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Return to Conques

Updated: Mar 21

So here we are, holed up in France, catching up on everything—it’s been rather a whirlwind since leaving Cyprus.

I have lots on my plate: I’m still coaching, attending trainings, and editing for Psychological Perspectives—that keeps me on my toes! Plus I have three upcoming conference presentations to prepare. Wheww!

Our Airbnb is spacious, and we’re hoping to spread our stuff out and rationalize what we own. Some oddities have gone missing, and I think I probably went overboard with clothes (sigh).

I have one overriding objective in mind, which is to make a return visit to Conques.

If you’ve kept up with my travels, you already know that we happened (just happened) to be heading for an upcoming house-sit in France a couple of years ago when I abruptly discovered how close we were to a key site and major stop on a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For thousands of years pilgrims traversed these roads, stopping at various locales along the way to rest for the night, visit sacred sites, and pay their respects.

And here we were, merely a couple of miles away. Unfortunately, daylight was fading and it was shortly past 5PM, a magical number when things stop or shut down in places around the world (as I’ve learned from sad experience).

Situated in a valley, the medieval town of Conques’ name originates from Occitan conca “basin,” which is derived from the Latin concha “shell” (utterly perfect on a pilgrim route to Saint James, which is symbolized by a shell in reference to the scallop shells pilgrims brought back from the seashore as evidence of their visit to the shrine, but technically the two shells are unrelated).

We ventured into town and located a temporary parking spot. Emerging from the car, we made our way through the village streets, but Robin became concerned about leaving the car in a tenuous spot. So we split up: he ran back to move the car to safety while I charged ahead.

When what to my wond’ring eye should appear? The glorious facade of the abbey church of Sainte Foy with its fabulous carved tympanum (a tympanum is the central semicircular relief carving located above the central portal), a veritable jewel of Romanesque art. I could hardly take it in. I stood there a long time, gazing with awe and admiration.

I then went looking for souvenir shops! Quick! Before they all close!

But most had closed. I did find a little cafe with a postcard rack, but other shops were locked up tight. Robin joined me, having found a safe spot to park the car. Immediately I took him by the hand and dragged him down the slope where he could likewise feast his eyes on the magnificent sight of the tympanum.

When he could breathe once more, we scoped out the immediate area. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to visit the treasury museum, and worse, we could not seem to enter the church by any means! I thought I was going to faint with unhappiness. Abruptly, a side door cracked open and a clergyman in robes emerged, beckoning that we could enter, and then he departed, leaving us to enjoy the abbey in solitude.

We strolled amongst the dim pillars, barely able to make out the carvings and interior decor in the fading light. I was overjoyed to be privy to seeing it, but also downcast that the circumstances were so wretched. Robin took in my demeanor and promised that somehow, someday he would bring me back.

And this day he made good on his promise.

Seeing it during daylight hours and without the stress of time pressure is a completely different experience. For one thing, Conques is one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (most beautiful villages of France). In fact, the massive movie set of the fictional provincial town of Villeneuve in the live action film Beauty and the Beast was inspired by the town of Conques.

This was the only medieval shrine on the pilgrimage routes to survive both the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, and nearly 20,000 pilgrims pass through Conques annually on their long trek to Spain as they have for 1300 years, while the village proper hosts more than 1 million annual visitors (and only has around 300 actual residents).

The main thing I longed to see is kept inside a treasury museum called the Tresor, the true centerpiece of Conques, where this item has been kept safe since 1955 alongside the church. To glimpse this artifact was the goal of every pilgrim visiting Conques, and now I was about to be numbered amongst them. Eeeekkkk!

Dominating a tiny rotunda is the 33 inch tall seated statue of Sainte Foy (Saint Faith), the saint and namesake of the church next door. This statue is thought to be based on a pagan Roman model and contains Foy's relics, the only surviving example of reliquary statuary from the first millennium. (A common practice in ancient days, reliquaries contained the bones, clothing, or other items associated with the life of a saint or martyr, which are termed “relics.”*) The Sainte Foy treasure is among the greatest medieval works of goldsmith art in Europe, and the sole item in France to display so many elements from the High Middle Ages.

The luxurious crowned figure, called the Majeste d'Or de Sainte Foy (Golden Majesty of Saint Faith) is covered in gold and decorated with jewels and cameos, some from the Greek and Roman periods. The statue’s face is almost expressionless, and its head (dating from the fifth century) contains an authenticated part of the saint’s skull, enclosed within what is thought to have originally been the head of a Roman statue of a child (or a repurposed Roman helmet), with its body carved of wood and gold-covered.

In 1010, Bernard of Angers became frightened that this figurine was too ornate and inquired, "Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?" He was anxious about idolatry—fearing that pilgrims might worship the jewel-encrusted reliquary rather than what the reliquary contained and represented: the holy figure of Sainte Foy. And indeed, the gold and gem encrusted statue would have been an astounding sight for pilgrims’ eyes. Placed upon the high altar and surrounded by glimmering candles, the effect of the reliquary would have been stupendous. As Bernard remarked: “When they saw it for the first time, all in gold and sparkling with precious stones and looking like a human face, the peasants thought that the statue was in truth looking at them and answering their prayers with her eyes.”

Over time, travelers paid homage to Sainte Foy by donating offerings of gemstones so that her dress eventually became studded with agates, amethysts, crystals, carnelians, emeralds, garnets, hematite, jade, onyx, opals, pearls, rubies, sapphires, topazes, antique cameos, and intaglios. It is an amazing artifact, and I was thrilled that I got to see it at last!

One interpretation of the sculpture claims that Sainte Foy’s blank stare reflects her spiritual transcendence from life on earth, and the gold conveys heavenly martyrdom, with its reflective surface evoking a connection to the spiritual world. Her throne displays images of lambs, and a crucifixion scene parallels her sacrifice with that of Christ. The ornate crown, her enthroned posture, and the rich ornamentation telegraph her sainthood in Christianity and support her significance.

So who was Sainte Foy? Well, lemme tell ya.

As with many stories of early Christian saints, there are conflicting accounts and always the possibility that none of them are true. In the year 290, a girl was born to a noble family living in Roman-occupied France, and her Christian wet-nurse taught her the gospels and story of Jesus Christ. As a young girl, she took to helping oppressed Christians in their secret hiding places within caves and woodlands, and she was baptized.

A wave of persecutions broke out when Diocletian became Emperor and issued edicts requiring Christians to adhere to traditional religious practices on pain of imprisonment and execution. When the local governor Dacien visited the area in 303 AD, local people rejoiced that he would vindicate the power of Roman pagan gods by forcing the Christians to recant or die. Foy’s own father betrayed her, then aged 12, but she willingly handed herself over to the Roman soldiers.

Dacien gave her the choice to offer sacrifice to either the pagan goddess Diana or to Jupiter. “Think of your youth and your beauty,” he teased. “Renounce this religion of yours and offer sacrifice to Diana. I promise you all kinds of noble favors in return.”

Foy replied that she was a Christian and ready, in the name of Jesus Christ, to suffer any kind of torture and go joyfully to her death. Dacien had her flogged and then ordered her to be burned alive on a metal brazier.

While the fire was being prepared, Foy preached to the crowd about Christ and begged them to cease their worship of pagan idols. Legend holds that Foy was placed on the red hot griddle, and when holy intervention prevented it from killing her (it rained, extinguishing the flame), she was imprisoned and eventually beheaded, along with prominent spectators who protested her cruel treatment.

Foy is revered as a martyr, as someone who dies for their faith, later becoming a patron saint for Crusaders. She is listed as Sainte Foy, "Virgin and Martyr," in the Roman Martyrology, and her remains were spirited away by other Christians and cherished as relics.

But that’s not all!

Her martyrdom transpired in the town of Agen, which is at least 50 miles away from Conques. After the soldiers left, pious hands collected her body and head and hid them for safekeeping. Some two centuries later, in respect for her courage, her remains were elevated and transferred by the local bishop into a handsome sepulcher in the Agen monastery.

Pilgrims began to come from great distances to behold the sepulcher and marvel at the mighty faith of a mere twelve-year-old girl. The Church decreed her a saint: Sainte Foy (Foi; Foy; Fides—all translate to “Faith”). Legend says miraculous cures began taking place at the monastery, and soon the story of Sainte Foy spread throughout all Western Christendom in the early Middle Ages. She became extremely popular.

So how does Conques figure into the story?

Toward the end of the 8th century, a hermit chose Conques, then a deserted place, to lead a life of quiet contemplation. His saintliness became so well-known that several companions soon joined him. And so a small community of monks was born. Their isolated location provided a peaceful haven for prayer and meditation, and a modest church was erected. Eventually they were sponsored by Louis the Pious (aka Louis the Tolerant), the King of Aquitaine and son of Charlemagne, who donated enough funds to keep them going. In 838, the King recommended the monks move to Figeac, a nearby town on a busy trade route, which they would call “New Conques.” (Personally, I detect a collision between introversion and extraversion values here: peaceful haven versus attracting regular visitor traffic.)

The monks decided what they needed instead were some holy relics that would entice visitors to their location. So they set out to get some!

They made attempts to acquire the relics of Saint Vincent of Saragossa, and then the relics of Saint Vincent Pompejac, in the nearby city of Agen without success. Next, they turned their gaze upon the relics of Sainte Foy.

A smart and cautious monk by the name of Arinisdus (or Ariviscus or Arosnide) pretended to be a clerical pilgrim who was relocating and asked to join the religious community caring for the relics. Young and smooth-talking, he was assimilated into the Agen monastery where he spent ten years (10!) building trust among the brothers. With his impressive “reputation for sanctity,” he infiltrated the ranks of those who guarded the body of Sainte Foy, eventually becoming guardian of her tomb. This position allowed him to steal the holy relics during the feast of Epiphany as the other monks were celebrating:

While they lingered over their festive meal for a long time, Arinisdus, who placed his trust not in himself but in the Lord, approached the sacred virgin’s burial place without hesitation. But the covering stone remained immobile because it was held firmly in place by iron seals. Arinisdus didn’t know how to lift it intact, so he struck it at the foot. The tomb partly opened and he very diligently gathered up the most sacred body. Lifting it out of the tomb very reverently, he put it into a small sack that was very clean, exalting and magnifying God. (From The Book of Sainte Foy, Sheigorn, 1995, p. 268.)

He got enough of a head start to elude the monks who pursued him and was able to avoid capture on his journey home, where he was received with joy. (The fact that the pursuers did not actually catch the thief was taken as a sign of divine favor.)

The clergy of Conques were proud of their plan to steal Sainte Foy, writing accounts of it in both verse and prose, which they titled The Furtive Translation of the Holy Relics.

If, like me, you’re shocked that a monk would proudly steal a holy relic from a neighboring Christian community, you’re not alone! However, this was a common medieval practice termed “furtive transfer” or “furta sacra” (“sacred theft”), and countless anecdotes of a similar nature abound. Whether a rivalry flared up between abbeys, or monasteries simply wanted to increase their prestige and attract more pilgrims, monks did not scruple to steal venerated remains of a saint or other relics from a different monastery with myriad justifications.

The monks claimed that Sainte Foy herself communicated to them her wish to be moved, and they diligently obeyed. Who would contest such a venerable source of entreaty? According to their logic, Foy wished to be at Conques and so allowed herself to be transported and helped the monk along. The common belief was that a saint’s reliquary could not be relocated without the saint’s permission; hence, a successful move was seen as indubitable evidence of a saint’s willingness to be relocated, perhaps because they needed a fresh vantage point from which to complete their divine work with new supplicants.

Of theological importance, because relics were infused with the living presence of a saint capable of working miracles, they were perfectly able to stop a thief. Any relic that didn’t wish to be moved could simply become too heavy to lift, or cause all the doors of the church to lock spontaneously. By this logic, if a relic was stolen, it wanted to be. There were no repercussions; in medieval law, royalty and clerics were excused because the sacredness of the theft, and of course the person committing it, outranked the ethics.

Most importantly, the people of Conques believed that Foy approved of the transfer because she continued to perform miracles, and Bernard gathered a collection of 49 accounts of them, thus solidifying her authorization of the theft/transfer.

Despite Agen’s various attempts to reclaim Foy’s relics (and even today maintaining how “the legality of the acquisition is still a contentious issue”), it eventually acknowledged her translation (transfer). Conques then emerged as a major stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain as the cult of Sainte Foy spread from Conques to Spain. This strange furta sacra resulted in a booming economy for the village of Conques as pilgrims across Christian Europe journeyed to its abbey to venerate her relics and witness her miracles, leaving many offerings in their wake. A redistribution of Sainte Foy’s relics resulted in a dramatic shift in the early pilgrimage route from Agen to Conques.

The influx of pilgrims reached its peak in the eleventh century when pilgrims made Conques the goal of their journeys, among them “nobles, peasants, and prisoners.” To accommodate this increased flow of visitors, the surprisingly large and beautiful Romanesque abbey church of Conques was built between 1030 to 1130 in this remote area in order to accommodate the many visitors. Eventually upgraded in status to a cathedral, it featured a side chapel built in Sainte Foy's honor that showed her bathed with heavenly gold. The little medieval town of Conques gradually grew larger in order to serve the needs of the church and the monastery.

The abbey church of Sainte Foy was awarded UNESCO status in 1998 as one of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.

The cathedral’s best-known feature, and the one that attracts art historians, is the splendid tympanum (a decorative frieze above the doorway) on the front facade. This 12th century carving is a spectacular example of Romanesque art that intrigues art historians from all parts of the world. Inspired by the gospel of St. Matthew, its subject is the Last Judgment, a theme dear to the Middle Ages, whose population enjoyed seeing the good rewarded and the wicked punished—especially the latter.

With dimensions of 22 by 12 feet, this elaborately carved semicircle is composed of different stone than the rest of the structure, and is more sophisticated and complex than anything else in the church. It features at least 124 figures in a relatively good state of conservation, with touches of colorful polychrome paint still visible. As I have noted previously, these images were designed to explain the scriptures at a time when most people were illiterate. Remarkably, the tympanum remains readable despite the crowding of figures and diversity within the represented scenes.

A thrilling (short) YouTube video showing how it would have looked fully colored is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_s6J-VbNeBU

Christ sits in the center, enthroned, with his right hand pointing upwards to the saved in heaven while his left hand gestures down to the damned in hell. This scene would have served as a reminder to those approaching the church about the joys of heaven and torments of hell. Immediately on Christ’s right are Mary, Peter, and possibly the founder of the monastery, as well as an entourage of other saints.

The general composition is simple. The wide semicircular 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. First they were sculpted on the ground, and then assembled like a giant puzzle. This division, easy to observe, was a clever arrangement, using joints that never cut a scene or a figure.

One can make out some characters mentioned in our tales thus far: Agen's bishop and Sainte Foy's sister, who was also beheaded. In the corner is the famous monk who perpetrated the pious theft that brought Sainte Foy's relics to Conques, and we see Sainte Foy herself, prostrate before the hand of God who reaches out to invite her into his Kingdom.

I recommend examining all the figures and details via the macro images found on this web page: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Tympan_Sainte-Foy_de_Conques.jpg (Click twice with your mouse to zoom in.)

I waxed at length about this tympanum before, notably in my article titled “A Tympanum in a Time of COVID,” written for the online journal Personality Type in Depth. I related this remarkable tympanum to typology, the pandemic, and problem-solving. The link to read it is: https://typeindepth.org/2021/04/a-tympanum-in-a-time-of-covid/ There is so much more to talk about! The interior of the church, the misericords, the little chapel down the hill directly behind the main church—I could go on for hours, but I’ll spare you.

After enjoying our time in Conques, we made a detour on the way home to visit the Pont Romain. It is improperly called "Roman bridge" since it isn’t Roman at all—that label is a faulty francization of the word romièu, which means "pilgrims" in the language of Occitan.

Built in the 14th century, it probably replaced an older bridge across the Dourdou River that was needed to support the influx of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (the “Way of Saint James”) heading for their ultimate destination at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and it too has been listed as a UNESCO site.

Robin found it soul-satisfying to wander across and absorb the feeling of antiquity it conveys. I see it as a suitable reward for returning me to Conques and allowing me to fully experience its medieval wonders.

Until next time, -Dr. Vicky Jo

PS: Remember to sign up for my upcoming APTi webinar on “Jung, Art, and Typology” on Thursday, March 31. Register using this link: https://apti.memberclicks.net/index.php?option=com_mcform&view=ngforms&id=2119960#/

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* Tales abound of people hacking off parts of a barely-dead body of revered individuals to collect a relic, to the point where friends and families would fend mourners off, like keeping vultures at bay. This practice of saving relics portrays an interesting kind of materialism since theologians held that “the whole was in each part,” meaning the saint was equally present in each fragment of their body, no matter how small. Upon the demise of some individuals, their bodies were even cut up with various parts apportioned and distributed among devotees. For instance, the custom of ancient France was to keep the hearts of kings apart and in a different church than the rest of their remains.

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