Behold the Lion of Judah, the root of David hath prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof
The Jaca Chrismon, depicted on the west portal relief of the cathedral of San Pedro is the most perfectly realised example of the Paleo-Christian symbol, ubiquitous among Aragonese romanesque churches. At the beginning of Revelation an enthroned figure holds the Book of Life bound by the seven seals. Of those in attendance, neither the Four Living Beasts nor the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse are deemed worthy to open the book.
The sculpture above the west entrance to the cathedral of Jaca, dated to around the year 1100, is possibly the earliest carved tympanum in Europe.
It differs radically from the figurative sculptural ensembles which emerged at Toulouse and Compostela by the nature of its deeply allegorical and quasi hieroglyphic style.
Two lions in heraldic pose are positioned either side of a Chrismon. The Jaca Chrismon is made up of the traditional P and X forms of the early Christian symbol with the addition of a cross, from which hang the Alpha and Omega of the Apocalypse. At the base of the cross is an S and in the eight spaces between the arms of the two crosses are flowers of eleven petals. All are enclosed within a wheel, so that the whole resembles a fiery sun, one of the earliest symbols of Death and Resurrection and a reminder that the Roman Emperor Constantine had worshipped the Sun god, Sol Invictus. The inscription around the wheel of the Chrismon describes it as an image of the Trinity.
The lion to the right has a ferocious aspect and holds its right paw over a bear while a basilisk is seemingly imprisoned beneath. In medieval bestiaries both animals symbolised Death. The basilisk was a hybrid creature, said to be born of a serpent’s egg and hatched by a cockerel. According to Pliny the Elder, anyone who looked at it fell dead on the spot. The adjacent inscription reads, “The strong lion is destroying the empire of Death”.
The lion to the left has a regal aspect and stands, without trampling, above a prostrate human figure holding a snake. The inscription reads, “The lion can spare the one prostrating himself and Christ, whosoever is penitent”.
It was medieval practice to hold prolonged liturgical rituals for penitents at Lent before the west entrance to a cathedral such as Jaca. An atrium or porch might provide shelter for the participants, encouraged to remain there for the whole forty-three days separating Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.
The portal marked the threshold from which they were excluded until the purification had been completed and the carved reliefs of the tympanum provided the backdrop to the penitential liturgy.
Penance in medieval liturgical practice was related closely to Baptism. Both dealt with purging and purification.
In a seventh century Spanish Visigothic exorcism ritual performed as a preparatory to Baptism, a bishop would make three appeals to purge the catechumen, the third declaring that “The lion of Judah hath conquered”.
The symbolism of the carved tympanum is complex and multifarious. The two lions signifying simultaneously the dual aspect of Christ as Redeemer and Victor over Death and the Lion of Judah of Revelation revealing the Book of Life loosed of its seven seals, denoted here by the Chrismon.
The association made at Jaca between the Chrismon and the Book of Life was repeated further along the pilgrimage road, at San Miguel in Excelsis at Estella in Navarre. There, the tympanum sculpture of the Apocalypse presents Christ holding the Book of Life, which is adorned with the Chrismon.
Given Jaca’s long history as a beleaguered Christian enclave within Moorish Spain, the exceptional allegorical emphasis of the tympanum reliefs may have had roots in an awareness of the Islamic injunction against the portrayal of the human form, allied with an iconoclastic sensibility derived from Byzantium, itself a response to the first waves of Arab conquest in the east.
Sources: S.H. Caldwell, Penance, Baptism, Apocalypse: The Easter Context of Jaca’s west tympanum. Art History .3/1 (1980), 25-40
R. Bartal, The survival of early Christian symbols in 12th century Spain. Principe de Viana 48 (1987), S. 299-315
S. Moralejo-Alvarez, La sculpture romane de la cathedral de Jaca: Etat des questions. Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa (10): 79–106
Canellas-Lopez A.- San Vicente A. · Aragon Roman Edition Zodiaque 1971. Collection la nuit des temps 35