Holy Warriors: The Romanesque Rider and the Fight Against Islam

Holy Warriors: The Romanesque Rider and the Fight Against Islam

By Linda V. Seidel

The Holy War, edited by Thomas Patrick Murphy (Ohio State University Press, 1976)

Introduction: Equestrian figures, which flourished in the sculptural decoration of Romanesque churches, have come to be regarded, by historians and art historians alike, as a quintessential manifestation of the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Both Christopher Brooke and Erwin Panofsky considered the large-scale figures to be faithful copies of the celebrated ancient statue of Marcus Aurelius, which stood, until the sixteenth century, outside the Lateran Palace in Rome. Since the Middle Ages believed that this monumental bronze represented Constantine, scholarly tradition has assumed that the Romanesque carvings likewise portrayed the first Christian emperor. Emile Male even hypothesized that commemorative trinkets of the equestrian statue, brought back by French pilgrims in Rome, provided the impetus, during the early twelfth century, for the representation of mounted figures on church fagades. The relief at Parthenay-le-vieux, one of many such riders in western France, is the best preserved and most celebrated among these carvings. Male’s theory accords well with the widespread view of Romanesque as an art that drew its intellectual instruction primarily from the Church in Rome and its artistic inspiration, particularly in southern Europe, from local civic monuments that had survived from the period of Roman colonization.

But why elevate Constantine to such a position of prominence on the outside of ecclesiastical buildings? There is no evidence of a cult of Constantine in either France or Spain at the time and no tradition of the Roman convert as benefactor of the churches on which he appears. Moreover, if the rider image was inspired by a statue in Rome, why didn’t the type proliferate in territories adjacent to Italy? A few riders do appear on sculptures in southern France, but these are small and belong to narrative episodes on capitals. And certain features of these works, such as the figure trampled underfoot and the accompanying woman, characteristics as well of the Aquitainian cavaliers, do not appear on the Roman work. Neither the western French riders nor the Provengal equestrians bear significant formal relation to the monumental Antique bronze.

Two types of riders had, in fact, been bequeathed by Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The sedate image of the victorious leader, familiar from public monuments such as the one in Rome, persisted in early Christian Imperial sculptures and on official coins; it also inspired representations of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. A second, animated depiction of an aggressive cavalier, found originally on pagan funerary slabs and subsequently on Imperial Roman coins, became associated with the military saints, George, Deme-trios, Theodore, who were seen, in Byzantium, as the defenders of Christianity. Kingsley Porter suggested that this diverse group of Eastern warrior saints, rather than the individual Imperial rider, influenced the invention of the lively Western cavaliers.

Alternatives to the Constantinian explanation of the twelfth-century equestrians do, in fact, emphasize the active quality of many of the Romanesque riders. The Spanish have held that the horseman is Saint James as he legendarily appeared in a dream to Charlemagne urging the Frank to fight the Moors and liberate the Saint’s basilica in Galicia. A Poitevin sigilographer, observing the similarity between the representations of armed riders on the seals of the lords of Parthenay and the riders that grace the tympana of two churches in that town, suggested that these particular equestrian carvings had something to do with local nobility; perhaps they commemorated a victory by an eleventh-century member of their line over a local heresy. The French archeologist Paul Deschamps observed that the “Constantinian” subject on a capital of French workmanship from Syria might allude to the twelfth-century fight against Islam. Abstract explanations have also been offered. The riders have been related to mounted personifications oiSuperbia, sometimes shown wearing the trappings of a soldier. The identification of that awful Vice with cavaliers has been interpreted as a warning to members of the powerful fighting class not to abuse their power and commit the sin of Pride. At the same time, the triumphant riders have been viewed as the embodiment of Virtue and, along with a frequent companion, the lion-fighter, they have been interpreted as the dual powers in medieval society, Kingship and Priesthood.

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