Day One — Nestled in the densely forested hillsides of the Aveyron, the remote Southwestern-most corner of France’s Massif Central, the Abbey of Conques reveals itself at a bend in the narrow country road, much as it must have appeared to pilgrims of the Middle Ages.

Conques grew from a small hermitage.

The Abbey owes its origins to a hermit who retired to that very spot in the latter part of the 8th century A.D., to live a contemplative life. Other men joined him and, as their community grew, their small hermitage became affiliated with the Benedictine order in 819 A.D.

Relics Tourism

Conques developped as an important stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

Coincidentally, this was the year when the relics of Saint James the Great (apostle of Christ) were discovered in Compostela by the local bishop. Exactly how and why the remains of the saint, beheaded in 44 A.D. in Jerusalem, made it to the Atlantic shores of northern Spain, is a matter of conjecture. But soon the shrine of Santiago de Compostela became the ultimate pilgrimage site of the Christian world.

At Conques, the small reliquary “From Pepin” has a collection of 9th-11th century items.

The 9th  century was a time when the veneration of relics grew dramatically throughout Catholic Europe. Along the pilgrimage routes, worshipers were drawn to the abbeys that held them. The prosperity brought by these medieval tourists proved quite a lure for the monks of the recently minted Abbey of Conques. After some fruitless attempts to obtain their own relics, they turned their attention to the much revered ones of Sainte Foy in nearby Agen. Sainte Foy was a Christian maiden who lived in the town of Agen at the turn of  the 4th century. When she was martyred around 303 A.D. by the Roman governor Diocletian for her refusal to recognize pagan gods, her remains were preserved and venerated by the faithful. Over time she became known for her power to cure blindness and free captives, and her reliquary, housed at a local monastery, became a major attraction for pilgrims.

A Furtive Transfer

The statue-reliquary shrine Sainte Foy can still be seen at Conques today.

.The Conques brothers contrived to insert one of their own as an undercover agent at the Agen monastery. There, he posed as a loyal Agen monk for a decade, until he was able to abscond with the relics and return to Conques with them in 866. This highly questionable sleigh of hand was piously recorded in the history of the abbey as a “furtive transfer.”

By the 12th century, Conques had become  the first fortified borough in the area.

The village grew around the church.

The arrival of Sainte Foy’s relics in their new home had the desired effect. Her mortal remains housed inside a flashy golden reliquary-statue and her well-publicized powers were enough to turn Conques into a major stop on one of the main routes of the Camino de Santiago, the way to Santiago de Compostela. The abbey prospered as pilgrims streamed through to pray to the reliquary, and hope to be cured of blindness or to secure the release of relatives captured by whichever enemy they had had the misfortune to meet. They also contributed substantial donations, including jewels to be added to the statue of the saint.  The ecclesiastic community grew and construction works to expand the abbey went on continuously over the next two centuries. Meanwhile, merchants and tradesmen settled on the sunny slope dominating the abbey. Surrounded by ramparts pierced by fortified gates, the village expanded along a network of narrow cobbled streets leading to the church.

A Medieval Masterpiece

The barrel-vaulted nave soars to exceptional heights.

Protected by its isolated location, Conques has changed little since the late Middle Ages. Parts of the fortified walls, along with three of their gates, still surround the ancient half-timbered houses and the magnificent Romanesque church is now considered the oldest remaining shrine on the Camino de Santiago.   Like all pilgrimage churches, Sainte Foy of Conques required a vast layout that could accommodate large number people. However, the hillside location chosen by the hermit a couple of centuries earlier may have been ideal for mediation, but it presented a challenge to the builders of an important church and abbey. 

The columns holding the massive arches are decorated with intricately carved capitals. .

Massive retaining walls had to be built to  the north side to prevent landslides, and to the south to hold the earth platform for the planned cloister. Even so, the area available for construction remained limited, which explains the unusually compact church plan. Here, the apse has a minimal depth and the nave is quite short (21 meters, or 69 feet) compared with the transept (35 meters, or 115 feet). To compensate for the reduced surface area, the architects developed the height of the building. The narrow, barrel-vaulted nave soars to an amazing 21 meters (68 feet), the sense of verticality still intensified by the open upper gallery which run the length of the nave and transept. 

Capitals depict de feats of knights.

In addition to offering strikingly plunging views of the nave, the upper gallery affords a remarkable opportunity to get a closer look at many of the 212 columns in Conques with decorated capitals, including palm leaves, symbols, birds, biblical monsters and scenes from the life of Sainte Foy. These capitals provided educational picture books for the mainly illiterate monks and pilgrims, and some of them are remarkably expressive.

A Warning Cast in Stone

Above the main entrance to the church, the Tympanum details The Last Judgement

There is little exterior ornamentation other than the necessary buttresses and cornices on the fortress-like church, but for one striking exception: a monumental depiction of the Last Judgment on the high semi-circular carved scene that stretches above the central portal. Sculpted between 1107 and 1125, and with the Christ in Majesty presiding over the scene, the Archangel Michael and a demon weigh the souls of the dead on scales at his feet. In all. A crowd of sculpted figures (124 in all)  depict the Celestial Court, the angels, the elected, the condemned and other devils come to life.

The lower part of the Tympanum, shows the damned roasting on a spike.

On the bottom level, Heaven and Hell are depicted as roofed buildings, each with an entrance door. On the right side, the damned are forcibly pushed into the Jaws of Hell, where their tortures are shown in graphic details. On the left, the chosen ones are being welcomed by angels, who lead them gently by the hand through an ornate door to the Kingdom of Heaven.


Monastic Buildings

Only a few arches remain of the cloisters.

Few things remain from the monastic building that once sheltered an important community of Benedictine monks. Most of the cloisters have disappeared, but for a few arches around the grassy courtyard on the south side of the church. In the center of the courtyard is a large serpentine (dark greenish stone) basin rebuilt from original parts during a renovation of the cloisters.  The gallery on the west side of the courtyard contains some fascinating Romanesque capitals dating back to the late 11th century, representing various scenes of life at the time including an Annunciation, knights in battle, horn-blowers, and even construction workers leaning out over an unfinished tower, holding the tools of their trade.

The Treasury

The statue-reliquary head of Sainte Foy is crowned with jewels and ancient cameos.

The west gallery of the cloisters houses what is considered to be one of the most important medieval treasuries in Europe. The 9th century statue of Sainte Foy, which contains her relics, is the star attraction. It was originally displayed in the church’s choir, encircled by a fine wrought-iron screen protecting it from thieves (An ironic precaution given its history). The statue-reliquary is made of wood completely covered in gold. She wears golden robes and a crown encrusted with jewels and cameos, some dating from Roman times. It is the only surviving example of statue-reliquary shrines that were common in the Middle Ages.

Th treasury contains a unique collection of masterpieces by medieval goldsmiths,

The seated figure is rather masculine in appearance for a young female saint – in fact, the head is thought to have been repurposed from a statue of a Roman emperor. The face has a blank expression but the eyes are piercing. Relics of the saint’s skull are enshrined in the back of the statue. Also in the treasury are over 20 golden art masterpieces by medieval goldsmiths, including an exceptional 9th century chest donated by King Pepin, son of Charlemagne. Also on display is the arm with which Saint George the Dragon Slayer is claimed to have slain the monster. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the relics and treasures were hidden by local residents to prevent them to be confiscated by the state. Remarkably, the entire treasure was returned intact after the political turmoil abated.

Good to Know

Getting there — Located in the remote  Aveyron department of the Occitania region in Southwestern France, Conques is about 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of Rodez, 185 kilometers (115 miles) northeast of Toulouse and 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of Montpellier. It can be reached only by two-lanes country roads. The entire village is pedestrians only. There is a parking lot near the entrance gated entrance of the village. 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

The Abbey of Conques