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Conques - a very special place

Sainte Foy (Santa Fe) - a child martyr from Agen

 

Link to photo page on the detail of the famous Last Judgement tympanum of the Cathédrale Ste-Foy, Conques

 

Link to Cathédrale Church of Ste-Foy

 

Link to Maps of the Pilgrimage Roads of France

 

Back to from Aubrac to the River Lot and Conques

 

 

 

 

 

The magic little town of Conques lies on the steep side of the Dordou valley which is just south of the valley of the River Lot.  The name "Conques" derives from the lay of the land - like a conca or shell.

 

Christian occupation of Conques can be traced back to the 600s, when a hermit called Dadon (maybe) established himself there.  Later he was joined by one Medraldus and others and, in a similar fashion to San Benoît at Subiaco in Italy and San Millán at Suso in northern Spain, a successful and expanding monastic community evolved. 

 

Unlike those of Benedetto and Millán, the Conques monastic community did not produce any great intellectual outputs, but took off in a much more worldly direction, aided by the Carolignian Emperor Louis the Pious, who made no less than ten significant land donations to their estates.  With their appetites whetted for material goodies, it became clear to the monks that royal patronage alone was not sufficient to guarantee their future prosperity.  They needed a significantly better brand to keep the moolah rolling in.  Which was where the girl martyr Ste-Foy (in Spanish Santa Fe) came in.

 

Foy was born around 290 to a noble family who lived in Agen.  She became a Christian, not a healthy idea with a nasty called Dacien as the regional Roman governor, and she was still only in her early teens when she was betrayed to the Roman authorities.   She was  executed, after refusing to recant her beliefs, on the 6th October 303 at the age of 13.  The tradition is further embellished by the details of the first attempt to execute her - by roasting on a griddle Laurence style - when the Good Lord arranged a downpour to put the flames out.  So Dacien fell back on  the tried technique of beheading-by-sword. 

 

Only ten years later, the Edict of Milan in 313 gave Christians freedom of worship - the ability to assemble publicly,  build churches and collectively own assets.

 

Two hundred years later, Foy's remains were placed in a newly built basilica on the site of her martyrdom in Agen.  350 years after that (in 866 to be precise), they were stolen by monks from Conques in an act now known as a "discreet transfer".

 

Ignoring the ethical implications (which everyone seemed and seems happy to do) the act was a great success and led to three hundred years of uninterrupted growth for the rebranded St-Foy / Conques. 

 

By the 1000s, Santiago de Compostela was becoming an ever more important pilgrimage destination, and Conques slipped naturally into the role of an important early staging post on the via Podensis, which started in Le Puy-en-Velay, as well as being a spiritually moving and attractive place in its own right.

 

The last half of the 1000s and the early 1100s were the Abbey's years in the sun, and during this time Abbot Bégon III (Abbot 1087 - 1107) oversaw the construction of the present Romanesque abbey church, cloister (now gone) and many monastic buildings (mostly now gone).  Dependant priories were set up in places as far apart as Piemonte, England and Spain, and the pervasiveness of the name "Santa Fe" is self evident.

 

 

Today there is a feeling of great peace (as long as you pick a tourist free period) walking down the street of half timbered houses to the old abbey church, which is now the Cathédrale Ste-Foy (on the left below below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The famous Last Judgement tympanum of the Cathédrale Ste-Foy dates from the early 1100s.  It has a cast of 124 figures, and was originally brightly painted.

 

Link to lots more photos of the detail (and more peepers) of the Last Judgement tympanum of the Cathédrale Ste-Foy, Conques

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link to Cathédrale Church of Ste-Foy and its Capitals

 

The narrowness of the nave is down to its barrel vaulted roof design - which places it among the earliest of large European churches.  As cross vaulting and pointed arches evolved and Romanesque morphed into Gothic, much heavier (and wider) roof structures could be supported. 

 

 

 

 

On the west side of the old cloister area, this is a descendant of the old monk's refectory.  Inside today are some delightful workshopping students from l'École Boulle, Paris - École d'Arts Appliqués.   In the middle of the cloister area to the right is a large drum shaped Romanesque water feature or maybe well.  Just under the rim are a series of carved heads - something to look at next time now we know they are there! 

 

The treasury is housed in the old refectory which is just behind the camera position above.

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

Relief over the tomb (enfeu) of Abbot Bégon III (Abbot 1087 - 1107), who was in charge during the Abbey's days in the sun at the end of the 1000s.   The relief shows Christ flanked by Foy and Bégon and a brace of angels.  An enfeu is a wall tomb, and in this case the wall was an external one on the south side, hence the dignified weathering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The north east corner of what was reputedly one of the great cloisters of France.  A bit further on is the pilgrim hostel, situated next to the east end of the abbey church.

 

There are dozens of carved roof corbels at the east end which bypassed our camera lenses, and would be particularly attractive in the morning sun from an upper window in the pilgrims' hostel.

 

 

 

 

The famous and arresting gold reliquary statue of Ste-Foy (life sized), dates from around 900 and Foy's  blue eyes used to stare into the eyes of the pilgrims from her original position at the head of the abbey church's choir.  The saint's relics were recessed into a hollow space at the back of the figure.

 

The statue's body is built up on a roughly carved yew tree wood base, with gold leaf and jewellery added bit by bit over the years.  The head looks more like that of a man, and it was ascertained in the 1950s that it is in fact a completely separate hollow metal structure which is much older than the body - possible even the head of an emperor of the later Roman Empire.

 

To stand in front of her in the Cathedral Museum is indeed a very special experience, especially knowing that she is the only major shrine celebrity to survive the 100 Years' War (1337 - 1453), the Wars of Religion (1562 - 1598) and the Revolution (1789 et seq).

 

The museum also has some beautiful and very old reliquary chasses, and a piece of the arm of St George (the one used to slay the dragon).

 

 

 

 

 

 

As luck would have it, our visit took place on the 4th October 2007, and as we were staying sort of close by we decided to brave the crowds and join in the 8.30 pm procession aux flambeaux on the 6th.  In the event, driving rain descended on the region in the mid afternoon and showed no sign of letting up, so instead, after some fortifying Aligot, we got to know the local wine whilst watching Australia (first bottle) then New Zealand (second bottle) get knocked out of the Rugby World cup.

 

 

Postcard Photo

 

 

 

Link to Editions Sud-Ouest and this book (and an English guide book they publish)

 

 

Link to Conques web site

 

Link to Sacred Destinations page on Conques

 

Link to Wikipedia page on Conques

 

 

Link to photo page on the Last Judgement tympanum of the Cathédrale Ste-Foy, Conques

 

Link to Cathédrale Church of Ste-Foy

 

 

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