In no cemetery anywhere, except in this one, can one find so many and so large marble tombs set upon the ground
The Book of Saint James
Video: The Necropolis of the Alyscans at Arles
An Original Artsymbol Production
Music by Martin A Smith
The Alyscans is the Provencal name for the Elysean Fields. This was the name given to the ancient burial ground on the edge of the city of Arles, which became the starting point of the Toulouse Road to Santiago de Compostela.
The Romans had used it as a major necropolis and right up to the city gates row upon row of stone tombs stretched a great distance either side. Through it ran the road which linked Rome with Arles, the Aurelian Way.
A hallowed site and much prized as a resting place for the dead, it was an old custom to transport the deceased there from the upper reaches of the Rhone. Situated on a sharp bend in the river, boats would run aground a short distance away from the cemetery. The custom arose of placing the dead in a shallow boat floated downstream, a coin clamped in the mouth to pay for the funeral rite. The stone cutters and carvers of Arles had a deserved reputation for their skill in making ornately carved burial sacrophagi.
By the middle ages it was a Christian cemetery with seven churches. The now ancient stone tombs were believed to hold the relics of martyrs, the more ornate the decoration of the sacrophagous, the more illustrious the saint. Legend declared that the fallen Frankish warriors of Roncevaux lay buried here. Moreover, adding another layer of sanctity to the already sacred site was the notion that actual battle had taken place at the Alyscans when forces led by the warrior monk Saint Guilhem defeated a large Saracen army there.
Among the celebrated saints entombed at the Alyscans were Honoratus, founder of the first monastic community of western Europe; Genesius a martyr of Roman persecution whose relics were widely considered to be especially powerful and Caesarius, the sixth century archbishop of Arles who had grasped a sea wind in his hand and released it on a barren valley thereby rendering it fruitful.
At this site of exceptional mythical status, the pilgrims to Compostela congregated as they set out on their journey by the Toulouse Road. The Guide urged them to make use of the intercessory power that was present, so that the pilgrim “may be certain to have those pious deceased lying there intercede for his salvation in the presence of God at the final Resurrection”.