The depiction of the elect residing in the bosom of Abraham is an essential theme in Romanesque sculpture and occurs as part of the large scale sculptural ensembles at Moissac, Conques and Arles.
The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke’s Gospel Chapter 16 is the only Biblical source for this vital component of the medieval conception of the eschatological scheme.
It is represented in its most detailed version on the left hand side of the porch of the Cluniac abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Moissac. The parable recounts the tale of a rich man who refused the crumbs of his table to a leprous beggar named Lazarus who is reduced to having his sores licked by a dog. Lazarus dies and is carried by angels into the bosom of Abraham.
When the rich man dies he is buried and is sent to hell where he can see Lazarus far above. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to assuage the pain of his torments. Abraham responds that the gulf between them is too wide and cannot be crossed. The rich man then beseeches Abraham to send Lazarus to plead on behalf of his brother so that they might be spared the pain of hell, but again Abraham refuses.
There was a long exegetical tradition on the subject of the parable and each second Sunday after Pentecost it was selected as the Gospel passage when it was noted that Lazarus has been given a name because he appears in the Book of Life whereas the unnamed Rich Man does not. Furthermore, the dog who licks Lazarus’ leprous wounds is symbolic of the priestly caste.
In Matthew’s Gospel 8, 11, Jesus proclaims that the elect would sit next to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is presented on the lintel beneath the Apocalyptic tympanum of the western facade of the cathedral of Saint Trophime at Arles.
At the Benedictine abbey of Conques there is a large detailed porch sculpture of the Last Judgment. It could be said to represent the whole of the twelfth century Benedictine view of the Afterlife. The sculpture is characterised by geometric lines which describe a hierarchical structure and bear inscriptions describing the scenes contained within.
Christ in Majesty is surrounded by Heaven and Hell. The Dead arise from their tombs and the Souls of the Dead are Weighed. The Saint of Conques, Sainte Foy is in an attitude of intercessory prayer while one man is delivered into the Jaws of Hell and another is saved by the saint’s intercessory prayer. Paradise is divided in two. The higher register includes the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter as well as a number of saints and below is the Bosom of Abraham.
The Conques tympanum seems to present a telescoping of eschatological time so that the present and the future appear in the same image. The Bosom of Abraham is an ante chamber to Paradise, where only the Saints are admitted before the End of Time. The inscription, “The chaste, the peacemakers, the meek, the friends of piety, thus they stand rejoicing, secure with no fear”.
This implies that their ultimate place in Paradise is assured.