Skip navigation

Category Archives: Puy Road



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.

Conques-Cloister-WP-1The 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.

Conques-Manuscript-WP-1A 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-Charlemagne's-A-WPConques 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.

Roncesvalles-WP-3How 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.

historia-turpini-1This 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

Lyon was a great hub of the vast Roman road system of Gaul, built during the first century BC. One of the roads led southwest towards Rodez where it separated, branching south towards Toulouse and west towards Cahors. It was this latter which was used by medieval pilgrims travelling the Puy Road to Santiago de Compostela.

After passing through Le Puy-en-Velay, the way traversed the high volcanic plateaux of the southern Massif Central.

The old road made its way through dense forest which was home to wolves and boar. The way was often obscured by dense fogs and in winter, sudden snowstorms. Harsh winds blew regularly through this desolate region. Bands of thieves were known to lay in wait, pilgrims were easy pickings.

Aubrac-Dômerie-1At the highest point on the desolate plateau of the Aubrac stood the celebrated hospital of Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres which was dedicated to the care and protection of pilgrims. Above the western door of its church were engraved the words: “This place of horror and immense solitude”

Travellers on the road could hear the five bells of the hospital church tolling from several miles distant.

One bell was engraved with the Latin inscription: “Deo giubila, clero canta, doemones fuga, errantes revoco”. She praises God, sings for the priest, chases away the demons, recalls the lost ones.

The prior of the hospital was known as the Domus or lord and the site came to be referred to as the Dômerie. The first Domus was named Adalard in 1120. Legends of later centuries told that he was a nobleman of Flanders. Versions of the story vary in whether he was travelling to Compostela or returning home. After he became lost on the Aubrac plateau and narrowly escaped a fatal end at the hands of brigands, Adalard made a vow to return and found an establishment to protect pilgrims.

Aubrac-Dômerie-2Another story tells that Adalard, with his retinue of 30 knights were travelling back from Compostela as night began to fall. Searching for a suitable shelter, they came across a cavern. Inside they were horrified to find the decapitated heads of twenty to thirty men. These they recognised to be pilgrims who had been waylaid. A vision of Christ appeared and ordered Adalard to found a refuge for pilgrims in this dangerous place. Adalard  returned later to fulfill the command and established Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres  on the site.

It was a substantial monastic establishment surrounded by protective walls. The monks followed the Augustinian Rule and there was a garrison of Knights Hospitaller to guard the road. The facilities comprised a wash house, a kitchen and a dormitory of fourteen beds for pilgrims. On the first floor was a hospice of eight cells for the care of the sick. This level also housed a contingent of noble ladies who washed the pilgrims and attended to their wellbeing. Outside was a pilgrim cemetery.

After Aubrac, the road descended gradually towards the more hospitable climes of the Lot Valley where Espalion beckoned.

Biblio: J.C. Fau, Rouergue Roman. A. Shaver-Crandell, P. Gerson: The Pilgrims Guide to Santiago de Compostela. Denise Péricard-Méa, Compostelle et Cultes de Saint Jacques au Moyen Âge.

GodescalcThe first recorded pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to the shrine of Saint James is that of the bishop Godescalc of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne region.

This occurred in the winter of the year 951.

The monk Gomez of the monastery of Abelda recorded that Godescalc left Le Puy, then part of Aquitaine, with a large entourage of pilgrims in order to, “reach in haste the lands of Galicia to implore the mercy of Christ and the approbation of Saint James”.

Gomez copied a manuscript of Ildefonsus of Toledo concerning the Virginity of Mary, the Madonna, as a gift for Godescalc to take back to France with him.

At Le Puy a Black Madonna of Coptic origin was venerated. Le-Puy-GVThis cult was superimposed on an earlier one featuring a miraculous dolmen.

The dolmen, known as the Stone of Fevers was kept at the cathedral and the two cults continued to coexist.

Connections between Le Puy and Moorish Spain were strong and it is even recorded that Saracens travelled from Andalusia to Le Puy to offer gifts to the Black Madonna.

It is said that on his return, Godescalc arranged for the construction of a small chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael on top of one of the volcanic pillars at Le Puy.

Le-Puy-StMThe chapel and the cathedral building offer many reminders of Moorish Spain.

Polylobed and horseshoe arches and the alternation of dark and light stone, in imitation of the great Mosque of Cordoba, suggest a fertile cultural exchange with Islamic culture.

The chapel, known as Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe still stands today.

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.

le-puy-st-michel-skyIn the year 951 the bishop of the Auvergnat town of Le Puy-en-Velay, Gotteshalk led the first recorded pilgrimage from France to Compostela. On his return it is said, he ordered the building of the church of Saint Michel de l’Aiguilhe on top of one of several volcanic pinnacles which rose from the ground of that geologically strange town, like a finger pointed at the heavens.

The road of Le Puy was frequented by the Burgundians and the Teutons according to the Guide. They passed through the cathedral town of Le Puy,  situated in a small depression on the high plateau of the Auvergne.
There they venerated a black coptic figure of the Madonna and a miraculous druidic dolmen known as the Stone of Fevers.

rouergue-quercyThis route led through rugged and inhospitable regions but in spite of the difficulties, its popularity was assured because it passed by way of the abbey of Conques, one of the most important reliquary shrines in Western Christendom,

There they found the golden statuette when encased the relics of a saint of prodigious miracle working powers. This was Sainte Foy a virgin martyr of fourth century Roman persecutions. Great numbers flocked to this shrine which became a major station on the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Passing along the valley of the Lot River pilgrims venerated the relics of Saint lot-11Hilarion, martyred at the hands of the Saracens in the eighth century at Espalion.

Along the Lot river, pilgrims received assistance at the important abbeys at Figeac and Marcilhac before coming to the greatest monastic centre in southern France at Moissac.