Between Arles and Avignon by the banks of the Rhône there roamed a beast in that place whose breath exhaled a pestilential mist
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.