High in the hills of southern France, the picturesque little village of Conques (pronounced "conk" and named for the shell-shaped lay of the land) is home to a magnificent Romanesque church and the only medieval shrine on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela that still survives intact.
Thanks to its possession of the relics of a virgin martyr, the Romanesque Abbey of St. Foy in Conques was an important stop on the medieval pilgrimage route and received rich gifts from pilgrims and kings.
History of Conques Abbey
The abbey at Conques was founded in 819 AD, when the forested area was uninhabited and provided isolation for prayer and meditation. The spot was chosen by a hermit named Dadon, who later founded a community of Benedictine monks.
In the same year the abbey was founded, the relics of St. James were discovered at Compostela in Spain. Streams of pilgrims soon began to make their way to the shrine. The pilgrimage routes passed through smaller shrines along the way, which soon became rich from pilgrim gifts and religious tourism. For the monks at Conques, the lure of fame and riches soon proved too much to bear, and they conspired to steal some relics to attract pilgrims.
In 866, a Conques monk was dispatched to join a monastery in Agen, which had the relics of St. Foy, a virgin martyred in 303 AD under Diocletian. The saint was known for her ability to cure blindness and free captives, and her statue-reliquary attracted many pilgrims.
The Conques brother acted as a faithful monk for 10 years at Agen until he was able to steal the relics, which he brought back to Conques. The saint's mortal remains were placed inside a golden reliquary-statue (shown at left) by the end of the 9th century. And just as they had hoped, the pilgrim road shifted from Agen to Conques.
The Conques monastery soon prospered. Pilgrims left jewels to be added to the saint's statue and the best goldsmiths competed to create ornaments and containers for the relics. Pepin and Charlemagne both sent golden treasures.
By the 11th century, it became necessary to build a larger church to accommodate the hundreds of pilgrims that flowed through the town. Construction of the new Church of St. Foy was directed by Abbot Odolric (1031-1065) and completed around the year 1120.
The church was restored in the 19th century under the direction of Prosper Merimée, the first Inspector of Historical Monuments. Today, the church with its ancient relics still attracts pilgrims.
What to See at Conques Abbey
The tiny village of Conques occupies a spectacular position high on the steep, wooded gorge of the River Dourdou, a small tributary of the Lot. It is highly picturesque and peaceful — the Rough Guide to France calls it "one of the great villages of southwest France."
Parts of the medieval walls still survive, along with three of its gates. The houses date from the late Middle Ages and are divided by cobbled lanes and stairways that are a pleasure to wander.
The Abbey Church of St. Foy stands at the center of the village, dominating the landscape, but harmoniously so — its great pointed towers are echoed in the roofs of the medieval houses that huddle closely around it. The fortress-like facade overlooks a small cobbled square beside the tourist office and pilgrims' fountain and is surrounded by terraced gardens.
On the outside, the most notable feature of the otherwise plain church is a large Romanesque carving of the Last Judgment in the tympanum over the main doors. It was sculpted between 1107 and 1125, under Abbot Boniface. The scene is full of activity, expression and detail, and some of the original colored paint still remains. Many of the figures are contemporary historical persons, including specific abbots, bishops and kings - several of whom appear among the damned!
Christ in Majesty presides over the scene in the center, while the Archangel Michael and a demon weigh the souls of the dead on scales at his feet. A procession of saints and historical figures - including a Conques abbot and Emperor Charlemagne - move in procession on the left. On the right is a group of four angels and some creative punishments of the damned. Above Christ's head, angels hold banners with inscriptions reflecting a passage from Matthew:
On the bottom level, Heaven and Hell are depicted as roofed buildings, each with an entrance door. On the right side of the scene, the damned are forcibly pushed into the Jaws of Hell. The tortures of Hell are shown in great detail and include some characters disliked by the monks: a bishop who governed the area is caught in a net; poachers on abbey property are roasted by the rabbit they had caught.
On the left are the righteous, portrayed less vividly but still in impressive detail. The chosen ones are being welcomed by angels, who lead them gently by the hand to an ornate door. On the other side of the door Heaven is shown as a city, representing the ideas of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the center is Abraham, who embraces two saved souls. He is flanked by prophets on the right and saints on the left, each represented by pairs of men and women.
Weaving throughout the composition is a Latin inscription, which echoes the visual lessons of the tympanum. It reads:
Inside, the church is attractive but rather bare except for the 212 columns in the cloisters, which are topped with charming Romanesque capitals. These depict palm leaves, flowers, scenes from the life of St. Foy, birds, monsters and various symbols.
The only modern addition in the church is a stained-glass window of the only saint to live at the monastery, St. George of Conques, a simple monk renowned for his holiness.
The relics of St. Foy were originally displayed in a shrine in the choir, encircled by a fine wrought-iron screen protecting it from thieves (something the unfortunate Agen monastery may have found helpful!). The screen was made from the melted-down fetters of pilgrims who had been freed from captivity in Muslim-occupied Spain thanks to the intercession of St. Foy.
The revered statue is now protected in a museum next to the cloisters for safekeeping (see below) but she is carried to the altar in procession every year on her feast day (October 6).
Most of the abbey's cloisters have disappeared, but a few arches can still be seen 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, which was rebuilt from original parts as part of a renovation of the cloisters. It is decorated with with small atlas figures and other faces.
The gallery on the west side of the courtyard contains some fascinating Romanesque capitals, which were commissioned by Abbot Bégon III (1087-1107). Subjects of the capitals include knights in battle, horn-blowers, and an Annunciation. An especially charming capital depicts the site's construction workers leaning out over an unfinished tower, holding the tools of their trade.
The west gallery of the cloisters is home to the small treasury museum, which has an admission fee. The 9th-century statue of St. Foy, which contains her relics, is the star attraction and a remarkable sight indeed. It is the only surviving example of the statue-reliquary shrine that was common in the Middle Ages, and the oldest surviving statue in western Christianity.
The seated figure is rather masculine in appearance for a young female saint - in fact, the head seems to have been reused from a statue of a Roman emperor. The face has a mild, almost blank expression but the eyes are piercing. Relics of the saint's skull are enshrined in the back of the statue.
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.
Also in the treasury are over 20 golden art masterpieces, including a 9th-century chest donated by King Pepin and the golden letter "A" from Charlemagne. It is said that Charlemagne had 24 golden letters made for 24 monasteries throughout his kingdom, and he liked Conques so much that it received the "A." Be sure to press the rotate buttons for a view of all sides!
The medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela that passed through Conques (called the Via Podensis) began in Le Puy in eastern France and proceeded west through difficult, mountainous terrain before arriving in the hillside village. (The floor of the church slopes towards the door to make it easier to wash away the mud tracked in by tired pilgrim feet.)
Pilgrims coming from Le Puy and Estaing entered Conques on rue Haute. In the abbey church, pilgrims circled the shrine of St. Foythree times then stopped in front of the golden reliquary-statue to ask the saint for a safe journey to Santiago, which might take them up to a year of dangerous travel.
Writing in 1010, a clergyman named Bernard d'Angers recorded the scene:
After visiting the shrine of St. Foy and resting, the Santiago pilgrims moved on to Figeac and Cahors through the Porte de la Vinzelle. The shrine of St. Foy in Conques is the only medieval shrine on the pilgrimage routes to Spain that survived both the Wars of Religion (1562-98) and the French Revolution (18th century).
Public transportation: Conques is not terribly easy to visit if you don't have your own car. The only public transport to the village is a seasonal bus that runs up the Tarn valley from Entreaygues via Vieillevie and as far as St. Geniez d'Olt. It makes one run in each direction per day, leaving enough time to visit Conques in between. The bus runs on Mondays in June and September and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in July and August.
Pilgrims and other walkers can use sections of the GR65 and GR62 paths, both of which pass through the village.
Quick Facts on Conques Abbey
|Names:||Abbatiale Sainte-Foy · Abbaye de Sainte-Foy · Abbaye de Ste-Foy · Conques Abbey|
|Categories:||churches; monasteries; abbeys; scenic settings; forest settings; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||44.599242° N, 2.398131° E|
|Phone:||0820 820 803 (Conques tourist office)|
|Hours:||Church: open daily|
Treasury museum: Apr-Sep: daily 9:30-12:30, 2-6:30; Oct-Mar: daily 9:30-12:30, 2-6
|Lodging:||View hotels near Conques Abbey|
- Personal visit (July 7, 2008).
- Emmanuelle Jeannin, Conques (June 2004; reprinted June 2008).
- Jean-Régis Harmel (abbey prior), trans. John O'Callaghan, The Tympanum of Conques in Detail (1998).
- Norbert C. Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places (Oxford University Press, 1998), 51-53.
- Rough Guide France 9 (April 2005), 956-57.
- Conques.fr - official website of the town
- Diocese of Rodez - Catholic Encyclopedia (1912).
- Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Conques, l'abbaye Ste-Foy et son tresor - French Ministry of Culture
- Patrick Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978).
- Rob Neillands, The Road to Compostela (Ashbourne: Moorland, 1985).
- Pamela Sheingorn, ed., The Book of Sainte-Foy (Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania, 1995).
- Photos of Conques Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Conques Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Conques Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.