Roland then, finding it impossible to escape, instantly implored the divine assistance and seizing the Giant’s sword, he thrust it into his navel and made his escape. Ferracutus, finding himself mortally wounded, called aloud upon Mahomet
Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi
Video: West Facade
San Zeno Verona
An Artsymbol Production
Music by Martin A Smith
The History of Charlemagne and Roland features an extended debate between Roland and Ferracutus the Giant. For the Saracens of Andalusia, Jesus was merely a prophet among others. The beleagured Christians of Moorish Spain accomodated the Arabs by accepting the Adoptionist Creed which denied the Trinity and claimed Christ as God’s adopted son. This form of Christianity was a variant of Arianism, the heresy which had been denied at the Council of Nicea, presided over by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
In 794, reprising the role of his predecessor, Charlemagne convoked the council of Frankfurt and called upon the spokesman of bishop Elipandus of Toledo, Felix of Urgel, both proponents of Adoptionism, to debate with his scholar Alcuin and force a retraction.
The sculptural programme of the abbey of San Zeno is devoted to the triumph of the Catholic Trinitarian Creed over the Arian heresy and the defender of the true faith is Charlemagne’s own champion, Roland.
San Zeno arrived at Verona in the early fourth century, apparently from Africa and according to legend became bishop of the city.
On his death he was entombed in the necropolis which lay outside the city walls through which ran the Via Gallica.
A new church was endowed, it was said by Charlemagne. Pepin, Charlemagne’s son and ruler of Italy was present when the body of Zeno was translate into a new marble crypt in 806.
Zeno was celebrated as a thaumaturge in his lifetime. According to his legend he exorcised the devil from the daughter of the Roman emperor Gallienus among many miracles.
It was said that he had converted many of the local populace of the region of Verona from Arianism to Catholicism.
His role as protector and patron of the city is represented on the tympanum sculpture of his church. In the garb of bishop he stands between the townsfolk bearing his crozier.
The inscription around the relief informs the reader that Saint Zeno confers the banner upon the people of the city with a serene heart.
On either side of the bronze doors of the basilica are large scale sculpted reliefs. On the right a cycle representing the Fall of Man and on the left a Redemption cycle.
At the base of each of these are a pair of diptychs representing scenes of warriors.
Beneath the scenes of the Fall there is a hunting scene. The hunter on horseback is blowing a horn and chasing a stag which is being attacked by dogs.
Beyond the stag a demonic figures stands waiting. An inscription informs us that the king has been presented with a horse, a stag and a dog and that he is riding towards Hell never to return.
The inscription which accompanies the relief refers us to the legend of the Hunt of Theoderic which narrates a tale of the Ostrogothic ruler who rode to Hell.
Theoderic was an Arian Christian who had ordered the execution of the Christian philosopher Boethius. A legend recounted how, after his death, the soul of Theoderic had been transported in the air by the soul of Boethius to mount Etna where it had been dropped into the fiery furnace below.
The relief programme to the left of the entrance presents a Redemption cycle with scenes of the life of Christ. Below this the diptych shows two combat scenes.
To the left mounted warriors are charging each other, lances poised. The right hand scene depicts the same two combatants on foot. In each, the left hand warrior is a Saracen, identifiable by the round shield and the trailing headdress.
The long shield and helmet identifies the second as a Frankish knight, corroborated by the banner he wields, the Oriflamme.
These scenes represent Roland’s duel with the Saracen Ferracutus which is described in the History of Charlemagne and Roland. Ferracutus is a giant who has challenged the assembled Frankish army to single combat outside the city walls of Nájera.
Several paladins try their hand but it is Roland who succeeds by killing Ferracutus in the only way possible, by a sword thrust to the navel. This is the scene on the right side of the diptych.
The combat between these two involves a lengthy respite during which Ferracutus questions Roland about his religion, prompting the Frank to expound on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Two figures are adjacent to the combat scenes. One, on the far left is a kneeling figure which represents Roland praying before engaging Ferracutus. A figure in the centre is the feminine image of Ecclesia, the Church whom Roland defends by killing the giant.
The Saracens were considered in the twelfth century to be heretics in the way Arians had been and Islam rather than being a separate religion was seen as a heresy.
Theoderic, the Arian is associated with the Fall and Roland with Christ and the promise of Redemption.
In addition, the Trinitarian conception that God and Christ are one is represented by the depiction of a Christ figure, identifiable by his cruciform nimbus, in the scenes of the Genesis cycle.
Sources and Biblio:
Vénétie Romane, Gianna Suitner-Nicolini, La Nuit des Temps Zodiaque 1991
Sermon Against Jews, Pagans and Arians, Concerning the Creed, Trans EN Stone Inviersity of Washington Publications in Language and Literature Vol. 4 No. 3 pp. 195-214 March 1928
SG Nichols Romanesque Signs Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University
La Chanson de Roland dans le décor des églises du XIIe siècle, Deborah Kahn, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 1997 Volume 40
Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003
History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812
The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014