Abbey Church and Reliquary Statue of Sainte Foy in Congues and Tympanum of the Last Judgement

The Romanesque Conques Abbey church of Sainte Foy and its famous tympanum of the Last Judgement

Conques Abbey – few sites in France or even in Europe pride themselves on sheltering such an amount of treasures:

  • the Romanesque abbey-church
  • its famous tympanum of the Last Judgement,
  • the cloister with its central fountain made of serpentine,
  • the Treasure showing the goldsmith’s art,
  • the museum and
  • the village itself, all spring out like a memory of lost centuries.

All these elements are set in an exceptional natural site, shaped like a “conque”, a shell (concha in Latin, conca in Occitan), chosen by the hermit Dadon, who retired here during the 8th century. See Top 15 Catholic shrines around the world.

Conques Abbey

Coming to Conques and having the best stay:

One of the major monuments of architectural and cultural heritage that line the route to Santiago de Compostela, Conques Abbey church prides itself on sheltering under its vaults, a unique treasure of Romanesque sculpture and artefacts. Among these are the tympanum of the Last Judgement and figurative capitals, all magnified by Pierre Soulages’ stained glass windows.

The gilded or plated reliquaries of the Treasure, embellished with ancient enamels, cameos, intaglios and precious stones are exquisite examples of medieval craftsmanship.

The precious treasure, assembled and preserved through the ages, nestles around the Conques monastery within an environment of great beauty that is today recognised in the selective list of The most Beautiful Villages of France (Les plus beaux villages de France). See other Catholic sites in France.

The worship of Saint Foy

During the 9th century, at a time when the importance of relics grew dramatically and when the presence of a holy body lead to a huge spiritual impact for an abbey holding them, Conques Abbey was oddly left out.

This was the time when Conques’ monks, after fruitless attempts to obtain relics, turned their attention to the holy relics of Saint Foy from Agen, which were well revered in Aquitaine. Their “abduction”, called a “furtive transfer”, took place around 866.

The arrival of Saint Foy’s relics in their new home, where they would later on perform miracles for the blinds and the prisoners in particular, drew crowds of pilgrims from all over France coming to ask for special benefits.

For the abbey, this situation meant a new birth. Construction works would then go on for three centuries without interruption, providing prosperity to the area. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the expansion permitted the emergence of the first pieces of art, including the famous Saint Foy statue-reliquary, prayed to worshipers, and set in a three naves church preceded by a bell porch.

The tympanum of Conques Abbey

At the western Conques gate, deep barrel vaulting shelters the tympanum of the Last Judgement, one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture from the first half of the 12th century, noticeable by its artistic quality and originality, as well as its dimensions.

Conques Abbey

It was probably made under the governance of Abbot Boniface, head of the monastery between 1107 and 1125, and by a sculptor who had already worked on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

With dimensions of 6.70m wide on 3.60m high, it shelters at least one hundred and twenty four figures, in a relatively good state of conservation. For the visitor reaching the church square, the tympanum set at 3.50m high remains readable, despite the crowding of figures and the diversity of the represented scenes.

In fact, all is set around the central figure of Christ, out-of proportion with the others, so as to attract all the attention. On his left, “hell seems the image of Paradise in negative (set on his right), an anti-heaven.

In this case, all is order, limpidity and peace, contemplation and love, when in the other it’s violence, compulsive agitation and fright.” (Marcel Durliat).

The general composition is simple. The wide half-circle shaped tympanum contains three levels, separated with banners holding engraved inscriptions. To fill these levels, the sculptor divided them into a suite of compartments, corresponding to each limestone slab, making a total close to twenty.
They were first sculpted on the ground then assembled in position, in a somewhat giant puzzle. This division, easy to observe, was a smart arrangement, using joints that never cut a scene or a figure.
The principal inspiration for the Last Judgement came from Saint-Matthew’s Gospel.

Way to Santiago

Since its foundation, the abbey-church kept on welcoming pilgrims coming to worship the relics of Saint-Foy, from whole Christian Europe. The Book of Miracles is a witness account of this popular devotion.

To these first pilgrims, many others were added, during the 11thcentury. They were the ones going towards Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. They used to travel along the former Roman road from Le-Puy-en-Velay (thevia podiensis), one of the four major axis for travellers in these times.

The Guide du Pèlerin, a Latin manuscript from the 12th century mentioned Conques, a crucial stop along this route, in these words :

the most precious body of the blessed Foy, virgin and martyr, had been buried by the Christians in this deep valley commonly called Conques, with all the honours ; they built above her grave a beautiful basilica governed by the rules of Saint-Benedict seriously followed to this day, to God’s glory; many benefits are provided to all, either healthy or sick ; in front of the basilica runs an excellent spring, which virtues are more admired that can be said. Her feast (Saint-Foy) is celebrated on October, 6th“.

Nowadays, this thousand years old devotion is still alive. Many pilgrims, increasing in numbers every day, add up to the traditional pilgrims of the past, like the modern hiker who, for multiple reasons, takes on this cultural route.

It is a privileged occasion for humane connections and for the discovery of an exceptional heritage site (architecture and arts).

Since 1998, the Conques Abbey church Saint-Foy of Conques and the pilgrim’s bridge above the Dourdou River are registered on the list of Worldwide Heritage by UNESCO.

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The tympanum of Conques Abbey

At the western gate, deep barrel vaulting shelters the tympanum of the Last Judgment, one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture from the first half of the 12th century, noticeable by its artistic quality and originality, as well as its dimensions. It was probably made under the governance of Abbot Boniface, head of the monastery between 1107 and 1125, and by a sculptor who had already worked on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

With dimensions of 6.70m wide on 3.60m high, it shelters at least one hundred and twenty four figures, in a relatively good state of conservation. For the visitor reaching the church square, the tympanum set at 3.50m high remains readable, despite the crowding of figures and the diversity of the represented scenes. In fact, all is set around the central figure of Christ, out-of proportion with the others, so as to attract all the attention. On his left, “hell seems the image of Paradise in negative (set on his right), an anti-heaven. In this case, all is order, limpidity and peace, contemplation and love, when in the other it’s violence, compulsive agitation and fright.” (Marcel Durliat).

The general composition is simple. The wide half-circle shaped tympanum contains three levels, separated with banners holding engraved inscriptions. To fill these levels, the sculptor divided them into a suite of compartments, corresponding to each limestone slab, making a total close to twenty. They were first sculpted on the ground then assembled in position, in a somewhat giant puzzle. This division, easy to observe, was a smart arrangement, using joints that never cut a scene or a figure.

The principal inspiration for the Last Judgment came from Saint-Matthew’s Gospel. The sculptor incised the dramatic moment when Christ pronounced his final words, incised in the small banners held by two angels on both sides of his head. To the sheep placed on His right, He said: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. Turning to His left, He said: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and concluding that the ones on the left “will go away everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.

Christ is indicating the first words to the elected, lining up towards him, with a welcoming raised right hand. With his left one, lowered, he points out Hell to the cursed. He is the judge giving out the sentence. The contrasting gesture gives Christ’s figure the appearance of a conductor, directing a great show, in full progress for more than eight centuries, and is set just above the church square.

Christ sits on the throne, in an almond-shaped glory, sparkled by stars, among five rows of festoons representing the clouds. The elongated face expressing the King-Judge severity is even more striking when seen from its profile. His garments, tunic and coat, are high-cut to reveal the wound caused by the spear and was probably originally painted. He is surrounded by “all His angels”. On his left, one holds a finely chased incense-burner, and another the Book of Life, wide open. Two angels, executioners, fully armed with a flaming sword and a lance, fulfill their given mission of containing the tumultuous devilish crowd of the condemned, behind the borders of Hell. At Christ’s feet, rising from a cloud, two angels carry a candelabrum, as it said that on Judgment Day: “The sun will become dark, and the moon will no longer shine”. From all these creatures, with no doubt the most beautiful are the angels blowing into their trumpets and filling the upper corners. Finally, the huge cross set above Christ and carried by two angels holding the nail and the lance blade, emphasizes the recall of the Passion of Christ.

The elected, tympanum of ConquesThe elected multitude is in motion towards Christ, under the guidance of Mary, followed by Saint Peter holding the Paradise keys, with behind them, other figures without a halo, as they do not represent holy persons. In fact, the “Master of the Tympanum” was bold enough to insert in this triumphant procession figures issuing from the history of the local monastery: the hermit Dadon, founder of the abbey, followed by an abbot holding his crook (probably Begon), leading by the hand the Emperor Charlemagne, legendary benefactor of the monastery, but who also had many things to repent for. The two monks behind him, one holding a diptych, the other a reliquary resting on a precious cloth, are presenting the exhibits for the defense, proofs of the imperial generosity towards Saint-Foy treasure.

Under Christ’s figure, the weighing of the souls takes place, with the archangel Saint Michael being confronted by a mocking devil, with defying looks, each one kneeling by the scales. Despite the cheating attitude of the devil pressing his finger on the weighing scale, the favors seem to go to the good deeds. On the left, the resurrection of the bodies takes place, in stone like it would be in a film sequence. With the helping hand of angels lifting the lids, the dead bodies rise up one after the other from their sarcophagus.

Saint Foy’s detail, tympanum of ConquesOn the left, on the opposite triangle-shaped frame, small archways show Conques church with the chains offered by released prisoners hanging from its beams, like a thanksgiving as was custom and as a reminder of Saint Foy’s protection. On the right, she is leaning towards the divine hand and interceding in favor of the deceased.

The lower level is divided into two sections. On the left, Paradise is portrayed by the Celestial Jerusalem, architectural in appearance with its battlement towers, columns and archways. The sculptors of Conques favored familiar and realistic elements of day-to-day life, such as the oil lamps, called calelhs in the Rouergue, hanging from the vaults, like a light for the eternal kingdom. In the center sits Abraham, holding two children in his arms, probably the Holy Innocents. He is framed by pairs of figures under arcades: the Wise Virgins with their lamps, the martyrs with their palm leaves, the prophets with their scrolls of parchment, and lastly, the apostles with their books. The quite monotonous row of the stoically faced elected seems to give the idea that order and serenity rule Paradise. An angel stands by its door, welcoming the elected. Opposite, across a partition, a bushy and spiky-haired devil, armed with a club, is forcing the cursed into Hell’s monstrous throat.

The sculptor knew how to strongly contrast the celestial peace with the violent chaos and confusion of Hell. Set on the center of the right lintel, mimicking Abraham’s position, Satan presides over the extraordinary torturing, with his feet resting on the belly of a condemned lying in the flames, apparently the sloth. On each side, a hideous crowd of devils obviously enjoys the virulent punishments inflicted on the authors of Mortal Sins.

Tympanum of Conques – the damnedWearing chain-mail like a knight, the first mortal sin, Hubris is thrown down by the stroke of a pitch fork. The adulteress, her chest bare, her neck tied with a rope, stands still with her lover behind her, as if waiting for Satan’s terrible verdict. The miser is hanged high, his purse around his neck, a toad under his feet. Then a devil is dragging out the tongue of a small figure, to show Calumny or Slander. Anger must be found elsewhere, in the triangular space, on the left, above the mouth of Hell. There, a devil is eating the brains of the condemned, who commits suicide by pushing a knife into his throat. Beside him, a hunched-back devil grabs the harp of another soul, while tearing off his tongue with a hook. This poor musician and singer probably represent the minstrel, the public entertainer, as a symbol of vanity for the pleasures of the world. Opposite, the triangular frame on the right holds a surprising scene, filled with irony. A man is barbecued above open flames, by two devilish creatures, one with a hare like head. Could it be interpreted as the torture of the poacher? Or, should we simply see a representation of Hell, the inverted world, where the hunter becomes the victim of his own prey?

Above this lintel, on the second level, Hell fills two spaces. Here, the sculptor didn’t have to treat precise themes and could freely use his inspiration. In an indescribable mingle of heads and bodies, the infernal and bony creatures, a grin on their face, are enjoying themselves and are competing in punishments inflicted on the damned, in a dedicated manner.

On the left panel, a devil is biting off the crown of a king represented naked, as if to mock him. The bad sovereign points his finger towards the group of the elected and towards Charlemagne, as if to record his dissent for not being on the good side. Just above him, devils with rough and frightening looks raise their battle axes, clubs and even a cross-bow, a weapon rarely represented in this early part of the 12th century. This package might be illustrating the horrors of war.

The next right hand panel is dedicated to a terrifying punishment. A seated condemned, caught in the grip of a vixen-looking devil is flayed alive, while another she-devil devours his skin with great delight. Beside them, the drunkard hanging by his feet is throwing up the wine he drank to excess during his past life. In 1940, a molding of the tympanum made for the Parisian Musée des Monuments Français, now the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, allowed us to identify the counterfeiter. He is located inside the smallest triangular frame, just above the drunkard. It was possible to identify him, because of his tools, the anvil, a begging bowl full of money, but most of all the mint, some sort of cylinder held in his hand. The most surprising evidence is the inscription the sculptor took time to engrave on its small top surface, totally unreadable from down below, a coin matrix with the inscription cunei (coin).

On the same level, on the left, the bad monks also have their place in Hell, as have the bad kings. An abbot falls to the ground holding his crook. A hunched-back and bellied devil is capturing three monks in a fishing net, among whom another abbot holds an inverted crook. In this representation of Hell, all is arranged in order to frighten the illiterate, the big majority of the population in these times, as is revealed by the quotation engraved on the lintel base:

Tympanum of Conques, inscriptionsO PECCATORES TRANSMUTETIS NISI MORES
JUDICIUM DURUM VOBIS SCITOTE FUTURUM

“O sinners, change your morals  for you might face a cruel judgment”.

As if to strike the mind, vivid colors highlighted the sculptures. Some important remains are still visible, with a dominating blue for Paradise and red for Hell. Was the Last Judgment first conceived as a high relief fresco?

Tympanum of Conques, the curious one The pictures of the text, mainly taken here from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, never excluded realistic and anecdotal elements. Without falling systematically into fatalism, the Last Judgment, on Saint-Foy church, can apply to all and be understood through its rich iconography and its narrative and educational style. One can easily imagine the pilgrims standing on the church square, trying to decipher the scenes, one by one. As a matter of fact, church art was the only art available to be contemplated by the multitude. Conques’ tympanum, in comparison to the tympanum at Toulouse or Moissac, spoke more directly to the people’s

Way to Santiago

Since its foundation, the abbey-church kept on welcoming pilgrims coming to worship the relics of Saint-Foy, from whole Christian Europe. The Book of Miracles is a witness account of this popular devotion.  To these first pilgrims, many others were added, during the 11thcentury. They were the ones going towards Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. They used to travel along the former Roman road from Le-Puy-en-Velay (thevia podiensis), one of the four major axis for travellers in these times.

The Guide du Pèlerin, a Latin manuscript from the 12th century mentioned Conques, a crucial stop along this route, in these words : “the most precious body of the blessed Foy, virgin and martyr, had been buried by the Christians in this deep valley commonly called Conques, with all the honours ; they built above her grave a beautiful basilica governed by the rules of Saint-Benedict seriously followed to this day, to God’s glory; many benefits are provided to all, either healthy or sick ; in front of the basilica runs an excellent spring, which virtues are more admired that can be said. Her feast (Saint-Foy) is celebrated on October, 6th“.

Nowadays, this thousand years old devotion is still alive. Many pilgrims, increasing in numbers every day, add up to the traditional pilgrims of the past, like the modern hiker who, for multiple reasons, takes on this cultural route. It is a privileged occasion for humane connections and for the discovery of an exceptional heritage site (architecture and arts).

Since 1998, the Conques Abbey church Saint-Foy of Conques and the pilgrim’s bridge above the Dourdou River are registered on the list of Worldwide Heritage by UNESCO.

RODEZ-AVEYRON AIRPORT

This airport is located at 35 km from Conques and 8km from Rodez. Direct flights from Paris-Orly, Ajaccio, London-Stansted, Dublin and Brussels-Charleroi. Possibilities of transport by taxi or car rentals
No shuttle services to/from Rodez or Conques
Airport contact

Tel: 05 65 76 02 00 or 05 65 42 20 30 (booking and information)
Site: www.aeroport-rodez.fr
Car rentals.

Avis : Tel. 05 65 68 00 66
Europcar : Tel. 05 65 42 16 77
Hertz : Tel. 05 65 78 04 90
National Center : Tel. 05 65 42 72 33
Air lines companies

Air France – Tel. : 05 65 42 20 30 – Site: www.airfrance.fr
Ryanair – Site: www.ryanair.com
Regular flights:

Rodez-Paris (Air France by Brit’air and Hop!)
Rodez-London Stansted (Ryanair)
Rodez-Dublin (Ryanair)
Rodez-Brussels/Charleroi (Belgium) from March (Ryanair)
Rodez-Ajaccio
International connecting flights through Paris, London, Dublin and Brussels airports.

TOULOUSE-BLAGNAC Airport located at 170 km from Conques. International connecting flights.

Site: www.toulouse.aeroport.fr
TRANSPORTS CONQUES-RODEZ AND TRANSPORTS ON THE GR65

tableau des transports 2015, ConquesAll the possibilities of transport on the axis towards Rodez or on the pilgrim’s route of the GR65. Transport on request on given days from different municipalities’ departure points, towards St-Cyprien, Rodez, St-Christophe, Nuces, Decazeville. Transports reserved to residents. Transport from/to Conques from/to St-Christophe train station (train line Rodez to Paris). On booking with the company Transports Lample Pilgrims/hikers transports and luggage transports on the route to Compostela. Booking required 24h prior to departure

Regular Bus line Le Puy-Conques (see below)
Schedule of bus route on the line Grand-Vabre – Conques – Marcillac – Rodez
Careful: No bus service between Conques and Rodez on school holidays, civic holidays and week-end. Departure/arrival only from/to Marcillac (except civic holidays and week-ends)

SNCF TRAINS STATIONS

  • Saint-Christophe-Vallon (12) – Line Paris-Rodez, 23 km from Conques – Tel: 05 65 72 71 55
  • Shuttle service with the company Transports Lample on booking on certain train hours (see the transport chart).
  • Note for pilgrims: This station is not on the GR65.
  • Viviez-Decazeville (12) – Line Paris-Rodez, 27 km from Conques – Tel: 05 65 43 12 35
  • Daily connection with Paris and Toulouse lines. Night train ticket must be booked ahead of time.
  • Note for pilgrim: This station is 3km off the GR65 at Decazeville (boulevard Laromiguière level).
  • Walking from Decazeville to Viviez station, do not use the High Speed Road (pedestrians forbidden). Use the old road going towards Viviez.
  • Transports from Conques with taxis.
  • Rodez (12) – regular lines to Paris, Toulouse, station at 38 km from Conques, train station located near the Coach station – Tel: 05 65 77 33 30 / 36 35 / 0 892 35 35 35
  • Transport from Conques: Regular bus line (week days, school days) or taxi.
  • Night train ticket must be booked ahead
  • Figeac (46) – regular lines to Paris, Cahors and Toulouse
  • Transport to this station : taxi or transports for pilgrim on the GR65 (Figeac axis)
  • Site: www.voyages-sncf.com

The worship of Saint Foy

During the 9th century, at a time when the importance of relics grew dramatically and when the presence of a holy body lead to a huge spiritual impact for an abbey holding them, Conques Abbey was oddly left out. This was the time when Conques’ monks, after fruitless attempts to obtain relics, turned their attention to the holy relics of Saint Foy from Agen, which were well revered in Aquitaine. Their “abduction”, called a “furtive transfer”, took place around 866.

The arrival of Saint Foy’s relics in their new home, where they would later on perform miracles for the blinds and the prisoners in particular, drew crowds of pilgrims from all over France coming to ask for special benefits. For the abbey, this situation meant a new birth. Construction works would then go on for three centuries without interruption, providing prosperity to the area. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the expansion permitted the emergence of the first pieces of art, including the famous Saint Foy statue-reliquary, prayed to worshipers, and set in a three naves church preceded by a bell porch.

Majesty of Saint Foy – Conques Abbey

At the same time, the tomb of the apostle James in Compostela, became a pilgrimage site, surpassing the other great pilgrimages of the Christian world. The well-known miracles of Saint Foy were strong enough to bring Conques into the highlights and for it to be chosen as a major town-relay, set on one of the four main Compostela French trails, the one starting from Le-Puy-en-Velay. After the difficult and dreadful crossing of the Aubrac “desert”, pilgrims travelling alone or in groups would reach the more welcoming landscapes of the Lot River, at Espalion. From Estaing, going on through Golinhac village, where a stone cross carries a pilgrim’s image holding his walking-stick (bourdon in French), they would pass Espeyrac, Sénergues and Saint-Marcel, to finally reach Conques Abbey, after a long journey. Departing from Conques, they could choose two itineraries to reach Quercy and the abbey of Moissac. The shortest one crossed the Dourdou River by the Pilgrims’ bridge (pont romain in French, from romius, a pilgrim in Occitan), to reach Aubin further on. From Conques, the alternative route would go under the gates of La Vinzelle, a path leading towards Grand-Vabre and Figeac, towards the North-West boundaries. Such pilgrimage, with its loads of donations and offerings alike, brought power and prosperity to Saint-Foy Abbey and, consequently, was the ideal condition for its artistic influence.

Book of the Miracles of Saint Foy – Conques. Up to then, the devotion to Saint Foy was limited to Rouergue and the neighbouring regions, but spread rapidly all over the Christian world, supported by the pilgrims’ worship and boosted by a major piece of literature from the early 11th century, the Book of the Miracles of Saint Foy, written by Bernard, a master in Angers Cathedral School. Conques monastery was by then holding numerous lands and priories, within a radius of twenty kilometres, and attracted an important urban population which settled close by. Conques kept on spreading his influence and acquired possessions in Rouergue and all over the Western Christian world, from Saint-Foy in Cavagnolo, in Piemont, Horsham in England, Selestat or even Bamberg in the German world and as far as Catalogna and Navarra. The Abbey Cartulary, a manuscript from the 12th century listing donations, is a witness to the creation of a true monastic empire for three centuries, an empire powerful enough to be kept out of the influence of Cluny that overlooked most of the great Benedictine abbeys, such as Saint-Geraud in Aurillac or Saint-Pierre in Moissac. More still, Conques was a rival of Cluny during the Spanish Reconquista against the Muslims, founding churches or designating bishops for the new dioceses of Aragon and Navarra.

Conques Abbey church Sainte-Foy

Its Romanesque Conques Abbey church Sainte-Foy (11th-12th century, listed as an UNESCO Heritage Sites on regards of the Compostela trails) with its famous Last Judgment tympanum, its collection of Romanesque capitals and its contemporary stained-glassed by Pierre Soulages.
The remains of its Romanesque cloister (12th century) and its unique central bassin of serpentine, unique in Europe for its style. The medieval village and its typical framed houses and their roofs made of schistous slates, but most of all… Its worldwide famous Medieval Treasure of goldsmith art, with the extraordinary Statue-reliquary “Majesty of Ste-Foy”, unique in France, the numerous other reliquaries dating from Caroligian times to the 19th century, 1000 years of goldsmith art saved by Conques’ residents throughout history and lastly, the Museum Joseph Fau and its rich collection of sculpture, 16th century furniture and tapestries from Felletin.

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