At Parthenay-le-Vieux, the facade of the church of Saint-Pierre features an impressive equestrian figure, the Parthenay Rider. The 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.
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.
The 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.
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. The 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.
The 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