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Category Archives: Conques

The tympanum sculpture above the western entrance to the abbey of Conques is one of the most imposing works of RomaConques-Tymp53nesque stone sculpture. It was created in the first half of the twelfth century and its size and quality at this extremely remote site is testament, both to the power of the cult of saint’s relics and the importance of the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Conques had been an impoverished monastery until it acquired the relics of its patron, the virgin martyr Sainte Foy, and with the development of her cult for miracle working, the abbey had grown to become a spiritual centre of the first order. Its status was further enhanced with the rise in popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago in the late eleventh century and the consequent role as the prime station of the Puy route that Conques came to exercise.

Conques-Tymp8Sculpture of this magnitude and scale was clearly reserved for sites held in exceptional regard and Conques had evidently become one of these when the work was commissioned some time in the 1120’s.

Like all Romanesque west porch sculptures, the subject is the Apocalypse and more specifically the Last Judgment as described in the vision of the Saint Matthew’s Gospel. One of its remarkable features is that it includes Sainte Foy and Conques itself in the eschatological scheme. The central image is of Christ in Majesty returning at the End of Time. Below the dead awaken from their sarcophagi to receive Judgment.

Conques-Tymp11On the right side of the viewer is Hell where Satan reigns and the Damned have the punishments fit for their crimes inflicted on them.

On the other side is the Bosom of Abraham with the Elect awaiting their admission to Paradise and above the Procession of the Saints, already in the Celestial Realm.

This would seem to be an image of the future were it not for the other elements of the tympanum which imply a process of redemption which is taking place in the here and now, at Conques itself.

Conques-Tymp-70Directly below Christ is the Weighing of Souls. The Archangel Michael and a demon are at opposing sides of the scales of Divine Justice, a concept drawn from Egyptian mythology.

Below, an everyman figure is drawn away from the waiting Leviathan by an angel and directed towards the doorway to the Elect.

Above is a prostrate young girl. She is in an attitude of prayer before the giant Hand of God. This design is emphasizing the her proximity to God and hence  important status in the celestial hierarchy.

Conques-Tymp16Behind this praying figure is a sculpted image of the church of Conques itself, which leaves no doubt that this  figure is Sainte Foy.

An empty throne stands by the pillars of a church from whose arches hang manacles donated as ex-votos by grateful pilgrims. On the right an altar with eucharistic chalice.

This is the church of Conques. The manacles actually had been attached to the arches of the church before being melted down and wrought as a screen to guard the reliquary of the saint. Conques-Tymp-60The golden statue of Sainte Foy was seated on a golden throne, which here she has risen from to prostrate herself in intercessory prayer on behalf of the man directly below, whose fate is being decided in that very moment.

There is no more graphic depiction of the medieval doctrine of the intercession of the saints. Clearly, great claims are being made here for the role of Sainte Foy’s powers of intercessory prayer and for Conques as a place of pilgrimage. It is presented as a High Place of Christendom and its saint has the power to redeem man.

The northern cleric, Bernard of Angers who had visited Conques in the early eleventh century had declared that Sainte Foy had the power to “lead souls out of the underworld” after witnessing the saint’s miraculous gifts at first hand. The medieval church held that the souls of men could be rescued from Hell by the power of prayer and the Conques tympanum seems to contain a dual conception of Judgment, both as a future event occurring at the End of Time and an ongoing process which is happening in the present also.

Along the Via Podensis pilgrims directed their way over harsh terrain and through inhospitable lands to reach a remote sanctuary, the great abbey of Conques.  There were housed the relics of a virgin martyr of the Roman persecutions of the early fourth century.

Sainte Foy’s reputation for miracles was celebrated throughout Europe.conques-ts-early-dawn The monastic church was the first of the five great pilgrimage basilicas built at the end of the eleventh century, one of which was the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. They were all built to the same plan with the purpose of accommodating the vast crowd of pilgrims who came to venerate the saintly relics.

Conques had grown from a small hermitage located by a mountain spring into one of the most powerful and eminent monasteries  of its day. An impoverished abbey, its fortunes changed considerably for the better when the monks audaciously stole the relics of their miracle working saint from another monastery in the year 866.

They had encased the relics in an imposing gold reliquary statue studded with precious gems. conques-ste-foy-mcuThis was the Majesty of Sainte Foy. It was kept on the high altar and was protected by a wrought iron grille forged from the chains and manacles of prisoners released from captivity by the saint’s intercession and then come to Conques to offer the instruments of their oppression as ex-votos.  The figure was seated on a throne, symbol of the saint’s role as judge over human affairs.

The head was reputedly constructed from the death mask of a Roman emperor. Inside the bones were wrapped in a shroud of  imperial purple linen from Byzantium. The sick and lame came to pray before the golden reliquary famous for restoring eyesight to the blind.

The news of the saint’s miracles spread. In 1013 Bernard of Angers a cleric from the north visiting Conques was impressed by what he saw; “What was true through God’s will could not be suppressed and belief in its truth was already spreading through all Europe”, he wrote.conques-chevet-2

Conques became a vital station on the pilgrimage road to Compostela and its monks  were installed as abbots and bishops in monasteries and towns recently recovered from Saracen rule by the Crusaders of the Spanish Reconquest. Its territory and possessions grew and included numerous establishments along the pilgrim road such as the monastery at Roncevaux.