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 .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 statue itself has since been moved to a small museum next to the cloisters for safekeeping.
The 5th-century statue of St. Foy, which contains her relics, is the only surviving example of the statue-reliquary that was common in the Middle Ages. The short seated statue is thought to be based on a pagan Roman model.
The statue-reliquary is completely covered in gold and wears golden robes and a crown encrusted with jewels and cameos, some dating from Greek and Roman times.
The face has a mild, almost blank expression. Inside the head is part of the saint's skull, which has been authenticated as genuine.
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." There are also more holy relics here: a golden reliquary contains the very arm of St. George with which he slew the dragon.
A couple of Euros to get in and well worth the visit.
The Sainte-Foy abbey-church in Conques was a popular stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, in what is now Spain. Its construction was begun on the foundations of a smaller earlier basilica, directed by the abbot Odolric (1031-1065) and completed around the year 1120. It was built in Romanesque style, using a warm-colored local limestone infilled with a local gray schist. The daringly large dome that originally covered the crossing later collapsed and was replaced in the 15th century.
The main draw for medieval pilgrims at Conques were the remains of Sainte Foy, a martyred young woman from the 4th century. Her name has been assimilated into the general conception of 'Holy Faith.' In the late 9th century, a monk from Conques allegedly stole these relics from a nearby monastery in order to draw travellers (and wealth) to Conques. The church that was eventually built had a double purpose: to accommodate the flock of pilgrims and at the same time to allow a community of monks to gather for the divine office seven times a day. Thus, Sainte-Foy has been designed like a pilgrimage shrine but also as an abbey-church. To serve the inhabitants of the town, a separate parish church was erected, dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury. This smaller church is no longer standing.
The Sainte-Foy abbey-church was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998, as part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.
The most famous thing about the church in Conques is the carvings above the door. The Pilgrims visiting would have been under no illusion as to the fate that would await them if they did not say their prayers and be good chrisitians.
On one side you can see the angels and heavens gate , in the centre Jesus Christ and on the other side devils and demons torturing the errant flock. There are some very creative ays of torment if you look hard enough!
The little, very old town of Conques (pop. 400) sits in the northern tip of Aveyron barely in the Midi-Pyrenees, far from anywhere, waiting for the occasional tourist, although it has the greatest Romanesque exhibits in France, the equal of any in the world. It is a little dilapidated, but authentic to the core. Of course its main attraction the Romanesque has never been "in", so if you visit you will have the 14C town to yourself (possibly enlivened by a group of visiting school children). You can wander by half-timbered houses and towers via cobble-stoned streets (the modern utilities have been hidden) and find an old "Humieres Castle" with mullioned windows and a corbelled roofline, see a Romanesque watering-hole ("fountain") and two town gates (Vinzelle and du Barry) each harboring a protective Madonna. Nearby are the difficult to explore town walls. All is nestled in the surrounding tall hills (mountains) and forest. If you go further out of town there is an old bridge.
Niches were created along the outer South wall of the nave where it was possible to put tombs and monuments. These have been despoiled over the centuries but the one that housed the tomb of Begon III is still identified for us. To the south of the church is the walled cemetery which makes a pretty view from the belvedere at Bancarel (See Off the Beaten Path Tip).
Build a better mouse trap and ... The quiet establishment of Conques can only grow. There was not even a place to stay in town back then, when we were there, but there are a few now and the idyllic location in Grand-Fabre (see Off the Beaten Path and Hotel Tips) where we stayed is still there. The liberality of Art gifts to the State and other institutions will continue as well. One had already occurred of 16-17C works associated with the church, housed in the Lapidary Museum which contains the excess beautiful capitals from the cloister and others of red stone removed in the reworking of the beginnings of the church. Most interesting are the tapestry set that the church bought in the 17C on Mary Magdalen, one of which is the story of the Saintes-Maries and Lazarus miraculously arriving in France to evangelize as celebrated near Aigues-Morts.
The Treasure is one of the two museums that are part of your Conques visit. The major items are housed with Ste.-Foy and carefull preserved and exhibited. The major pieces date from about 1100 AD although parts of them may be from earlier times (or have apocryphal provenances of earlier origins. They are all examples of early Romanesque goldsmith work. The earliest one is from about 1000 and called Pepin's shrine. The second with an alabaster center is called Ste.-Foy's (portable) Altar and has enamel work figures as well as gems. Parts of the third were presumably an award from Charlemagne, an "A" to Conques as his #1 abbey. The last two are reliquary and a monstrance of the same period. There are many more. The filigree work is excellent for thousand year old jewelry.
The famous miracle-working 10C reliquary-statue of the 12 year old saint sits in a special sealed glass chamber in subdued light at the end of a long museum room lined with other relics: the great treasures of Conques. (We are not good photographers and our pictures do not do justice to the phenomenon which is the statue, so we include a copy from a purchased source as well). The statue is made of two pieces of wood and is covered in hammered gold and silver sheet and dressed in fine materials from the 10C. It is studded from head to toe and beyond onto the throne with gemstones and carved intaglias; the cap is a veritable crown. It was created around 946 and is probably the first reliquary statue in Christendom. It has been scientifically "dissected" and restored (in 1955) and found to contain bone that is compatible with the story of the saint (12 year old female of about 400AD). The statue head is a small Roman bust of the 4C.
Most central areas of cloisters are green. Usually in an appropriate corner is a fountain or water fed basin for the monks' ablutions. A few cloisters substitute a central well. Some of these structures are quite elaborately done (as in Monreale,Sicily). The excavation of the destroyed cloister area at Conques revealed many surprises. There had been a large central pool of a select stone with a greenish cast. It had a large central bowl which could not be restored. It was supported by applied colonnettes and heads like atlantes but really corbels or modillons with daringly different faces. The courtyard was faced with flat gray stones. All has been restored as much as possible. It is not known how the pilgrims used the cloister or the pool. The significance of modillon figures is also not known. We believe that corbel blocks represented an opportunity for the apprentices to practice figurative carving. Contests were probably held with prizes for the most original. lewdest, etc. Afterwards some were trimmed off (like the transport projections on the drums of the Greek temples). As the quality and number increased they were inserted as functional brackets and other uses in more obscure sites. A developing sense of personal individuality made them more visible. Ultimately such work led to gargoyles as well. If you look at the bases of Romanesque columns (try the Baptistry at Pisa or Monreale cloister) you will see lizards, frogs and snakes carved in the rims; these are probably also training exercises, not trimmed off for unknown reasons.
One gallery and a short segment of the cloister have been restored after a fashion merely to indicate the space it occupied and to replace a part of its courtyard and magnificent central pool. It had double arched bays, similar to the bays in the gallery of the church, plus a central entry bay. The divisions of the bays are double colonnettes with carved capitals. This work is the result of recent excavations in this area, which also produced some 30 capitals from the cloister now in the lapidary museum attached. The pool is covered in a separate Tip. The gallery is against the old refectory which is now the lapidary museum.
Like all large churches, the church of Ste.-Foy was built in stages. It started at the choir-altar area and finished with the West front over the period 1031-1125. The rebirth of Western sculpture was occurring nearby at Moissac (under guidance from the church authorities from Toulouse). The stimulus was a desire to religiously educate the pilgrims on the Road to Compostela and Conques was an important stop just prior to Moissac and was in this sphere of influence. The production of capitals was the first effort and there are over 250 of them in the church and they are from the entire period of the church construction. They are high up and protected from weather and human destruction. Luckily the church was in an area where the Revolution did not devastate it, but it was slowly disintegrating from neglect without religious attention when Prosper Merimee discovered it in about 1840. Merimee was an enthusiastic amateur archeologist and famous author (one of his novellas was Carmen) who was appointed Inspector General of Historic Monuments by Napoleon III at the insistence of his wife Eugenie. He immediately recognized what a treasure Conques was and saved it! The earliest capitals are not historiated but decorative and the abaci are decorated more than the baskets. Later they are peopled with figures and then stories until the upper decorations disappear. The various stages of evolution may also employ different stone sources and the siting of the capitals in the church also puts them in different time frames. A definitive study has not been made. In the beginning, the artisans quickly perceived that the corners of the blocks (baskets) were easily worked into a three dimensional shape and corner figures came first. There are many figures in the galleries and one either needs a binoculars or go upstairs to see them
The Annunuciation may be the first great sculpture of the 12C. It predates the column statues of Chartres and the Eve of Autun. There are three "in the round figures" (we are sorry that our picture does not show the servant girl standing behind Mary). As would be expected the 5 figures are derived from columns but are not as stiff as most others that follow (the lateral ones are stiffer). The expression on Mary's face is most graceful. These probably were finished before 1115. The stonework here undoubtedly came from the same artisans working for Toulouse and Moissac, but these are of local stone. On the left of the group is placed Isaiah while John the Baptist is to the right. They are equipped with details that indicate their "prefiguration" status and identification (book, scrolls, flowering staff, camel-skin garment). At the choir area is a beautiful wrought iron screen partly made from or simulating the chains of prisoners freed by thee intercession of Ste.-Foy
The church is an excellent example of a Romanesque pilgrimage-monastery church. The nave is tall (22m) and 6 short bays in length with single square bay aisles on each side. The sanctuary is like an extension of the nave succeeded by a half-domed horseshoe choir that has tall columns. The aisles continue laterally and behind this as an ambulatory. The transepts are as wide as the church body (more room for the pilgrims) and their are 7 chapels to the east around the transepts and choir. At the crossing there is an octagonal dome under the tower. It is Gothic, replacing an earlier one which collapsed. Above the aisles are galleries with double arched openings into the nave. These are the buttressing for the tall nave and allows for good sized windows at this and the lower level. There is no clerestory. This refinement of the Romanesque is used in churches nearby and illustrates the desire for verticality in Romanesque building. The stone decoration is confined to the capitals (covered in a separate Tip)
There is a mystery to the tympanum. If you look carefully at the archivolts which are plain bands and focus on the outer band, you will see periodic excrescences. Examine these! A pair of binoculars or a zoo lens will help. What you will see are partial heads which are peering over the"rim" of the bands and holding on by their hands, which are emerging from the inner edge. Who are they and what do they signify. We have not found out who the "peerers" are why they are looking out at us. It will not be until Velasquez that an artist challenges his viewers in this manner. We do not recall ever seeing this again in our numerous travels and church-hopping.
Here the sculptor(s) let their imagination run wild. The sins illustrated are beyond our ken, so we will guess at the titles. This is something to try by yourself (a guide-book might help). There are a few that are obvious: Greed. Slander, etc. Many are being shoved into the mouth of the monster (Leviathan, near center lower level).