Situated on the French side of the Pyrenees, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a cathedral town since the sixth century was a major pilgrimage station on the way to Compostela because of its strategic position at the bottom of the Aspe river valley which led up to to the 1,600 metre high Somport Pass.
This was the preferred entry point over the mountains for pilgrims travelling the Toulouse Road.
Making use of an old Roman road which had connected the city of Illoronensium in the province of Novempopulania with the Hispano-Roman city of Saragossa, the town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie benefitted from the traffic in pilgrims and trade with its counterpart Jaca, on the Spanish Aragonese side of the peaks.
After suffering at the hands of Norman raiders in the tenth century, the town’s fortunes were revived by the growth of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the eleventh century. Close links with Aragon led to a repopulating policy that was current in the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north following the reclamation of lands from Saracen domination.
After 1080 when the Viscount of Béarn conferred the status of free men on its inhabitants and restricted the powers of the church and lord, a merchant class developed which took advantage of natural surroundings rich in the salmon rivers and pork farming depicted graphically on the porch sculpture of the cathedral of Sainte-Marie.
The building of the town’s two major Romanesque churches, the cathedral and the church of Sainte-Croix coincided with the return from the Holy Land in 1104 of the Viscount Gaston of Béarn. Gaston had been one of the key figures of the first Crusade having devised the moving towers which had proved decisive in the successful outcome of the siege of Jerusalem.
Soon after his return from Crusading in the East, Gaston joined forces with one of the most prominent figures of the Spanish Reconquista, Alfonso El Batallor of Aragon. Their joint campaigns against the Moors culminated with the conquest of Saragossa in 1118.
Its proximity to the ongoing war of Reconquest in Spain, meant that Oloron-Sainte-Marie was both a pilgrimage centre on the Compostelan road as well as a vital point of departure for Crusaders heading to fight for Christendom in the Holy War against the infidel.
This militant Christianity is reflected in the design of the porch sculpture of the town’s cathedral. Giant atlante figures at the base of the trumeau are clearly identifiable as Saracen prisoners.
A Victorious Rider sculpted unusually in the round, at the top of the right side jamb reinforces a Crusader conception. This figure of a horseman riding roughshod over a man trampled beneath is one of the great themes of Romanesque sculpture.
It appears all over France and northern Spain most notably on the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. It is most frequent on the Tours Road. Appearing in the Poitou region at Parthenay-le-Vieux, Airvault, Aulnay, Melle, Saint-Jouin-de-Marne, and Poitiers. In the Saintonge examples are to be found at Saintes, Chadenac and Pons among others and in Spain on the Camino Francès at Sangüesa, Carrión de los Condés , León and Compostela itself.
Whether the figure represents the emperors Constantine or Charlemagne or simply an archetypal militant secular leader, the cowed figure below seems to imply the triumph of Christian might over paganism.
This recalls the Crusader spirit of the times but perhaps also the legendary prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, who it was predicted would awake from a long sleep and make war with the forces of the Antichrist. Having successfully defeated his foe, the emperor would ascend to Golgotha, placing his temporal crown on top of the Cross which had been erected there by the emperor Theodosius in the fifth century.
This symbolic act relinquishing temporal authority was the necessary prelude to the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on Earth. The eschatological implications of the porch sculpture are reinforced by the Twenty-Four Elders carved onto the outer archivolt.