Having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints
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