Sculpted Atlants, crouched figures placed strategically inside and outside Romanesque churches, supporting parts of the structure of the building, are a common theme of pilgrimage road sculpture.
They are derived from the classical mythological story of Atlas, son of the titan Lapetus and brother of Prometheus. Atlas was punished by Zeus and made to bear the weight of the heavens. According to Homer, Atlas was “one who knows the depths of the whole sea and keeps the tall pillars which hold heaven”.
In Romanesque art these figures are more often suffering punishment, but they can also be depictions of prefiguration or prophecy as in the case of the side jambs at Moissac.
The Roman historian Vitruvius had noted the use of Atlant figures in the portico at Sparta which had been built to celebrate the victory of the Spartans over the Persians, “In order to support the roof, they have erected statues of prisoners dressed barbarously in order to humiliate and intimidate them”. This added a political dimension to the meaning of Atlants which was used in Romanesque sculpture.
At Aulnay de Saintonge two sets of Atlant figures are displayed on the undersides of the arches of the southern transept porch. Beneath those bearing the images of the Apostles spreading the Word they crouch with both hands raised supporting the structure above.
The oriental garb they are shown wearing is an indication of their association with the Saracen race and more generally with paganism. At a time of Holy War against Islam, the Saracens represented both political and spiritual enemies.
Their humiliating position serves to render their captive status and the punishment which is meted out to them for the sin of paganism and thus by extension the triumph of the Christian Church.
Above them are the twelve Apostles preaching the Word of God to twelve acolytes. The Atlants beneath are numbered twenty-four, the hours of the days, representative of terrestrial values but also prefiguring the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse who appear on the next arch.
The Elders oddly, are numbered thirty-one on the next arch and the corresponding Atlants the same, representing the days of the months. Combined with the Twelve Apostles and the twelve acolytes below, these number include the hours of the days, the days of the months and the months of the year.
The register of Apostles preaching indicates the prerequisite of the Apocalypse, which is the spreading of the Word to the furthest reaches of the earth.
The next register therefore is the Apocalypse, represented by the Elders. Beneath, the Atlants are notably different from those supporting the Apostles in that they are on bended knee, having only one hand supporting the structure above. This anomaly may be explained by the fact that they are now within the celestial realm. These Atlants also seem to have a stronger oriental appearance which suggests a possible influence from Hindu and Persian motifs, specifically the lesser divinities of the Ahuras and Devas each of which was associated with opposing elements.
The most striking use of Atlants in Romanesque sculpture is at the cathedral of Oloron-Sainte Marie. Here a pair of giant Saracens prisoners are presented at the base of the trumeau of the western entrance. Their expressive faces and hunched shoulders indicate the agony of their suffering in bearing the weight of the structure, a tympanum depicting the Deposition from the Cross.
These are Atlants supporting the weight of the heavens as punishment for their paganism, their heavy chains indicative of their captive status both spiritually and physically.
Oloron was the gateway to the Somport Pass over the Pyrenees which was widely used by pilgrims and Crusaders entering Spanish territory. The church was built under Gaston IV, the Viscount of Béarn in an intense atmosphere of Holy War against the Infidel. Gaston was a celebrated Crusader and had been a major participant in the successful siege of Jerusalem in 1100. On his return to France, he had joined forces with the Aragonese ruler Alfonso el Batallador and together they had taken Zaragossa in 1118.
Like the Persian Atlants at Sparta, the Saracen Atlants at the cathedral of Oloron are triumphal expressions of victory.