Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Representations of the pilgrimage to Compostela in Romanesque sculpture  are rare. Nevertheless, such depictions are remarkable when the contemporaneous pilgrimage is conflated with the New Testament story of the Journey to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel. At the cathedral of Saint-Trophime at Arles this scene is presented on the central pier of the north side of the cloister. The Risen Christ is flanked  by two disciples, one of whom is dressed in the garb of  a twelfth century pilgrim, a scallop shell sewn onto his headgear.St-Trophime-Pilgrim-4 The city of Arles was profoundly connected to the Compostelan pilgrimage and is mentioned at length in the Pilgrims Guide as the location of several shrines the reader is admonished to visit.

According to the Gospel narrative, two disciples travelling from Jerusalem to their home at Emmaus in the aftermath of the Crucifixion are joined by a third figure who they do not recognise. Upon their arrival they invite the stranger to join them in a meal and it is only when He breaks the bread that they recognise Him as the Risen Christ.

This combination of the journey and the meal led to medieval liturgical drama relating pilgrimage with the Eucharist and this lies behind the image on the north tympanum of  the narthex at Vézelay. One reason for this conflation is the word Christ uses in the gospel narrative to describe himself: “a stranger ” which Jerome had translated as “Peregrinus” the etymological source for medieval word pilgrim.

Another, quite startling variant on the depiction of the scene is to be found on the pier of another cloister, that of the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos south of the pilgrimage road near Burgos.

At each corner of the cloister, pairs of sculpted piers depict images of the Resurrection. At the north eastern corner, the image of Christ revealing his wounds to Thomas. This is paired with the Emmaus Story.

What is remarkable in this depiction is the figure of Christ himself. The two disciples are to the left of Christ,  who is here portrayed with the attributes of the Compostelan pilgrim, the staff and the scarcella purse bearing the scallop shell.

Silos-WP-2This seems an aberrant deviation from the Christocentric principle proposing as it does, Christ as a devotee of his own Apostle. Nevertheless, the Veneranda Dies sermon which features among the liturgical texts which are included in the Liber Sancti Iacobi, alludes to such an image. The pilgrimage and the scallop are associated with Christ in a number of instances. “Therefore, just as the pilgrim bears the shell as long as he is in the course of his present life, he must also carry the yoke of the Lord” and “Our Lord Jesus Christ himself returning from Jerusalem, after His Resurrection from the Dead, appeared first as a pilgrim”.

The Romanesque sculptural image of Santo Domingo de Silos includes the idea of the Compostelan pilgrimage in its Resurrection cycle and the implied promise of redemption for the traveller to the shrine of Saint James is expressed in the Veneranda Dies sermon as it is on the Last Judgment tympanum at Autun: “And it is truly right and just that one who has sought such a great apostle and such a great man in such a remote region in toil and hardship may receive with Saint James the crown in the heavenly land.”


The Pilgrims Guide to Santiago de Compostela William Melczer Italica Press 1993

The Miracles of Saint James Ed Thomas F Coffey, Linda Kay Davidson, Maryjane Dunn Italica Press 1996

Compostela and Europe: The Story of Diego Gelmirez Xunta de Galicia Skira Editore 2010 p.308 Victoriano Nodar

Images and Symbols, Mircea Eliade 1961

This is a revised version of a previously published post

The Rhône River was a vital trade artery of the ancient world connecting the Mediterranean with northern Europe. Its delta region was exploited early on and the Greeks founded a flourishing colony at Marseilles on its eastern edge. Later Arles grew to be an important centre of Roman power.

Rhone-2-copyWhere trade went, so stories, myths and religious traditions followed. The cult of the goddess Artemis was brought by Ephesians and the tradition of Mary Magdalene designated the region as the place she came to, fleeing persecution in Palestine.

The cults of numerous saints flourished. Trophimus, Honoratus, Genesius, Martha, Caesarius, Mary Salomé and Mary Jacoby and others.

The river itself was associated with numerous legends. The Tarasque dragon which lived in the river terrorising the local people until it was slain by Saint Martha. Genesius, the cephalorous martyr threw his own head into the river.

Alyscans-3-WPHowever, it was its proximity to the great necropolis of the Alyscans which gave the mythology of the Rhône a particular meaning.

Situated at a sharp bend in the river it was a place where driftwood and detritus would be washed ashore. So grew a tradition or legend that the dead placed in boats or barges could be floated downstream from the upper reaches to come to ground by the burial field.

A coin placed in the mouth of the deceased was intended for the funerary rites at the legendary and hallowed necropolis. Thus the vast and turbid river acquired Stygian connotations and the Roman writer Strabo recorded that it passed underground.

The river Styx, according to ancient mythology, connected earth with the underworld. Alyscans-Sarc-HeadThe dead were transported across it waters by Charon the ferryman. A coin in the mouth of the dead was his fee.

This coin was known as an Obol and Charon’s Obol was part of funerary rites throughout the classical ancient  and Celtic world continuing even into the Christian era.

The Alyscans is mentioned at length in the Pilgrims Guide as a place so sacred that the numerous saintly relics entombed there would guarantee intercession of sufficient power to ensure salvation at the end of time.

Biblio: W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela.  R Heggen, Underground Rivers

The façade of the church of Saint Gabriel presents at first a rather enigmatic prospect. The architectural forms are composed of stylistically disparate elements. The sculptural work seems disconnected with no discernible coherent iconographic theme. St-Gabriel-Fac-1Closer inspection however, reveals a subtle narrative of human salvation composed of allegorical, symbolic and typological subjects and in which the role of the Archangelic patron is given particular emphasis.

The three human figures on the tympanum present a narrative which combines two of the Old Testament’s key scenes, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve in the Garden with the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 The style and subject matter are reminiscent of early Christian imagery, especially that found on sarcophagi. St-Gabriel-Tymp-1In the Romanesque period, the image of Daniel in the Lion’s Den was widespread, representing as it did, a typological prefiguration of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Pairing this with the scene of Original Sin would propose a thematic link with the lions as representing sin or evil and the Daniel figure triumphing over them. As a prefiguration of Christ, the figure would therefore represent the triumph over death which began with Original Sin.

 The representation of the Daniel is significantly amplified by the inclusion, in the background of the prophet Habakkuk, who was transported from Judaea to Babylon by the Archangel Gabriel to come to Daniel’s aid. Habakkuk was given a basket of food to feed Daniel.

 The upper sculptural register, the frieze placed within the triangular fronton is of the Annunciation and the Visitation.St-Gabriel-Frieze-GV

In the Annunciation, Gabriel and the Virgin each occupy separate arcades while to the right Mary and Elizabeth share a single arcade in the depiction of the Visitation.

While representations of Daniel most often referred to prefigurations of the Passion and Resurrection there was secondary aspect to Daniel’s iconography which was also as a prefiguration of the Annunciation. In chapter IX of the Book of Daniel, the prophet is visited by the angel Gabriel who describes a vision of the coming of the Messiah.

St-Gabriel-FriezeThis connection is given further substance and the inclusion of Habakkuk in the scene is given added meaning when the exegetical commentary of Honorius of Autun is considered. Honorius made explicit the notion of Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel as a prefiguration of the Annunciation by associating the miracle of Habakkuk’s basket of food passing to Daniel without breaking the seal of the Den with Christ’s passing into the womb of Mary without breaking the seal of her virginity.

Habakkuk’s basket of food becomes a symbol of the Eucharist and Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel, while not depicted becomes implicit. The typological and allegorical strands are further strengthened in consideration of the relationship between the scene of Adam and Eve and the Annunciation: the Eve of Genesis is superceded by the Virgin of the Annunciation who reopens the Gates of Paradise previously closed by her predecessor.

The whole thematic programme is symbolised by the Lamb at the apex of the fronton presiding over a lion beneath.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-2This symbolic quality is developed to an abstract level as the programme reaches it apotheosis in the oculus. The symbols of the four evangelists surround the circular form in a quadrangular formation symbolising the terrestrial element and the cardinal points. The Eagle of John is positioned to the East representing the Resurrection while Matthew as an enthroned man angel is to the West and representative of Death and the Incarnation. The Evangelists also connote the spreading of the Word to the World and the fulfilling of the Mission of the Apostles.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-3The perfect circle of the oculus implies the divine. Within the sculpted area surrounding the oculus are two registers. The outer of acanthus leaves and the inner of ten human heads. In exegetical tradition dating back to Augustine and Isidore of Seville, ten was the number of perfection and infinity. The Apocalypticism of Romanesque church facades becomes explicit, the prophecies of the Book of Zechariah speaking of “Ten men that shall take hold“. Effectively, the oculus at Saint Gabriel takes the place of the Majestas Domini.

The programme of the facade as a whole can be considered as a progression from the Old Testament’s narrative of the Fall and later prophecies of coming redemption to the New Testament’s Incarnation representing the fulfillment of those prophecies. The whole leading to the Second Coming and the Heavenly Jerusalem as symbolised in the oculus.

Biblio: J-M Rouquette Provence Romane

M. Thomieu Iconographie Romane

N Mezoughi, Saint-Gabriel en Provence : réflexion sur l’iconographie de la façade, Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, t. 8, 1977, p. 105-136.

From the summit of the Alpilles hills of Provence, one can survey the broad delta of the Rhone river extending below. Just as one reaches level ground, one finds the chapel of Saint Gabriel, all that remains of a settlement whose history goes back to pre-Roman times and was known as Eragnium. To the west is the great river and a short distance upstream, the reliquary church of Sainte Martha at Tarascon.

Pilgrims travelling from Aix-en-Provence towards the great shrine of Saint Trophimus Alpilles-6and the Alyscans would have stopped at the town of Saint Gabriel to embark on shallow boats which ferried them across the watery marshland which separated them from Arles.

Mentioned in a charter of the abbey of Saint Victor of Marseilles in 1030, the town had prospered since Roman times because of its strategic location at the western edge of the Alpilles hills where roads coming down the Durance valley and the Aurelian way met the natural obstacle of the delta marshland.  This stretch was navigable only by the special rafts constructed with inflated floats to enable them to move over the very shallow water.

 St-Gabriel-GVThe surrounding marshland has long since been drained and the church, now the sole vestige of the medieval town, resembles some stranded sea vessel set on a rocky promontory among the olive groves and cypress trees.

 The quality of workmanship of the single naved building and the extent of its sculptural decoration seem strangely disproportionate to the isolation of its surroundings but it is these very features which provide testimony to the once thriving community which existed there and  whose remains are now barely in evidence save for the long flight of worn stone steps leading up to the church porch.

 The singular impression is enhanced by the unusual design of the façade which takes some of its inspiration from the Roman amphitheatre at Arles and combines an elegant classicism with a rude sculptural style derived from paleo-Christian sarcophagi.

 St-Gabriel-Front-GVThe façade is made up of three distinct elements. The entrance is set back in a deep porch and above the door is a small tympanum with an exceptional iconographic programme which combines Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 Above the tympanum is a fronton surmounted by an Agnus Dei and featuring a bas-relief frieze divided by three arcades and depicting Saint Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Visitation.

 The third element of the façade’s composition is an oculus surrounded by the tetramorphic symbols of the four evangelists.


Biblio: J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

Depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders are a recurrent feature of Romanesque sculpture of the twelfth century and unequivocally denoted Apocalyptic significance.
Biblical references to the Elders, all derive from that text which so preoccupied the Romanesque mentality, the Book of Revelation. They are identified and associated with a number of passages.
Prior to the Romanesque period, the Elders were mostly depicted standing in procession, as in the mosaic of  San Paolo Fuori le Mura at Rome. There they flank, along with the Apostles Peter and Paul, a central bust of Christ. Those Elders associated with each Apostle are either bare-headed or veiled and represent the Jews and Gentiles coming together in the Christian church. This depiction clearly identifies the Elders with the “priests of God and of Christ” of Revelation 20, 6 who were to live with Christ during the Millenial reign. A similar image can be seen on the tympanum of the church of Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe at Le Puy.

By the twelfth century however, they were shown, enthroned and crowned and carrying their attributes in each hand, a musical instrument and  a goblet or phial. 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 for this representation is two verses of Revelation. Chapter 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”. 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 seems fastened on the Apocalyptic scene before them. That they number thirty-one is explained by the conflation of the Elders with a number of passages from Revelation. The inner register bears saints and prophets. At the crown of the inner register is the Lamb.

It is worth considering also the symbolism of the number twenty-four in the Romanesque period. This number while more obviously suggesting the hours of the day, is also featured in the great portal sculptures by the inclusion of the twelve signs of the Zodiac with the twelve Labours of the Months. This pertinent association with earthly time is worth taking into account when considering that the figures on the south transept porch at Aulnay represent the millenial rule of the saints on earth.

Along the pilgrimage roads, the twelfth century depiction of the Elders was significant not only because they were emblematic of the Apocalyptic moment but also for what was contained in their vials, which Revelation 5,8 tells us were “full of odours which are the prayers of the saints”.

Biblio: Mélanges: Quelques aspects de l’iconographie des vingt-quatre Vieillards dans la sculpture française du XIIe s. N. Kenaan R. Bartal Cahiers de civilisation médièvale, 24:3-4 (1981), pp. 233-239

Y. Christe Jugements Derniers

Olivier Beigbeder Lexique des Symboles

This is a revised version of part of a previously posted article

The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is featured frequently in Romanesque sculpture. It was a typological representation of the of Cult of the Martyrs. Arles-Mass-Innoc-WP-2Depictions are to be found in the wall paintings of the Panteon at San Isidoro de Leon, on capitals at Moissac and Monreale and Arles and the sarcophagus of Doña Blanca at Najera among other examples.
A number of apocryphal and exegetical sources dating from as early as the second century propose the slaughtered children as the first Christian martyrs, receiving a baptism of blood. They were associated with the souls of the martyrs from the Book of Revelation.

St-Sernin-Mass-Inn-WP-1-Such a conflation derives directly from the account in Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist declaring that Herod’s massacre was a fulfillment of an Apocalyptic prophecy from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah.

The prophecy concerns Rachel, weeping for the loss of her children and comforted by God, who tells her that “Her children shall come again from the land of the enemy”.

Rachel’s tomb was at Bethlehem and Romanesque depictions implicitly refer to her, as they feature the mothers of the children attempting to restrain Herod’s soldiers. St-Sernin-Mass-Inn-WP-2This is the image presented on the capital of the Porte Miègeville at Sernin de Toulouse.

According to Matthew’s account, Herod learnt from the Magi that they were come to venerate the new King of the Jews. In order to ensure that Jesus would be killed, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Joseph, forewarned by an angel, had already fled into Egypt with Mary and the child.

It is the synthesis of the Massacre of the Innocents with the souls of the martyrs from the Book of Revelation which informs the sculptural programme on the porch of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Saintes.

The sculpture of the arch above the central doorway, combines depictions of the victims of the Massacre with the Elders of the Apocalypse. On the voussoirs of the outer arch are ranged the Elders, while the inner arch presents the Massacre of the Innocents.

The Elders are identifiable from their iconographic attributes, the musical instrument in one hand and the phial in the other. This is a representation of Revelation 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”.

Following exegetical traditions such as the writings of Ambrosius Autpertus, the Elders of Revelation 4.4 are identified as the occupants of the thrones.

Because of the typological reference of the Massacre of the Innocents to the Martyred Souls of Revelation, the emphasis is on decapitation and the adult proportions of the victims.

These figures represent the millenial rule of the saints on earth which follows from Satan being bound by an angel come down from heaven and cast into the bottomless pit for a thousand years

The whole is surmounted by the Apocalyptic Lamb.

Biblio: Y Christe, Jugements Derniers

This is a revised version of a piece included in an earlier posted article

According to one of the principle legends of Saint James, after his martyrdom in Palestine, his body was transported on a stone raft to its destination at Padron in Galicia. From there his disciples buried the Apostle’s body at Compostela.

 Torres-de-Oeste-1Like its Celtic counterparts in Brittany and Cornwall, the coast of Galicia is scored with rocky inlets and estuaries, known locally as Riás. These penetrated deep into the interior and it was up the narrowing channel of the Rio Ulla estuary, that the legendary stone vessel would have made its way towards its head at Padron.

 This was the most important of the Rias and led directly to Santiago de Compostela.

 From prehistoric times these inlets were the locations of trading stations which carried tin, the essential component of bronze from Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia to the Mediterranean. These routes were used by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and then Romans. Atlantic tin was exchanged for Mediterranean produce.

 As well as a trade in goods, these routes also provided a trade in legends, myths and religious beliefs. The story of a stone vessel transporting a dead hero across the sea was a myth repeated elsewhere on the Celtic coasts of western Europe.

Torres-de-Oeste-4Halfway down the estuary of the Rio Ulla one comes across the ruins of a substantial fortified settlement which guarded the entry inland. The Torres de Oeste, the Towers of the West.

 The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela locates the Turris Augusti at the mouth of the Ulla river. Originally built by the Phoenicians, Pomponius’ reference suggests that they were restored by the Romans during the reign of Augustus. The strategic location before the mouth of the river provided a perfect place for a defensive fortress and lookout.

 After the Romans, they fell into disuse but in the medieval period they were restored and enlarged as the threat of maritime Saracen raids grew. As the cult of Santiago grew, the importance of the Torres de Oeste as the gateway to Compostela increased correspondingly.

Normans first attacked in 844 and in 968 bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed at the site having come to repulse a Norman force heading for Compostela up the estuary.

The Historia Compostelana, the epic recounting which aggrandised Compostela’s most celebrated prelate Archbishop Gelmirez, portrays him as the great patron of the Torres de Oeste. According to this account, Diego Gelmirez was responsible for the addition of a chapel, new walls, bridges and grand buildings to house the Galician court.

Torres-de-Oeste-WP-3In actual fact much of this building campaign was undertaken by Gelmirez’ predecessor bishop Cresconio in the 1040’s after he had successfully repelled a Norman force there. Cresconio was buried at Torres de Oeste in 1066.

The substantial nature of the building work at Torres de Oeste and the importance ascribed to it as a second home for the Galician nobility  suggest that its significance went beyond a mere defensive emplacement but also as an extension of the Compostelan pilgrimage. Padron and Fisterra were places associated with the extension of the journey to the sea itself and the association with the scallop shell. The Torres de Oeste facing the open sea remains a place of considerable mystical allure.

Biblio: Galice Roman, Dom Bernardo Regal

Saint Jacques à Compostelle, J Chocheyras

In Navarre, only a stone’s throw from the pilgrim’s road, stands an isolated chapel. Its octagonal shape and exterior stone cloister arcade grant it a quite exceptional appearance. Despite its location away from an urban centre, there is nothing rustic about the building. On the contrary the fine quality of the stonework and construction bear the mark of an edifice of some consequence.

Eunate-GV-WP-6Situated in a fertile valley near the hamlet of Obanos it is on the route which the Pilgrim’s Guide declares was used by those travelling on the Toulouse Road via the Somport Pass and Jaca and passing through Aragon.

Eunate is located very close to the point where this road joins the other great pilgrimage route from the Roncevaux Pass via Pamplona to Puente la Reina. The Pilgrim’s Guide describes this stretch of the road from Monreal to Puente la Reina as the third day’s journey from the Somport.

Eunate-GV-WP-5The solitary aspect of the church gives it a mournful quality in keeping with its likely function as a funerary chapel.

Long thought to have belonged to the Templars, this was a supposition based simply on the fact that its octagonal shape was a copy of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem which the Templars were charged with guarding. The lack of documentary evidence of the presence of the Templars in the area would seem to refute this idea.

Nevertheless the origins and purpose of the church remain somewhat mysterious due to a shortage of contemporary references.

Stylistic considerations suggest a date of construction in the second half of the twelfth century during the reign of King Sancho el Sabio of Navarre.Eunate-Corbs-WP-9

In the mid thirteenth century a Navarrese monastic document makes mention in granting certain privileges to monks of Obanos of a hospice “on the way”.

A document of the Pamplona Cathedral of the sixteenth century refer to numerous ancient sarcophagi and in particular to a sculpted stele which located the burial site of the patroness of the foundation.

Excavations have revealed numerous burials within and without the arcade area including the discovery of a scallop shell.

These would appear to suggest a funerary church which formed part of a hospice complex for the benefit of pilgrims travelling to Santiago. Within Navarre, there were three of these octagonal churches. The Sancti Spiritus at Roncevaux and Santo Sepulcro at Torres del Rio just before Logroño. If one considers the dispersion of these locations it is apparent that they have a strategic and topographic function, Roncevaux being the point where the pilgrim road enters Navarre and Torres del Rio the point where it leaves. Eunate is halfway between and significantly at a point where the two main pilgrimage routes coincide.

Eunate-Ext-WP-1The arcade which surrounds the church at Eunate does not appear to have been joined to the church by a roofing structuring but more likely to have been a part of the now dismantled hospice complex of which the church would have been the central part. The area within the arcade may have been reserved for important burials.

Both Torres del Rio and Eunate incorporated a staircase within the structure of the building. In the case of Torres, this led to a Lantern of the Dead where a beacon was lit and the stairs at Eunate may have had a similar purpose.

The lack of window space provides a suitably dark interior for a Eunate-Int-WP-7church whose main function was the performance of funerary rites. This only serves to enhance the effect of the twelve metre high dome, whose style is redolent of Islamic architecture. Eight starlike holes punctuate the ribbed ceiling to provide the spare lighting.

Of these openings, there are four octagonal and four smaller hexagonal shapes. The symbolic significance of the octagonal structure of the building, once reserved for baptisteries is further emphasised by these skylights. The use of the number eight  was frequent in Romanesque art, symbolic not only of baptism and rebirth but also resurrection.

Biblio. Navarre Romane, Dom L-M de Lojendio

Lexique des Symboles, Olivier Beigbeder