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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

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.

The depiction of the elect residing in the bosom of Abraham is an essential theme in Romanesque sculpture and occurs as part ofVez-Caps30 the large scale representations of Judgment 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.

One of the capitals in the nave of the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay is of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

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.Moissac.psd13 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.

Arles-FacadeIn 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 manConques-Tymp21 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. Conques-Tymp54The 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.

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.