Images of Conques

Freda White, in her classic travel book ‘Three Rivers of France’, provides a vivid and poetic portrait of Conques and an account of its colourful history.

‘From Rodez to the Lot a road runs first across the blistering Causse de Comtal, and then through a valley of  le Rougier. This is a band of red sandstone hills, traversed by some little rivers which run into the Lot. Salles-les-Sources, at the beginning of the red gorge, has three churches, the lowest Romanesque; it is one of the most picturesque villages of the region. Farther north Marcilhac is the centre of the culture of a delicious red wine, pressed from grapes of the kind grown in Burgundy. They can be coaxed into fruiting on the tiny vineyards of the slopes. Then the Dourdou runs into a wooded gorge, from which a road slants up a near-precipice, twists to gain height, and reveals Conques.

The three pyramidal roofs of the towers rise from their heavy bases over the high-pitched old houses of the village. All round the hills rise sharply to ridges. There is hardly a level foot of ground in Conques, save for the terraces cut to floor the houses and the larger one on which the abbey is set. This grand, haughty church is built in a wilderness. It is impossible to imagine how the villagers now, or ever, managed to grow their food in this ravine.

The overwhelming impression of the abbey church grows, instead of diminishing, the more you look at it. It is early Romanesque, for it was a century a-building and was finished about 1140. The purity of the style was probably due, in part, to its remoteness. Go to the little terrace in the village street which overlooks the east end. The semicircles of the chapels, of the apse, of the lantern, sharpen to the cone of turret and the pyramid of tower. There is little ornament; the design is caused by the disposition of the church within; it is completely functional, in modern jargon. And it is completely satisfying to the mind and eye. Then go down to the small square before the west door; and if you can bear to, give its carvings the go-by till you have been inside.

The church gives the same feeling of strength inside as out; but here there is also height and illumination. The nave is long and uninterrupted, so that one looks straight to the altar, and to the circling chapels behind it. The roof is supported by piles which form the pillars of the side-aisles; their line continues across the transepts to run round behind the altar and leave a processional path between it and the chapels. The windows of the aisles are repeated by windows in the upper part of the nave where the wall is pierced by a clerestory, and the light shines directly on the carved capitals of its passage-pillars. No doubt the builder meant this, when he planned to ornament them with palms, birds, beasts, stones from the Bible, scenes of chivalry. On the blind wall of the north transept there is a great Annunciation; curiously, this is less delightful than the smaller sculptures, for the Virgin is strained and afraid, and the angel wears too menacing a smile. There is something exclusively male about the Conques carvings, as though the master-sculptor anticipated the spirit of Michelangelo, in the convention of his own time. His point of view dominates the hundreds of different subjects. He was not averse from imaginary creatures, such as a winged lion, Babylonian in appearance, but after all the symbol of St. Mark. But the nightmare monsters eating each other of the abbey of Souillac are not here. Of course the figures are stylised, with huge heads, hands and feet and dwarfed bodies, nevertheless they are realistic, lively and humorous. In the garth outside there is a delicious capital of monks finishing a tower of the church. They bulge out of the top like a litter of puppies, arguing amicably about the work; you can fairly hear them. It would take a month to see and appreciate the detail of the capitals alone. In a day's visit you can carry away only the memory of a few. Yet the abiding impression is not of detail, but of ornament contained in a space of measure and proportion, of strength and light.

When Conques was rediscovered a century ago, it had fallen into some degree of delapidation. France owes thanks to the Beaux-Arts for the manner of its restoration. It is easy to see it, in roof and wall, but it has just been honestly repaired. The roofs have been covered with the round slates used locally. They repeat circular Romanesque pattern, and their purple-grey weds admirably with the warm yellow, tinted with red and rose, of the walls. The only regrettable part of the restoration is the windows.

This church, for all its masculine spirit, is dedicated to a girl, Sainte Foy. And thereby hangs one of the two epics of the abbey; for Conques unfairly has two good stories. The first is more than a thousand years old. In the ninth century, Conques, a colony from Cluny, was a struggling abbey, with a much smaller church. The pioneers had chosen a spot endowed with good spring water, but without bread to eat. They had to give hospitality to pilgrims to Compostella, but nobody gave them alms in return for the meagre fare they offered. So the Abbot Begon made a plan. He summoned his faithful monk Aronisdus, and instructed him to carry it out. Aronisdus put off his habit, and went to Agen. The abbey there was rich, for it owned the relics of Sainte Foy, a girl who suffered martyrdom for her faith under Dacian. Poor child, she was only eleven. But her bones wrought many miracles, and the abbey grew fat on the gratitude of the saved. Aronisdus entered the abbey as a postulant; served its rule impeccably for ten years; and was finally promoted to the guard of trusted monks who kept watch over the sanctuary and the precious relics. At last, one night he was left alone with them. He stuffed them in a sack and fled for the hills. The Agen monks took the alarm and hunted him, but the relics (surprisingly fickle in their favour to their protectors) caused a miracle, and Aronisdus was cloaked by mist, and escaped to Conques. Once there Begon would have stood a siege sooner than give them up; and there they have been ever since. As soon as they were set in a chapel of the abbey, the relics performed miracles for many supplicants. No longer did the pilgrims of St. James pass without giving gifts; at this altar, as well as at Compostella, their prayers might be answered. The abbey grew in riches and power. It called on the people to give treasure to make a fitting reliquary for the saint. The poor gave pence, and the great ransacked the jewels in their dower-chests. The monks made a golden statue to hold the bones, and covered it all over with jewels and ornaments; and a gilded chair for the statue to sit in. And afterwards, they built the wonderful church that we see today.

Centuries went by. The passion for pilgrimages died out. Sainte-Foy kept a local fete, when the statue and the treasures of the abbey were shown to the people. And then the abbey decayed, and the monks left; and now there happened the second tale of Conques. For in the Revolution the officials of the Republic seized the treasures of the abbeys and cathedrals and melted them down to coin money for an empty treasury. They had ravished Rodez; and someone warned Conques that they were on their way. So the Mayor of Conques held a village meeting. 'We are about to have our Revolution,' he said, 'and we shall take the abbey treasures and share them among us; every man his piece, and I shall remember which family has which jewel.' Then the officials arrived, and called for the Mayor, and told him they were come for the abbey treasure, so that Conques should be privileged to celebrate the Revolution. 'But we have had the Revolution!' said the mayor. 'Citizen-Comrades, we had it last week. And the citizens, filled with Revolutionary zeal, seized the treasure. And you know that it is not possible to recapture anything that may been taken by a Rouergat peasant, particularly from one who is a good revolutionary, as we all are in Conques.' With these words, or words to this effect, the Mayor outfaced the officials. And they reflected on the centuries during which the people of this poor country had hidden their small possessions from routiers, and taxgatherers, and the abbey bailiffs at the tithing season. So they went away. But when the Terror was over, the people of Conques brought out the abbey treasures from holes in the walls of their houses, and holes under the trees in their orchards, and gave back every one. So that Conques has one of the very rare medieval treasures of the world.

It is kept in a house by the abbey. Of late years, there have been monks again, a body of Premonstratentian fathers, who enjoy the use of the abbey on condition that it is open to visitors. A lay brother shows the treasure. It is a strange mixed collection, from early enamel work to seventeenth-century vestments. Some of the Romanesque work is beautiful, and the later monstrances are finely made. But the unique treasure is the statue of Sainte Foy. There it is, the Golden Majesty, just as it is carved on the west door, where the Hand of God is pulling the saint out of her chair and into heaven. It is made of pale gold studded all over with jewels, miscellaneously assembled to make a rough embroidery on its robe. There are even ear-rings in its ears. Many of the jewels are cameos and intaglios that must have been handed down from the time of Rome. The figure sits bolt upright, its elbows bent and its hands outstretched to hold flowers. Its throne is jewelled too, with its arms and back ending in round crystals.

The statue is hideous. The golden face is like that of a paralytic, stricken and staring with its black-and-white cat's-eyes. It is as horrifying as a Senegalese fetish. And as potent. Beyond question that image had magical power. Even now - even in this sunny room, behind this glass case - the stranger looks at it first in curiosity, and then with a cold chill. The relics are in a casket behind the altar now. Yet after all, that sinister, bedizened idol was made to hold the bones of a little girl.

There remains the west door. Here was where the lay folk came in. This was what they looked at every time they came to church; and they looked at Doom. The upper section of the round arch is filled with a Last Judgment, the culmination of all the abbey sculpture. It is early, as the great Dooms go; scholars date it by the technique of the eyes, which are pierced to give them a living
look. The work is pervaded by the spirit of the Conques workshop. The Heaven of Last Judgments is usually dull; there is a tedium about beatitude. So the designer boldly endowed his resurrection of the dead with humour. The usual procession enters at the right hand of God; the founder, then an abbot and behind him a king. The king is sure he has no right to be there;
he shrinks back behind the abbot's broad back. But the abbot leads him in with absolute assurance, announcing (as anyone can see), ‘This gentleman is with me.' The left side, the side of the damned, is realistically brutal. Devils torture the lost souls with
glee. The lost personify the Seven Deadly Sins. They were the gross sins of a gross age, when the poor decayed with slothful despair, and the rich spent their wealthy in gluttony; when the great gave rein to pride and fury. It is deeply interesting to look at this door and to trace the sins of the mind, to which the religious, the intellectuals of that time, were addicted perhaps without knowing it; their intolerance, cold cruelty, and lust for domination over the souls of men. There they are, the totalitarian vices, over the door, for succeeding ages to see.

As you go away, stop where the road rounds the buttress of the hill and look away. The evening light lies level, edging each ridge with shadow. The round design of the Romanesque abbey is invisible from here. Instead the three pointed tops of the towers, the sharp-roofed houses, the sides of the ravine towering to narrow arêtes, make a patter. The works of men repeat the design of nature in unity.’

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