Depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders are a recurrent feature of Romanesque sculpture of the twelfth century. Enthroned and crowned they variously bear musical instruments and bowls, goblets or phials. Numerous examples are to be found along the pilgrimage roads, most notably at Aulnay de Saintonge, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Saintes, Compostela itself and most striking of all at Moissac.
The Biblical reference is from the Book of Revelation 4.4 And around the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. Along with the Four Beasts they surround in attitudes of worship and reverence an anonymous enthroned figure.
In Chapter 5.8 the Elders are described as: having every one of them harps and golden vials full of odours which are the prayers of the saints.
This is the scene which is represented at Aulnay de Saintonge and Oloron-Sainte-Marie.
At Oloron the tympanum of the western porch features the Descent from the Cross surrounded on the outer arch by the assembly of the Elders, twelve on each side of an apex featuring the Lamb bearing the Cross.
The south porch at Aulnay has four registers of voussoirs. An outer one of a phantasmagorical bestiary, a second of prophets and saints and a third of enthroned and crowned figures with their appropriate attributes of vials and musical instruments identifying them clearly as the Elders, their penetrating gaze fastened on the Apocalyptic scene before them. Curiously they number thirty-one whereas the number of saints and prophets is twenty-four and several of the saints and prophets of the inner register bear also vials very similar to those held by the Elders. At the crown of the inner register is the Lamb.
The emblems which these figures share are the vials, instruments, crowns and perhaps significantly that they are all enthroned. In Revelation 4.10 the Elders fall down and cast off their crowns before the One.
That the most common Romanesque sculptural depictions of the Elders show them as enthroned when the text mentions also that they fall down in attitude of reverence, may be due to their conflation, by several medieval writers, with the thrones of Chapter 20.4: And I saw thrones and they sat upon them and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
This passage follows on from the angel binding and casting down Satan into the abyss for a thousand years and thereby associates the enthroned figures with the martyred saints and their millennial rule as judges.
This seems to explain the sculptural programme of the western porch at the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Saintes.
On the outer arch the voussoirs present the Elders and the inner arch the Massacre of the Innocents, identifiable by the Egyptian garb of the executioners.
The emphasis on decapitation and the adult proportions of the victims suggests that the Massacre of the Innocents is here seen as a prefiguration of the martyrdom of the saints. The association of the two iconographic elements would imply a reference to Revelation 20.4 and evidence of the identification of the Elders with the anonymous Thrones.
This is given further weight by the inclusion, as in other programmes which refer to the Elders, of the Apocalyptic Lamb at the crown of the penultimate arch.
The Augustinian eschatological position was that the millennium signified the period from the Incarnation to the Final Judgment and that the millennial reign of Christ and the Saints on earth actually represented the present time of the Church. Thus the anonymous enthroned figures of Revelation 20.4 were a combination of Elders, Saints, Prophets and prelates of the church: the celestial and terrestrial churches combined.
Out of these elements of ambiguity the question arises of whether depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders refer to the Apocalypse or the Last Judgment or perhaps a combined image of both.
The ninth century Frankish Benedictine Rabanus Maurus included the Four Beasts and the Twenty-Four Elders in his text on the vision of the Second Coming of Matthew’s Gospel
At Moissac’s southern porch, one of the most perfect of Romanesque sculptural ensembles, the tympanum presents the Twenty-Four Elders and the Tetramorph of the Four Beasts or Living Creatures as described in Revelation 4.4 but seated on the central throne in the place of the anonymous One, usually represented by the Lamb, is Christ in Majesty.
The Elders all have their heads turned towards the theophanic vision. Their postures are relaxed in the cross legged positions commonly reserved for regal subjects such as King David: a reference to their complementary roles as judges.
The surprising prominence given to Twenty-Four Elders in Romanesque sculpture along the pilgrimage roads is, in view of their relatively insignificant textual presence, perhaps explained by their most important attribute: the vials containing the prayers of the saints.
In that era when the cult of saintly relics was at its height, the Elders represented the culmination of the intercessory structure underpinning the Christian world.
At the crucial moment of Apocalypse and Judgment, those prayers made by the faithful to the saints via the mediation of the guardians of the relics, monks and clerics, were present.
The ultimate expression of this is at Compostela. The trumeau of the Portico de la Gloria bearing the relief image of the Apostle James rises up to support the Apocalyptic image of the tympanum where Christ in Majesty is surrounded by the Twenty-Four Elders. The Apostle is presented as a conduit between Earth and Heaven, prayers and pilgrimage at his shrine will be transmitted through his intercessory aspect and held in the vials of the Elders.