Conques, one thousand years old and still inspiring – Meanderings through France n° 117
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
What could have possibly made Benedictine monks decide to build an abbey in such a difficult to reach and remote place while intending to welcome thousands of pilgrims? Why build a huge church on such a steep hillside? Walking through the small streets of this charming medieval village one may wonder about their motivations. If faith can move mountains, it seems that, in Conques, it allowed them to build a mountain of stone!
Today we can easily drive to Conques going up and down winding roads and discover this picturesque area where deep gorges have been dug by two rivers, the Lot and the Dourdou, and where dark chestnut groves are the only possible culture. Conques is a preserved village where little has change through the centuries. Nearing the village you will see it the same way as the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela did ages ago. The tall silhouette of the abbey church still stands like a lighthouse set in the middle of an ocean of trees with its stone walls taking a golden shade under the sun light.
Conques is a pedestrian-only village, so leave your car in one of the large car parks opened at its entrance and start your journey back in time. The medieval ramparts, fortified gateways and towers are still there, as well as the many fountains, the ancient bread oven, the houses specifically built to dry chestnuts, roman and Renaissance chapels, the small workshops, the “Humières” castle, the convent and the monastery guesthouse that still welcomes pilgrims. Built with diverse material such as blue schist, red sand stone, bronze limestone and slate roofs, they all have been miraculously preserved and spared from any stupid restoration.
Strolling along the cobbled streets you will irresistibly be drawn by the church. The Ste Foy abbey church is a gem of Roman architecture. The pediment tympanum is a rare description of the Last Judgement sculpted in the 12th century and depicts in an explicit way the sad fate of the poor damned on one side and the joys of eternal life in heaven on the other. In the middle souls are weighed in order to assess the weigh of their sins, and if you watch carefully you will see the Devil trying to tilt the balance in his favour! Originally painted in bright colours it must have been a vivid and terrible lesson given to our ancestors’ simple minds. An unknown medieval sculptor made these 29 scenes and 124 characters and his work still is often shown in example in history of art books.
Going into the church is entering a space of light. Its sober arches are impressively high but beautifully emphasized by the light going through the stained-glass windows created by Pierre Soulages from 1987 and 1994. Pierre Soulages is worldwide famous for his paintings, especially his “Outrenoir” (Ultrablack). He was born in another town of Aveyron, Rodez, but he says that his artistic vocation was born in Conques when he was only 14 years old. It took him seven years with the help of a master glazier, Jean-Dominique Fleury, to invent the unique translucent glass that gives Soulages’ stained-glass windows their incredible iridescent quality. The glass colours and the light getting into the church always change according to seasons or time of day. You may go to Ste Foy Church as many times as you like, it will never be exactly the same thanks to this unique illumination.
Unlike many churches the galleries of Conques’ abbey are open to the public giving a close access to the capitals sculpted on top of the high arches. Guided tours in English are organised every day and you will thus discover many examples of the medieval artists’ skill. Knights battles, griffins, eagles, a mermaid, a miser, horn blowers, prophets, chiselled plants, the Annunciation… religious and secular scenes follow one another and once again we are amazed by the know-how of these ancient sculptors.
In the former monk’s refectory you can see the Abbey’s Treasury, a true jewel of Conques’ heritage. Built up along the centuries with the donations of pilgrims and penitents, it is today the largest collection of French religious reliquaries and liturgical objects. The masterpiece of the Treasury undoubtedly is the extraordinary Ste Foy Reliquary covered with gold, precious stones, cameos and intaglios. Medieval and renaissance gold and silver crosses, reliquaries, statues, chalices… complete this unique collection. Some of them are still used during religious ceremonies. The Ste Foy Reliquary is carried by four men, through Conques’ streets every year in October for the feast of Ste Foy, a young Christian girl martyred in 303.
Conques is an amazingly well preserved village listed “Most Beautiful Village in France” and is worth going the winding roads of Aveyron to reach it. Aveyron department where you can also visit nine other “Most Beautiful Villages in France” is located at the foot of the Massif Central and can rightfully be proud of this unique heritage.
More information: http://www.tourisme-conques.fr/en/index.php
More about beautiful Aveyron: http://www.tourisme-aveyron.com/index_en.php
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny