Girona Beatus

Girona Beatus f. 134v, The rider defeating the snake


f. 134v, The rider defeating the snake

The image, which is apparently totally unrelated to the storia and the explanatio, covers two thirds of the folio. Depicted on the right-hand side is a man upon his mount wearing a turban with ribbons flying in the wind, spearing the jaws of the large snake he is fighting. This figure is similar to the one seen earlier of Herod on horseback (f. 15v), but with more obviously Islamic elements: the cloth tied around his head waving behind him appears in Sassanian representations of governors on horseback. The simple tack shown in the Gerona Beatus is however closer to that of a horseman on a sixth-century Coptic fabric: a similarity increased by the fact that the horseman bears a spear rather than a bow, a typical Sassanian weapon. The use of stirrups also situates the rider in the Gerona Beatus after the Sassanian period. Although no riders killing snakes with their spears have survived in the iconography of Andalusia, there are models of horsemen spearing lions. D. Shepherd classified such topics within the iconography of the heavenly hunter symbolising Paradise.

The Palatine Chapel in Palermo, a much later work outside the peninsular kingdoms and featuring a considerable repertoire of Muslim iconography, often depicts riders spearing snakes. The artist was probably inspired by a Mediterranean tradition of iconography, hence the contribution made by Islamic culture to the images in the Gerona Beatus extends beyond the occasional, incidental borrowing. Mention must also be made of other eastern elements such as the cloth tied around his neck and covering his head, the decorative knot in the horse’s tail, his pose when driving the spear into the snake’s head and the half moon shape of the horse’s tack. There can be no doubt that this is a triumphant image with forerunners based upon ancient models – in this instance, upon one of the triumphant symbols of Imperial Rome. The problem however lies in knowing what type of triumph is being represented. There are three possible hypotheses: the first, which views the image with deserved caution, relegates it to a marginal position, thus depriving it of any meaning other than ornamental; secondly, the influx of Islamic elements may have endowed it in that period with a negative meaning; and finally, in comparison with the evil figure of Herod, which it is linked to in terms of form, attempts have been made to discover a positive value in it, by means of a victory formula that was to remain in use for more than three centuries on the Iberian Peninsula and in other areas. As a result, in the 13th century, a rider, albeit not oriental in appearance, fighting a snake was added to a manuscript housed in Madrid (Real Academia de la Historia, Cod. 39, f. 159r) and another was included in an Italian scroll of the Exultet. The triumphant meaning was confirmed in turn by the appearance in the image of heaven on folios 3v-4r of the symbolic figure of the “propugnator ad salvandum”, based, as confirmed by the accompanying legend, on Is. 83, and interpreted anagogically as Christ: he clutches a spear in his right hand and grasps an overcome snake in the other. The victorious rider in the Gerona Beatus could therefore have this meaning of Christian victory, symbolising a fight against the devil represented as a snake in way similar to how, as we saw earlier, the image of the battle between the bird and the snake was too (f. 18v). Hence its eastern appearance would only indicate that the painter had based her work on some oriental models that were probably Islamic. Although the rider was probably included because it was a metaphor of victory in triumphant, Muslim iconography, historical circumstances inverted its meaning and may have endowed it with an anti-Islamic appearance, as suggested by the colophon itself (f. 284r), which was completed when “in is diebus erat fredenandos flaginiz a villas/toleta ciuitas ad deuellando mauritanie”. Hence the rider could be interpreted as being the ideal portrait of a warrior of the Reconquest. Furthermore, the fact that it has been linked to the following illustration would therefore cause it to lose its marginal nature.

Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor
Doctor in History
(Fragment of the Girona Beatus commentary volume)

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