Skip navigation

Category Archives: Eschatology

La-Ch-Trans-14-WPThe tympanum sculpture of the Transfiguration at the Cluniac priory church of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy ranks as one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculptural art evincing similarities with the Languedocian style of Moissac.

It is the only large scale Transfiguration in twelfth century Romanesque sculpture, apart from the putative remnants now situated above the Platerias Portal at Compostela.

The Transfiguration was a rare subject for art. It was a late addition to the liturgical calendar celebrated only in monasteries belonging to the Cluniac order from 1132.

La-Ch-Trans-7-WP

The subject of commentaries by Saint John Chrysostom and Peter the Venerable, the twelfth century abbot of Cluny, it was considered by them a prefiguration of the Second Coming.

According to the accounts described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the vision was witnessed by three disciples only, Peter, John and James.

This narrative of the New Testament was key to the importance attributed to Saint James in the medieval world. That he was witness to the appearance of Christ’s divinity was of huge significance.

La-Ch-Trans-9-WP

There is little variation in the three gospel accounts: the disciples were led up a mountain by Jesus, which although unnamed in the Gospels was recognised by medieval tradition as the Mount Tabor situated a few miles from the shore of lake Galilee.

There, Jesus was seen talking to two men, Moses and Elias and “transfigured” becoming bright as the sun. A hand emerged from the clouds and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.

Afterwards, Jesus bound the three disciples to a vow of secrecy as to the scene they had witnessed telling them, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again”.

The disciples are confounded by this remarking that Elias, according to the Book of Malachi was to return before the Day of Judgment. Whereupon Jesus tells them that Elias has already returned in the form of John the Baptist.

La-Ch-Trans-8-WP

Surviving from the sixth century only three large scale Byzantine mosaic representations are known. At Ravenna at the church of Saint Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, the Christ is represented by the Crux Gemmata, the bejewelled cross which had been set on Golgotha by the emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century. He is attended by Moses and Elias while beneath the disciples are depicted as sheep.

As at Ravenna, the mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery at Sinai is set in the vault of the apse. The disciples are in human form crouching beneath a Christ in mandorla. Another mosaic depiction exists at the Euphrasian basilica at Parenzo in modern Croatia.

A contemporaneous account mentions a Transfiguration mosaic scene in Constantine‘s church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. In the destroyed cathedral of Naples it was associated with the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse.

Biblio: Les Grands Portails Romans, Yves Christe, 1969

A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966

Platerias-Santiago-2The iconographic programme of the three great portal reliefs at Compostela were intended as a combined expression of the full significance of the Apostolic shrine situated on the edge of the world.

The reason for this was engraved above the western entrance in a massive sculpted relief of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The Jacobus describes the emplacement there of the large scale depiction of the theophanic vision described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

According to the early Church Father John Chrysostom, the three disciples present at the Transfiguration, Peter, John and James were chosen because they were superior to the others. James, specifically because he had accepted the challenge of martyrdom.

Platerias-Santiago-MS

The Expulsion from Paradise of the north transept portal and the scenes of Christ’s Temptation and Passion over the Puerta de las Platerias would be completed by the great scene of the Transfiguration above the western entrance, covering the whole of Christian eschatological history.

The Transfiguration, rather than being simply an episode from the life of Christ would be a theophanic vision which was a prefiguration and typological equivalent of the Apocalypse, in keeping with its siting at the western end of the cathedral.

In Romanesque symbolism it was the west that was associated with Death and Resurrection and the use of the Transfiguration in this setting would have been eminently significant, placing the Apostle, whose shrine was located there, at the epicentre of an Apocalyptic image.

The north and south transept portal reliefs were preludes to the ultimate meaning of the shrine at Compostela: the presence of the relics of a saint whose intercessory power was second to none in its potential to restore man from the fatal consequences of the Fall.

The fifth book of the Jacobus, the Pilgrim’s Guide, gives us an extensive description of the cathedral at Compostela at the time of its composition. The author confirms that on the western façade, “We should notice on the top, the Transfiguration of the Lord as it occurred on the Tabor Mountain, and which is sculpted in marvellous workmanship”.

In the last quarter of the twelfth century, however, the west entrance to the cathedral was completed with a different programme, the Portico de la Gloria.

Platerias-John-James-WP

It has been suggested that the west façade as described in the Guide was merely planned. This is an interpretation which is reinforced by the extremely scant description and absence of detail provided by the author concerning the front of the pilgrimage church.

Those completed reliefs intended for the Transfiguration were relocated to the south transept portal, even prior to the writing of the Guide. Most striking of these is a marble relief of Saint James and the surrounding inscription “Hic in monte Ihesum miratur glorificatum”, backs up the notion that it was intended for the western end programme.

Elsewhere on the frontispiece of the Platerias Portal and carved in the same marble and style as the relief of the apostle is an image of diminutive figure emerging from an enclosed space. Rather strikingly he bears a pair of horns on his head, leading to speculation that he was intended to represent some satanic or demonic force.

Platerias-Moses-1-WP-In the context of a possible Transfiguration scene this figure would more likely represent Moses who was present at the vision on mount Tabor standing beside Christ with the prophet Elijah.

Moses was commonly depicted as horned, an attribute which arose from Jerome’s Vulgate version of the Bible, which had taken the Hebrew text to imply horns emanating from his head rather than rays of light.

Also in the same marble and sculptural style, another relief from the presumed Transfiguration scene is to be found on the Platerias frontispiece: Abraham rising from his tomb with the inscription “Transfiguratio Ihesu surgit Abraham de tumuli”.

From these remnants, it is evident that the proposed Transfiguration scene was to have been very different from the traditional iconography seen in the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna and Sinai and other sites.

That formula had been used at La Charité-sur-Loire where Christ in a mandorla is flanked by Moses and Elias, The Law and the Prophets with the three apostles crouched at the sides.

The figure of James at the Puerta de las Platerias is upright with Gospel in hand, an image of the Evangeliser of Spain fulfilling his Apostolic Mission.

Platerias-Abraham-1-WPThe presence of Abraham locates the Transfiguration among the whole body of Biblical theophanic visions, essentially treating them as one. Abraham’s vision on the plains of Mamre in Genesis is linked to Jesus in John’s gospel.

Furthermore, by presenting the image of Abraham’s resurrection, as well as Moses’, this Transfiguration scene has been relocated to the Second Coming.

As the liturgical sermon attributed to Pope Calixtus II in the Jacobus puts it of James’ vision, it was “The Resurrection that you saw symbolically on Mount Tabor”.

 Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997 Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000 The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009 The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992 Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010. Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003 The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.

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

Much of Christian eschatological thought was predicated on the notion of the four empires of the world from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, an important text in the medieval period. This dictated that the span of earthly time was to be divided into the dominion of four empires, the last of which would be a tyrannical and evil power. Its ultimate destruction in a great battle would inaugurate the Apocalypse.

These empires variously consisted of The Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Roman. The advent of the Babylonian and Roman empires caused much stirring of Apocalyptic pronouncements for Jews and Christians as they were oppressed by each in turn. The Book of Revelation carries an implicit idea that it is Nero’s first century Rome which is the final evil empire, however with the conversion of Constantine  and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the empire that view was revised.

The sack of Rome by the Goths and the barbarian invasions of the early fifth century brought fresh prophetic proclamations however it was with the Arab invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century that the notion of a Last Roman Emperor took root.

Originating initially in a text attributed to a Bishop Methodius writing in the Byzantine empire then suffering the first wave of Arab conquests, the prophecy identified in dramatic terms its contemporaneous upheavals with the arrival of the last evil empire. It told of a sleeping emperor who would awake and lead an army against the forces of the Antichrist. As the victor of a great battle which brought an end to the strife endured under the evil empire, the Last Emperor would go to Jerusalem and place his crown on top of the Cross at Golgotha. By this act he would surrender his temporal authority, thereby ushering in the events of the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on earth.

These beliefs concerning Apocalyptic prophecy were translated to the West as the Arab invasions progressed across the Mediterranean and, it can be reasonably speculated, partly informed the attitude of the medieval Christian church towards Islam and the Saracen presence in the Holy Land and Spain.

With Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, the torch of responsibility for fulfilling these predictions seemed to be passed on to the Franks. Around the year 950, Adso the abbot of the Cluniac monastery at Montier-en-Der wrote a text in the form of a letter to the Frankish queen Gerberga on the subject of Origin and Life of Antichrist. Adso was an important writer of the tenth century and his manuscript made full use of the prophecies concerning a last emperor.

“Even though we see that the Empire of the Romans is for the most part destroyed, nevertheless, as long as the kings of the Franks, who possess the Roman Empire by right, survive, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not perish altogether”, wrote Adso, clearly identifying the Frankish kings as the inheritors of the Roman Imperial authority.

“Indeed, certain of our learned men tell us that one of the kings of the Franks, who will come very soon will the possess the Roman Empire in its entirety”, he continued,  “And he will be the greatest and last of all kings. He, after governing his kingdom prosperously will ultimately come to Jerusalem and lay down his sceptre and crown on Mount Olivet. This will be the end and the consummation of the Empire of the Romans and the Christians. And immediately, according to the aforesaid opinion of the Apostle Paul, they say that the Antichrist will soon be at hand.”

In Romanesque sculpture a recurrent theme is that of the Victorious Rider. There are numerous examples along the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. The horseman, always presented riding over a cowed figure beneath, represents the military strength of the temporal champion of Christianity with which the legends of Constantine and Charlemagne are endowed and which is assumed into eschatological thinking by the prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, all of which fed into the Crusader mentality of the medieval world.

Notable examples of the Victorious Rider are to be seen at Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Parthenay-le-Vieux

Situated on the French side of the Pyrenees, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a cathedral town since the sixth century was a major pilgrimage station on the way to Compostela because of its strategic position at the bottom of the Aspe river valley which led up to to the 1,600 metre high Somport Pass.

This was the preferred entry point over the mountains for pilgrims travelling the Toulouse Road.

Making use of an old Roman road which had connected the city of Illoronensium in the province of Novempopulania with the Hispano-Roman city of Saragossa, the town of Oloron benefitted from the traffic in pilgrims and trade with its counterpart Jaca, on the Spanish Aragonese side of the peaks.

After suffering at the hands of Norman raiders in the tenth century, the town’s fortunes were revived by the growth of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the eleventh century. Close links with Aragon led to a repopulating policy that was current in the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north following the reclamation of lands from Saracen domination.

After 1080 when the Viscount of Béarn conferred the status of free men on its inhabitants and restricted the powers of the church and lord, a merchant class developed which took advantage of natural surroundings rich in the salmon rivers and pork farming depicted graphically on the porch sculpture of the cathedral of Sainte-Marie.

The building of the town’s two major Romanesque churches, the cathedral and the church of Sainte-Croix coincided with the return from the Holy Land in 1104 of the Viscount Gaston of Béarn. Gaston had been one of the key figures of the first Crusade having devised the moving towers which had proved decisive in the successful outcome of the siege of Jerusalem.

Soon after his return from Crusading in the East, Gaston joined forces with one of the most prominent figures of the Spanish Reconquista, Alfonso El Batallor of Aragon. Their joint campaigns against the Moors culminated with the conquest of Saragossa in 1118.

Its proximity to the ongoing war of Reconquest in Spain, meant that Oloron was both a pilgrimage centre on the Compostelan road as well as a vital point of departure for Crusaders heading to fight for Christendom in the Holy War against the infidel.

This militant Christianity is reflected in the design of the porch sculpture of the town’s cathedral. Giant atlante figures at the base of the trumeau are clearly identifiable as Saracen prisoners.

A Victorious Rider sculpted unusually in  the round, at the top of the right side jamb reinforces a Crusader conception. This figure of a horseman riding roughshod over a man trampled beneath is one of the great themes of Romanesque sculpture.

It appears all over France and northern Spain most notably on the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. It is most frequent on the Tours Road. Appearing in the Poitou region at Parthenay-le-Vieux, Airvault, Aulnay, Melle, Saint-Jouin-de-Marne, and Poitiers. In the Saintonge examples are to be found at Saintes, Chadenac and Pons among others and in Spain on the Camino Francès at Sangüesa, Carrión de los Condés , León and Compostela itself.

Whether the figure represents the emperors Constantine or Charlemagne or simply an archetypal militant secular leader, the cowed figure below seems to imply the triumph of Christian might over paganism.

This recalls the Crusader spirit of the times but perhaps also the legendary prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, who it was predicted would awake from a long sleep and make war with the forces of the Antichrist. Having successfully defeated his foe, the emperor would ascend to Golgotha, placing his temporal crown on top of the Cross which had been erected there by the emperor Theodosius in the fifth century.

This symbolic act relinquishing temporal authority was the necessary prelude to the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on Earth. The eschatological implications of the porch sculpture are reinforced by the Twenty-Four Elders carved onto the outer archivolt.

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.

Santiago de Compostela lies only twenty miles inland from the Atlantic ocean at the far western extremity of the European landmass, known by the Romans as Finis Terra, the end of the earth. For them the ocean was the Mare Tenebrosum, the dark sea. Since ancient times this coastline, known as the Costa da Muerte, the coast of death, had been finisteraused by traders who sailed along it towards the tin mines of the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. It was an important trade route linking the classical mediterranean world with the Celtic.

It was via these old trade routes that cultural and religious ideas were transmitted. For the Greeks the far west was considered the mythical Land of the Dead and they dubbed the inhabitants the Keltoi  after Caillaech, their mother goddess.

Galicia, a remote land bordered by the sea to the north and west and the mountains to the  south and east retained her Celtic heritage long after the surrounding area had been Christianised. Still today, the landscape contains occasional druidic dolmens.

At Finisterra the Celts had a major pilgrimage site, the Ara de Solis, the altar of the Sun. The cardinal points had symbolic meaning too. The East represented Birth and Resurrection, the West: Death and the Afterlife.

Combined, these elements indicate that the area around Compostela had from prehistoric times been a significant place of pilgrimage associated with funeral rites.

isidorean-mappamundi-11th-sMedieval maps depict a circular area surrounded by water with Jerusalem at its centre and Galicia at its western point. Christian conceptions of the world also regarded the west coast of Spain as the limit of the earth. Considered in the context of the Mission of the Apostles it was a significant location. According to widely held belief the End of the World could only happen when the Apostolic Mission had been accomplished, that is the Gospel had been spread to the furthest reaches of the world.

The Arab invasion of Spain at the beginning of the eighth century seemed to fulfill the prophecy of the Book of Daniel concerning the fourth empire of the World. This empire would be the final one, culminating in the Apocalypse.

The Asturian abbot Beatus of Liebana was a refugee from Islamic Andalusia and the illustration of the Earth in his celebrated Commentary on the Apocalypse  confirms the Apostle James as evangeliser of Spain.  A number of prophetic ideas were now coming together.

Had the Mission of the Apostles been completed? Was the perceived threat to Christendom posed by the Arab invasion that prelude to Apocalypse prophecied in Daniel and Revelations? If so, what more fitting place to go in pilgrimage than that remote corner of the world.

The discovery of the tomb of the Apostle at Compostela a generation after Beatus  seemed an inevitablity.

As the Book of Saint James tells us with Apocalyptic foreboding: “As the Eastern Apostolic See was established by St. John at Ephesus, so was the Western established by St. James. And those Sees are undoubtedly the true Sees. Ephesus on the right hand of Christ’s earthly kingdom, and Compostela on the left, both which fell to the share of the sons of Zebedee”.

santiago-78Saint James the Greater was one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles. A Galilean fisherman, he was with his brother of John and their friend Peter the first disciples recruited by Jesus and they formed his inner circle. Always closest to him, they alone witnessed the Transfiguration on mount Tabor when Jesus revealed his divine apsect for the first time.

According to the Acts of the Apostles he was executed on the orders of Herod Agrippa in AD 44 , the first Apostle to be martyred.

By the time of the discovery of the mausoleum at Compostela, the burial places of all the major Apostles were known with the exception of Saint James. Peter and Paul at Rome and John at Ephesus. It was generally believed that the Apostles were buried in the lands which they had evangelised.

Already before the discovery of the tomb, there had been a growing interest in the cult of Saint James in Spain and a tradition that he had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission there.

santiago-48In the first century, the apochryphal Gospel of the Twelve Holy Apostles describing the gift of tongues which had been given to the Apsotles at the Pentecost so they could carry the gospel to the the world, ascribed to each one the language of the land he was destined to evangelise. James was given the gift of Latin, implying lands to the West.

A Greek language account of the Apostles and the lands where they had preached was written and translated into Latin some time in the seventh century and was known as the Breviary of the Apostles. Here it records that Saint James had preached in Spain. A short time later another text, again of indeterminate date and attributed at the time to Isidore of Seville dealing with the lives of the Apostles and Prophets confirmed the belief that James had preached:“to the peoples of Spain and the western places, at the world’s edge”.

After the Arab invasion, Christian Spain was restricted to a small kingdom north of the Cantabrian mountains called Asturias. It was from here that the origins of the Reconquest were born and that an abbot, Beatus of Liebana composed a famous commentary on the Apocalypse in the late eighth century.

The Christians of Asturias found significance in their defeat at the hands of the Saracens. These were events long prophecied.

It was reckoned that the Antichrist was now come and the End Times were unfoldng. Beatus was one of the first to claim that Saint James had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission in Spain following the Pentecost and prior to his martyrdom at Jerusalem in A.D. 44.

It was not long after, in the early years of the ninth century that the miraculous discovery of his tomb was made by a shepherd at Compostela. The location of the most important shrine of western Europe at such a significant site as the frontier between Christendom and the Caliphate on the very edge of the known world, may not have been mere coincidence but it certainly had a great pull on contemporary imaginations. How the body had reached Spain from Jerusalem was the subject of an elaborate legend.

The manuscript of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse was copied in the monasteries which lined the pilgrim road, for a long time the front line of the war between Christians and Arabs