Conques and Compostela formed an alliance early on. There has been much debate among medieval historians regarding the influence held by the great Burgundian abbey of Cluny over the political and religious life of Christian Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly regarding the development of the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela.
Less often mentioned is that of the southern French abbey of Sainte Foy at Conques.
Both Cluny and the independent Benedictine abbey of Conques were sponsors of the Reconquista and as towns fell to the Christians it was their monks who rose to occupy the new episcopal sees and found priories on the newly conquered lands.
When the taifa city of Barbastro finally fell in 1100 to the forces led by the Aragonese king Pedro Ist, he appointed Pons, an erstwhile monk of Conques to the newly created bishopric.
The northern Hispanic kings benefitted from Cluny’s closeness to Rome and its ability to send out its monks to reform monastic communities. Cluny also benefitted from the relationship in the form of the massive financial contribution it received from Alfonso VI for the building of its great abbey church.
What was of possibly greater interest to the authorities in Galicia was that Conques, like Compostela was a pilgrimage shrine in a remote location whose cult of a miracle working relic had been spectacularly transformed into a pan-European phenomenon.
As a result, Conques’ influence on the Galician shrine was more cultural, expressed largely in the fields of architecture and sculpture.
It’s abbey church was the prototype for the four other great pilgrimage churches which all began construction in the last quarter of the eleventh century, including the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
These churches featured side aisles along the nave and transept with an ambulatory around the apse allowing pilgrims to process continuously without interrupting the liturgical programme.
When construction began at Compostela on the new cathedral in 1077, builders and sculptors from Conques were called upon.
Of all the evidence of a connection between Conques and Compostela the most obvious is the striking similarity between the figures carved on the great stone porch sculptures at the two shrines.
Although, separated by almost seven hundred and fifty miles, it is scarcely believable that the same hand was not responsible for both the twin tympana over the Puerta de las Platerías and the great west porch at Conques.
Most probably the Conques master accomplished his work in Galicia before returning to France, as the monumental sculpture at Compostela dates from the years 1101-3, in other words, at the very birth of the large scale sculptural ensembles which were to come later.
The influence of Conques on Santiago was experienced in another way. This was in the development and transmission of legendary material which enhanced the prestige of the shrine as a pilgrimage destination.
A key figure in this process was Pierre d’Andouque, occasionally referred to as Pedro de Roda. Originally a novice at Conques, Pierre had subsequently been a monk at the Languedocian abbey of Saint Pons de Thomières. He was was elected to the see of Pamplona in 1082.
Conques claimed its foundation from Charlemagne. Its treasury contained a reliquary known as the A of Charlemagne. According to legend the emperor had given each of his monastic foundations a similar reliquary in the form of a letter of the alphabet. Conques had received the gold and gem encrusted reliquary, allegedly shaped in the form of an A and intended as a symbolic reference to the preeminent position the abbey held in Charlemagne’s esteem.
In 1101 Pierre d’Andouque, along with Pons of Barbastro obtained a donation of a church, almshouse and estate at Roncevaux, just below the Cize Pass over the Pyrenees on the Spanish side. These were then transferred to Conques which established a dependent priory and hospital overseen by the monks of Sainte Foy.
How and when this site was determined to be the location of the climactic scene of the Roland legend will remain difficult to confirm with any certainty.
This route would become the most popular pilgrim road over the mountains and references to the passage of Charlemagne’s armies are scattered throughout the text of the Pilgrims’ Guide.
A chapel was built over the only attribute of the legend which remained in situ, the rock on which Roland had attempted to break his sword Durendal.
Roland and Roncevaux were integral components in the Charlemagne mythology. They became the decisive element in that narrative which claimed the emperor as liberator and founder of the shrine of Compostela.
It was a fusion of history and geography which transformed the pilgrimage road from a simple terrestrial highway into a hallowed space.
This legend found its fullest expression in the fourth volume of the Book of Saint James, the History of Charlemagne and Roland, a manuscript composed under the pseudonym of Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin, but which commentators believe can be attributed to an author from Navarre within the French circle of Pierre d’Andouque during his time as bishop of Pamplona.
Pierre d’Andouque was present at Compostela when the absidial chapels were consecrated in 1105 and one, dedicated to Sainte Foy, he consecrated himself.
Sources and Biblio: Les Origines Méridionales de la Chanson de Roland, Frédéric de Gournay, Cahiers de St-Michel de Cuxa, XXXII, 2001
Une Abbaye de Pelerinage: Sainte-Foy de Conques et ses rapports avec Saint-Jacques. Georges Gaillard Compostellanum Sección des Estudios Jacobeos, 1965
Etude sur les sculptures de Sainte-Foy de Conques et de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse et leurs relations avec celles de Saint-Isidore de Léon et de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. Paul Deschamps