Arles is generally considered the first substantial station on the Toulouse Road and tradition has it that pilgrims congregated beyond its city walls at the ancient necropolis of the Alyscans before making their way to the cathedral.
Just twenty miles from the Mediterranean shore, the city of Arles is situated on the main branch of the Rhône river as it spreads to form the broad plain of its delta region. It was an important crossroads of trade and culture from Roman times.
At Arles, the Via Aurelia which connected Rome with Southern France ended at the eastern gate. The city was linked to Spain by the Via Domitia. The fluvial axis of the Rhône was the main artery between the Mediterranean world and the North.
The proliferation of important Roman buildings, including an amphitheatre, circus, and a triumphal arch are testament to the existence of a thriving city known as Arelate. It was regularly used as a temporary seat of government by a succession of emperors, notably Constantine the Great.
The unusually high concentration of celebrated reliquary shrines in its immediate vicinity would have been sufficient in itself to afford Arles its elevated status as a pilgrimage station of high order but this was added to the town’s association with the very beginnings of Christianity in Roman Gaul. As early as 417 it was elected Metropolitan see of the Gallic church.
Its connection to the Compostelan pilgrimage was fundamental. This is strikingly illustrated by the sculpture of the Emmaus story in the cathedral cloister. Here one of the favourite themes of Romanesque art depicts the story of Christ’s appearance to two followers after the Crucifixion.
To the right of the figure of Christ one of the disciples is shown with the badge of the pilgrim to Santiago, the scallop shell displayed on his pointed bonnet.
During the medieval period, having venerated the numerous saintly relics at the Alyscans, notably those of Caesarius and Honoratus, pilgrims would proceed to the cathedral in order to visit the tomb of the confessor Saint Trophimus, whose mortal remains were translated there from the Alyscans in great ceremony in 1152.
The cathedral’s western façade features life size sculptures of the College of the Apostles each holding the Gospel Texts with their names inscribed. Trophimus’ inclusion is a reference to his Apostolic status, conferred by the mission given to him personally by Peter and Paul to evangelise Gaul.
On their way out of Arles, pilgrims were able to stop by the tall marble column in the village of Trinquetaille, which still bore the blood stains of the martyr Genesius.
Genesius had been the victim of a wave of persecutions in the early fourth century and was a highly regarded saint who captured the popular imagination. Several writers from Late Antiquity had noted the powerful miracle working effects of the relics and the numbers of pilgrims who chose to be buried next to them in order to await the final Resurrection.