On the road to Santiago de Compostella, the enthusiasm for building spread from the South towards the central plateau of France. In the scorched, empty Region of Rouergue, hidden amidst rocks, gorges and chestnuts-covered hills, the Abbey of Conques expresses the faith of the Middles Ages; better than any other single church. A faith capable of attaching itself to these desolate hillsides, in distressing and precarious conditions, and of raising the walls of a magnificent monastery.
It is thought that hermits were first attracted to the site around 850, when Conques was no more than a poor little priory reached only by a long walk along goat paths. A hundred years later, the abbey had been built in stone and resounded with hymns of praise. In those acts of pious robbery, a monk was dispatched to relieve the Monastery of Agen of a priceless treasure - the body of Saint Foy - a maid of 13 years martyred in the 3rd century. The body was installed in 866 in Conques. Soon word got around of miracles done by the little saint. Guillaume l'Iluminé had found great vision and fame, and captives were set free. At once, pilgrims from Le Puy came here on their way to Compostella via Saint-Sernin, and Abbot Oldéric decided to expand the church. The work was begun in 1030 and completed by his successors, Etienne and Bégon, following the plan of great basilicas. They made the nave vast, with six bays, a transept, an apse and an ambulatory, the whole in pure Romanesque Style. "Such richness in a desert" as exclaimed Prosper Mérimée.
Before the pilgrim could enter the Abbey Church of Conques, he had to face a test greater than the burning sun and the long path through dry woodlands. A majestic, terrible Christ in Majesty carved on the tympanum was waiting to question him. With one hand he encompasses Heaven, and with the other Hell, where the damned are being stuffed into the mouth of a monster whilst armed angels are defending the door. The Last Judgement was a frequent theme in the 13th century, but is quite rare in the Romanesque period (except at Baulieu, in Corrèze, where it is less grandiose than here, and at Autun). The carving is rough, the heads too big, the drapery a little heavy; but it is easy to imagine the emotion or the fear which the pilgrim certainly felt when faced with this representation of the rewards and penalties of his deeds.
The beauty and serenity of the nave might have given him hope once more, as would the intercession of Saint Foy to whom he would have addressed his prayers. With her hieratic face covered with gold leaf inlaid with precious stones, she is so beautiful and so grand that she can be frightening as well. The skull of the martyr was placed in a hollow wall, and the crowd used to flock round her feet. Whenever a pestilence ravaged the land, the reliquary-statue would be taken in procession around the church on a harnessed horse, "while young clerics made the cymbals ring" and pilgrims, who were making their vows, sang the canticles. According to Emile Mâle, "the saint was carried beyond the borders of Rouergue; she was seen in Auvergne and in the region of Albi".
Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, Rouergue, France. West façade.
Abbey of Conques, West Portal tympanum with the Christ in Majesty that seems to question the pilgrims.
The Christ in Majesty in the mandorla, tympanum of Conques Abbey Church.
Details of Hell represented at the tympanum of Conques Abbey Church.
The cloisters of Conques Abbey Church.
The nave of Conques Abbey Church.
Reliquary-statue of Saint Foy (10th century), Conques Abbey Church.