revolution, however the two remaining towers still give an indication of its vast size.