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Category Archives: The Cult of the Saints

L'Isle-5-WPThe city of Bordeaux was a major halt on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. It was on the Tours Road, which led through western France via, Tours, Poitiers and Saintes.

Bordeaux was the metropolitan see of Aquitaine, a domain which at the time stretched from the Loire all the way to the Pyrenees.

The abbey of Saint Seurin held numerous important relics for pilgrims to venerate. In addition to the Olifant of Roland and the Frankish warrior martyrs of Roncevaux there was the tomb of the city’s illustrious saint which was located in an imposing setting in the crypt.

Saint-Seurin-3-WPThe saint’s sarcophagous was elevated high off the ground on a series of columns. It was said that the candles that burned there, miraculously lit themselves without human agency.

The relics were guarded by a chapter of canons of the Rule of Saint Augustine. It was this same monastic order, which presided over the other notable reliquary sites on this road, which perpetuated the legacy of the Roncevaux legend at Saint Romain de Blaye and Notre Dame de Roncevaux.

Severinus had been a holy man in the early years of the fifth century.

St-Seurin-19-WPAccording to his legend there was at that time a bishop of Bordeaux named Amandus. In a vision Christ appeared to him and ordained Amandus to go out of the city. He would meet a holy man on the road who came from the East. Amandus duly went out and met Severinius.

Immediately, Amandus recognised the sanctity of the stranger, and brought him into the city in great ceremony. Soon after he relinquished his position as bishop and placed Severinus in his stead, deeming him more worthy.

St-Seurin-10-WPAfter his death Severinus was buried in an oratory outside the city walls in Bordeaux’s Late Antique necropolis. A cult developed around the relics and Severinus was said to have performed numerous posthumous miracles. He came to be regarded as the patron and protector of Bordeaux.

A church was built over the tomb where the inhabitants would gather whenever their city was threatened by natural or manmade disaster, offering prayers to Severinus.


The saint of Bordeaux’s miracles were celebrated and in the sixth century both Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours wrote of them.

According to Gregory, the citizens “knew that whenever their city was either invaded by an illness or besieged by some enemy or disrupted by some feud, they would immediately be delivered.”

When the region was attacked by Goths a few years after Severinus’ death, the saint caused a miraculous fog to descend, which protected the people from attack.

The saint protected Bordeaux at various times from flooding caused by a torrential rain, plague and drought.

The Pilgrim’s Guide admonished that, “In the city of Bordeaux one should visit the remains of the Blessed Seurin, bishop and confessor”.

Biblio: Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990. Autour de Saint-Seurin: lieu, mémoire, pouvouir. Des Premiers temps chrétiens à la fin du Moyen Âge – Actes du colloque de Bordeaux (12-14 octobre 2006) ed. Isabelle Cartron, Dany Barraud, Patrick Henriet, Anne Michel Bordeaux 2009 Ausonius Editions – Mémoires 21

Blaye-4-WPPilgrims to Santiago de Compostela who traveled along the Tours Road were enjoined to venerate the relics of the fourth century Saint Romanus at Blaye. There is no other mention of the saint in the Pilgrim’s Guide since his tomb was overshadowed by that of Roland.

Nevertheless, well before Roland’s legendary interment at Blaye, the town and abbey were important in their own right and it was with reason that Charlemagne chose to have his preferred paladin taken there after his martyrdom.

Blaye-26Because of its location on a rocky promontory on the Gironde estuary, Blaye had served as an important defensive emplacement for the protection of Bordeaux further along the estuary.

The Romans had favoured Blavia as an important station on the road which linked Bordeaux with the capital of Aquitania, Saintes and in the late third century an important fortress was erected there.

Blaye-29-WPLocated close by the border of Aquitaine and Gascony during an extended period of conflict between the Franks and the Gascons, Blaye’s strategic importance continued throughout the Carolingian period. It was occupied by Charles Martel when he reconquered the region.

Romanus was important to the Merovingians and later the Carolingians also. It was Martin of Tours, the patron of the Franks who had ordained Romanus as a priest and on his death, arranged his entombment at Blaye.

The burial site overlooked the Gironde and Romanus’ miracles protected those at sea on that busy waterway. Gregory of Tours declared that “Often through the display of his power he rescues people who are about to die from being shipwrecked in the river”. Gregory personally attested to one such occasion when trying to cross the estuary himself, he was held back by “overpowering mountains of water that were tossed up causing great terror among the onlookers”. When Romanus was petitioned to intercede, the storm abated.

Blaye-24-WPThe importance of the abbey of Saint Romanus is further attested to by the burial there of Charibert II, son of the Merovingian King Clotaire II in 632. Charibert had ruled as King of Aquitaine.

These lands extended over a large area which included the cities of Saintes, Périgeux, Cahors, Toulouse and Agen. His subjugation of Gascony fed into the later legend of the Basques at Roncevaux. The ruins of the Merovingian crypt can still be seen at Blaye.

By the time pilgrims came to Blaye in the twelfth century, an immense romanesque church had been erected over the original Merovingian edifice.

Biblio:  Blaye à grands traits – Du promontoire à la citadelle: 7000 ans d’histoire, Marie-Ange Landais, Les Cahiers du Vitrezais, Revue Archéologique, Historique et Littéraire des Hauts de Gironde No.92. Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Confessors, Trans R. Vandam, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1990

With thanks to Marie-Ange Landais

Arles-St-Honorat-church-VLSThere were seven churches at the Alyscans, the ancient necropolis where pilgrims congregated before setting out on the Toulouse Road to Compostela. In the Pilgrim’s Guide it was written that “the remains of numerous holy martyrs and confessors are resting there”.

These relics were powerful enough to assure salvation at the final Resurrection. One of the seven was the imposing pilgrimage church of Saint Honoratus, a founder of western monasticism, whose mortal remains were held in the crypt.

Arle-St-Honor-tower-from-saThe body of Honoratus was entombed at the Alyscans following his death in the late 420’s in a church which was dedicated at that time to Saint Genesius.

According to his biographer Hilarius of Arles, Honoratus was so revered in his lifetime that the whole city of Arles came out to be near his body. “Who, from within the walls of our city, did not come to this church, as though stricken by a personal grief? The people considered it a privilege to have touched his bier or to have carried it on their shoulders”, it was declared.

Hilarius was a close disciple of Honoratus and was his immediate successor as bishop of Arles. His account of the life of Honoratus was delivered in the form of  funerary sermon on the first anniversary of his death. He describes how the townspeople of Arles snatched pieces of the shroud as the body was being conducted to the tomb, considering the cloth to be sanctified by its contact with the body.

Already by the time of his death, it appears, that like Saint Martin, Honoratus was considered a saint. As Hilarius wrote: “it is a rare confidence which is given to us by the Grace which surrounds his tomb, as we are certain that he whose relics we have conserved here, protects us in heaven.

By the twelfth century a new Romanesque building dedicated to Honoratus had replaced the original church.  Pilgrims at Arles were enjoined to venerate his relics:  “In the cemetery of the said city, the assistance of the Blessed Honoratus, bishop, should be invoked”.

Honoratus followed quickly in the wake of Saint Martin and Saint Augustine in founding one of the first monastic communities in western Europe.

Lerins-WP-2A date of 410 has been given for his arrival at the island of Lerins on the coast of Provence. He was accompanied by a small group of followers to this small deserted island, reputedly infested with serpents. It was said that “He went forward without fear and dissipated by his assurance the fears of his companions”.

Miraculously, the serpents fled and the previously dry island now flowed with sweet water.

This miracle story was intended to associate Honoratus with the Seventy Disciples of the Gospel of Luke: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you”.

St-Honorat-Sarc-3Initially the monks lived separately in small cells dotted around Lerins but already by 427,  Saint John Cassian, who visited the island then, recorded that the initial group had swollen its ranks to form an “immense community”.

Word of Honoratus’ monastery spread throughout Gaul very quickly and it was soon accepting newcomers from as far as northern France. It’s reputation was of a brilliant monastic school and many who were later to hold high ecclesiastical office were formed in its vigorous intellectual atmosphere, including two bishops of Arles, Hilarius and Caesarius.

St-Honorat-Sarc-1Honoratus, himself was called to hold that office at the end of his life. The church at Arles was undergoing a period of strife at the time, the preceding bishop having been assassinated. Honoratus was to die only two years later.

Caesarius writing a hundred years later declared that “we firmly believe that he received martyrdom without enduring the passion”. In other words, Honoratus was a confessor saint, one who had achieved sanctity through his life rather than death.

Biblio: M. Labrousse, Saint Honiorat Fondateur de Lerins et Evêque d’Arles. Vie Monastique No. 31, Abbaye de Bellefontaine. W. Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. J-M Rouquette, Provence Romane

Caesarius-of-ArlesPilgrims to Compostela travelling along the Toulouse Road were admonished to venerate the relics of Saint Caesarius of Arles.

Despite of the extreme brevity of his entry in the Pilgrim’s Guide, through his many writings and celebrated life, Saint Caesarius was remembered as the leading man of the church during one of its most defining periods in the first half of the sixth century.

He was archbishop of Arles for forty years during a particularly tumultuous time in its history. During his tenure which began in 503, four separate Germanic peoples vied for control of the region. First the Burgundians and the Visigoths and then Ostrogoths controlled the city which was finally ruled by the  Merovingian Franks from 536. In particular, a war of 507 was particularly harsh on the inhabitants.

In this difficult environment, Caesarius managed to combine strong qualities of statesmanship with a common touch which endeared him to the people. He was known to free captives by selling church ornaments to pay ransoms. Even during his lifetime he had a considerable reputation as a miracle worker.

On one occasion, in order to relieve a period of drought, he was said to have trapped the wind from the sea in his hand glove and released it over a dry valley which then became fertile.

Caesarius’ life is well documented because of his own prolific writing and the hagiography written by his disciple Saint Cyprien.

Lerins ChapelBorn  into the fifth century Gallo-Roman landed gentry, Caesarius left his family home in Burgundy to enter the monastic life on the island of Lerins off the coast of Provence. Saint Honoratus had founded the first community of monks there in 410 and the monastery was soon established as an important academy for illustrious men of the church.

The fervour with which he applied himself to his devotions caused the young Caesarius to fall foul of his fellow monks. When acting as the monastery’s cellarer he decided that the meals offered to the monks were not sufficiently frugal and Caesarius withheld rations accordingly.

He was sent to Arles where he was taken under the wing of bishop Aeonius and made prior of a monastery on an island in the Rhône.

After Aeonius’s death, Caesarius was elected archbishop. He soon found himself in conflict politically and theologically. On the political front  he was exiled by the Visigothic ruler Alaric II, after being accused of siding with the Burgundians. _Arles-Cl-TS-3After a year Caesarius managed to clear his name and was reinstated. It was not long before he ran into trouble with the new Ostrogothic ruler Theoderic, who had him imprisoned in 512. Again, he was released after he had pleaded his cause.

Caesarius was very active in the debate over the heresy of semi-Pelagianism, arguing at the Council of Orange in 529, that man could not be predestined to evil.

Generally considered to be the first western cleric to receive the Papal pallium, this was a mark of the exceptional esteem Caesarius enjoyed at Rome.  This attribute, a woollen band worn over the head and draping down in the form of a Y, was originally reserved for the Papacy only.

During his long term in office, Caesarius was very active in defining the nature and role of the Church in society at a time when Western civilisation was at a crossroads.

Among his numerous works, he established a monastic rule for convents which was the most widely used until it was superceded by the Benedictine Rule.

The Guide erroneously tells us that Caesarius was a martyr, however this is not the case. After the Franks had succeeded in taking over Arles, he retired from public life. His relics were kept at the cathedral of Saint Trophime at Arles.

Biblio. W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims journeying to Compostela on the Toulouse Road were able to venerate the mortal remains of a major saint who had been, according to tradition, a disciple and  travelling companion of Saint Paul.Arles-Fac-Apostles-L It was written that Trophimus had been directed by the Apostle Peter to evangelise Gaul. He was the first bishop of Arles and his relics were held in the cathedral.

As a direct link to the original Apostolic Mission, Trophimus was held in the highest esteem. This perception is graphically rendered in the sculpture of the west facade of the cathedral where Trophimus is admitted into the college of the Apostles standing alongside James of Compostela.

The Pilgrim’s Guide declares that travellers: “Must visit in Arles the remains of the Blessed Trophimus the confessor.”

Arles-Fac Troph 1-

Trophimus was ordained by Saint Paul himself. “He was the first one to be directed to the said city to preach the Gospel of Christ”, continued the text of the Guide.

Arles had long been an important Roman administrative centre and in 412 its bishopric became the Metropolitan See for the whole of Gaul.

Trophimus is mentioned by name in the Acts of The Apostles.After Paul was driven from Ephesus he travelled with a select band of eight disciples whom he joined at Troas.

From there they journeyed on to Miletus where, Paul wrote in his Second Epistle to Timothy that he was obliged to leave behind Trophimus who had fallen sick.

The twelfth century tradition held that Trophimus had rejoined Paul in Spain when Saint Peter intervened and directed him to evangelise Gaul.

Trophimus’ bishopric had in reality occurred at some point in the third century. A general tendency to idealise the evangelisation of Gaul and antedate it to the time of the first Apostles  meant that during the medieval period, his conflation with Paul’s disciple was accepted. Trophimus-Canon-1-WP Such a direct and intimate link to the original Apostolic mission meant that Trophimus’ mortal remains were highly revered. Initially his relics were kept in a tomb at the cemetery of Honoratus, part of the Alyscans.

During the tenth century they were transferred to the cathedral of Arles, then under the patronym of Saint Stephen but shortly to be renamed the cathedral of Saint Trophimus.

Trophimus was a confessor saint who had, according to Gregory of Tours, passed his life “In great holiness, winning many people over to the church”.

In the twelfth century a large new cathedral church was constructed and the relics of Trophimus were ceremoniously translated there in 1152.

The four roads to Compostela were described according to the reliquary shrines of the saints to be found on the way.

Chapter eight of the Pilgrim’s Guide contained a list of twenty-three shrines which pilgrims were expressly told to visit on their journey. Consisting of twenty-seven saints in all, it included Saint James and the Paladins of Charlemagne among them.

Such a text  in a hagiographical work is unique in the medieval world. This is what made the pilgrimage to Compostela the pan-European phenomenon that it was.

One may wonder to what purpose such a list was made and whether it represented the actual contemporary  importance of these saints or whether they were selected for other reasons.

FontenayWere they chosen as signposts to mark the way or rather to persuade travellers to visit relics they would otherwise have ignored? Some shrines clearly benefited from their association with the pilgrimage such as Conques and others such as Saint Sernin of Toulouse were very likely in competition with Compostela.

Pilgrims taking the Puy Road would have had to make a significant detour over rough terrain to reach Conques rather than follow the Lot valley which was the easiest way to reach Cahors from Espalion. Yet Conques was plainly an integral part of the Compostelan pilgrimage long before the Book of Saint James was ever conceived.

Road-@-St-Guilhem-3Similarly, pilgrims travelling from Saint Gilles towards Toulouse, undertook an onerous digression when they followed the Guide’s recommendation to visit the shrine of saint Guilhem at the abbey of Gellone, which was located in a rugged area of the Cevennes. Yet Guilhem’s reputation as the hero of extremely popular epic tales preceded the writing of the Pilgrims Guide.

The shrines are listed in their geographical order beginning with the Toulouse Road. This road joined together the shrines of Trophimus, Caesarius, Honoratus and Genesius at Arles and tombs of the Alyscans at the entry to the city.  After Arles came Saint Gilles and Saint Guilhem.

Montpeyroux-2The brief sketch of the four roads in chapter one dictated that this road went via Montpellier. Thus the inclusion of the shrine of the martyrs of Agde; Tiberius, Modestus and Florentius, is appropriate although it is unclear whether this was a variant of the road or whether pilgrims did indeed visit this site as well as the shrine of Saint Guilhem.

 The final shrine listed on the Toulouse Road was that of Saint Sernin itself, at the city which gave its name to this route. Again, we know from chapter one that this road continued southwards from Toulouse towards the Somport Pass.

Chanaleilles-belltower-2-coThe Puy Road was next to be described but by the shrine of a single saint only, Foy of Conques. The celebrated shrine of the Black Madonna at Notre-Dame du Puy was not included but like Moissac, mentioned merely to indicate the course of the road.

The Limoges Road records only Mary Magdalene at Vézelay and Leonard in the Limousin and Front at Périgeux.

The Road of Tours was considerably more replete with saintly relics. Isle-d'AugerBeginning with Euvertius at Orleans, the pilgrim was exhorted to pass via the shrines of Martin at Tours, Hilarius at Poitiers and that of the head of John the Baptist at Angely. At Saintes the tomb of Eutropius, at Blaye; Roland and Romanus, at Bordeaux; the Olifant of Roland and the tomb of Seurin. At Belin, a single grave contained the burial of Olivier, Ogier, Arastain, Garain and other paladins of Charlemagne.

Aragon-PyrenneesOn the Spanish side of the Pyrenees a mere four shrines received the Guide’s approval; Santo Domingo de la Calzada near Logroño, the relics of Facundus and Primitivo at the Cluniac abbey of Sahagun and  Saint Isidore at León, before the ultimate destination of the shrine of the Apostle James at Compostela.

 This list certainly included the most important shrines of the day. By their inclusion in such a list however, several seemingly minor saints were elevated into the most select pantheon.

One abiding puzzle remains the lack of any mention of Martial of Limoges, whose shrine merited a major pilgrimage church which rivalled the dimensions of Tours, Toulouse and Compostela. His absence from the text is especially  remarkable because the city of which he was patron gave its name to that route and was undoubtedly a major halt on the road.

saintes-crypt-ls-tomb-vaul1It is now acknowledged that there were numerous variants to the four roads described in the Pilgrim’s Guide and logic insists that it was not intended as a travel guide in any modern sense.

Such a consideration may lead us closer to the real intent behind the hagiographical register of the Book of Saint James. The idea that all of these illustrious shrines were mere waystations on the road to the ultimate goal in Galicia could only serve to promote the prestige of Compostela and elevate the Apostle to a status which superceded all others in the celestial hierarchy.

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

The final book of the Codex Calixtus  begins with these words: “There are four roads which, leading to Santiago, converge to form a single road at Puente la Reina, in Spanish territory”. Often referred to as the Pilgrim’s Guide, it is hard to consider that it was possible to use it in the form of a guide for travellers in any modern sense and indeed its purpose remains obscure. It would appear to be a collection of liturgical pieces, hagiographical texts and sections of practical advice. Nevertheless, it does maintain a certain cohesiveness in that it remains faithful to the idea of what a twelfth century pilgrim might have witnessed and as such must stand as a fascinating reminder of a bygone age.

The routes were defined by the location of the most important saintly shrines on the way and the pilgrimage to Compostela became a cumulative sacred experience.

In modern times, these four roads have been named according to the principal town on the route. Thus we have the Road of Tours which leads from northern France down the western side of France. The Road of Limoges passes through Burgundy and the centre. The Road of Le Puy crosses the Auvergne. The Road of Toulouse leads from Provence through the Languedoc region.

It is generally considered that each road began at a certain point, like a fountainhead where pilgrims congregated. The Tours route at the shrine of Saint Martin at Tours itself, the Limoges route beginning at the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, the Puy route beginning at the shrine of the black Madonna at the cathedral of Le Puy. Finally, the Toulouse route commencing at the necropolis of the Alyscans at Arles.

Modern historians have attempted to recreate the old pilgrim roads using these locations as markers and filling in the rest with reference to surviving buildings, most often the many eleventh and twelfth century churches which still exist. How well they have succeeded is open to opinion, as is the more difficult question of how much the Pilgrim’s Guide can be said to reflect a true picture of twelfth century pilgrimage.

Christian writers, from the earliest years were keen to set down in writing the lives of the saints and the miracles which they performed, whether during their lifetime or through their relics after death. Many of these texts failed to survive the ravages of religious warfare and revolutionary zeal. At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela there exists in complete form the full twelfth century text of the cult which was venerated there.

The Liber Sancti Iacobi or the Book of Saint James is often referred to as the The Codex Calixtinus after Pope Calixtus II by whom it was purportedly written, although it is clearly derived from a number of sources. Scholars are agreed that it was written  around the middle of the twelfth century and comprises five books.

Book One consists of liturgical material. Book Two consists of the accounts twenty-two miracles performed by Saint James. Book Three consists of the story of Saint James’ translation from Palestine and burial at Compostela.

Book Four is called the History of Charlemagne and Roland and is a Latin version of the Chanson de Geste known as the Song of Roland with a strong emphasis on the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Book Five is today often referred to as the Pilgrim’s Guide. It is a curious manuscript whose intention has been much disputed. It is ostensibly a guide to travellers to the shrine of Saint James via four roads which cross France and meet beyond the Pyrenees  in Navarre where they join to form a single road to Compostela.

There is advice on matters concerning pilgrims such as the inhabitants of the countries they must pass through, which rivers are poisonous, but above all which saintly relics to visit along the way.

Modern historians have attempted to recreate the old pilgrim roads using these locations as markers and filling in the rest with reference to surviving buildings, most often the many eleventh and twelfth century churches which still exist. How well they have succeeded is open to opinion, as is the more difficult question of how much the Pilgrim’s Guide can be said to reflect a true picture of twelfth century pilgrimage.

The church of Sainte-Marthe de Tarascon is situated on the left bank of the Rhône a few miles north east of the city of Arles.

The twelfth century southern porch sculpture is an impressive Romanesque sculptural ensemble which took its design from one of the gates of the Roman ramparts of Nîmes. The tympanum and lintel however are now completely defaced but records reveal their thematic composition. The tympanum depicted Christ in Majesty and the lintel frieze portrayed a processional composition stylistically derived from one of the many paleo-Christian sacrophagi to be found in the area.

It featured Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and a procession of ten Apostles after which came the two saints of Bethany, Lazarus and his sister Martha who holding by a rope a dragon-like monster from whose jaws are protruded the legs of a half devoured human form.

Legend tells us that fleeing persecution in Palestine, Martha and her brother Lazarus and many other disciples arrived in Provence at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, after a crossing over the sea in an oarless boat.

Martha made her way to Avignon before settling on the banks of the Rhône nearby.

The saints of Bethany were highly venerated in the medieval West. The relics of Lazarus were kept at Autun. It was he who according to the Gospel of John that Jesus was raised from the dead. Their sister Mary-Magdalene’s relics were venerated at Vézelay and Martha’s shrine at Tarascon had, it was said, been a site of pilgrimage since the fifth century at least. The first Frankish king Clovis had been healed miraculously by the intercession of Saint Martha when he came in pilgrimage in the year 500.

The legend of Martha and her triumph over the monster known as the Tarasque were recording in a chronicle attributed to the ninth century historian Raban Maur. According to the chronicle, the beast had, “Had jaws armed with sharpened teeth which made piercing whistling sounds. With its teeth and claws it tore apart all it encountered and the mere infection of its breath sufficed to take away the life of any who approached”.

The local people challenged Saint Martha, as a sign of the power of the Messiah of whom she preached to bring the beast to heel. This would be proof of divine intervention and the populace undertook to accept conversion if Martha was able to bring an end to the monster’s reign of terror. “She advanced in full view of the people who applauded her courage and entered with assurance the lair of the dragon and by the Sign of the Cross she appeased its ferocity”.

The place which had previously been known as Nerluc, or dark forest was renamed Tarascon.

The tradition of the Tarasque monster belongs to the native Celtic tribe which inhabited this region of Provence, known as the Salluvians. In accounts written by Plutarch and the Greek historian Strabo, the Romans campaigned against them in 102 BC. The Roman army led by the general Marius were assisted by a Syrian priestess and seer who was paraded around the soldiers encampment wielding a staff decorated with flowers and ribbons of coloured cloth wearing a purple cloak tied at the neck with a brooch – her name was Martha.

The iconography of the Tarasque always showed it with the limbs of the half devoured human protruding from its jaws as in the carved stone statue dating to the first century BC discovered near to Tarascon.

The miracle of Martha and the Tarasque is an archetypal triumph of Good over Evil. As Gervais of Tilbury wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Tarasque was “A serpent of the race of Leviathan, a foul serpent of the sea”.

According to Raban Maur, on her death the saint was entombed in a miraculous ceremony presided over by Christ and Saint Fronto of Périgeux. In 1187 Martha’s relics were discovered hidden in the crypt of the church.