Charlemagne is credited with the founding of 20 abbeys in France, and the one at Conques was his favorite.
Situated in the Midi Pyrenees region of France, the abbey church of St. Foy in the center of the tiny village of Conques sits as if carved out of the mountains that are cut through by the Lot, Dourdou, and Ouche rivers. The church is the village and the village is the church.
Here, for nearly a thousand years, pilgrims have come for rest and refreshment on their way to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, still one of the great Catholic pilgrimage destinations. I visited this church in September, an artist on retreat, when the days were warm but dry, and the nights cool and crisp.
Conques is in the old province of Rouergue, now called the region of Aveyron. At the end of the eighth century, a Benedictine hermit named Dadon came here. He was soon followed by others, no doubt to his regret. An abbey was established and Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, founded a town around the abbey, calling it it Conques.
In 866 the relics of St. Foy, or St. Faith (Fides in Latin, Foi in French), were “translated,” or brought here (some then and now maintain in blunter language that they were stolen) from Agen. St. Foy was a young girl from Agen who was martyred under Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. The relic of her head is here in a reliquary that, over the centuries, has been covered with carved wood and metal and embellished with precious stones. (The treasury of the church has a very fine collection of medieval art.) Around 950 a Carolingian church was built to house the reliquary of St. Foy.
With the publication of Bernard of Angers’ The Book of Miracles of St. Foy in 1020, devotion to her spread rapidly throughout Christendom. Beginning in 1040 under Abbot Odolric and, after him, Etienne II, the great Romanesque church was built with the abundant local stones of schist, granite and limestone. With their muted gray-blues, roses and ochers, these add much visual appeal to this magnificent edifice. Later, under Abbot Boniface, the abbey itself, including a school, library, and scriptorium, was constructed. He also supervised the building of the western faÁade of the church and its remarkable tympanum of the Last Judgment.
In the 12th century, the abbey rivaled Cluny, but by the latter part of the Middle Ages the abbey was in decline. The ravages of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War—along with the smug, comfortable and corrupt life of the Benedictines—discouraged the pilgrims. In the early 1500s, the bishop of Rodez tried to reform the abbey but, when he visited, the monks attacked him. Finally in 1537, Pope Paul III banished the Benedictines and replaced them with canons regular. Christendom was soon embroiled in theological discord with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
The wars of religion were fierce in this part of the Massif Central of southern France. The Calvinists attacked and burned the church and the abbey. Then, in 1789, the French Revolution, heralding the Enlightenment, suppressed all the religious orders, including the canons, and turned the church of St. Foy into a “Temple of Reason.” The villagers outwitted the pillagers, however, by taking the relics and treasures and hiding them in their homes and in the chestnut trees in the forests.
After the Reign of Terror, the church was returned to the canons; there was virtually nothing left of the abbey itself. Then, on a visit in 1833, Prosper Mirimee, the great French writer who was also inspector-general for historical remains in France, was horrified to see the decrepit condition of St. Foy, which he considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in France. Finding the abbey beyond repair, he set about supervising the restoration of the church.
It is thanks to him that we have today's St. Foy—a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for the “benefit of humanity.”
In 1873, the Norbertine monks were entrusted with the care of the church. Today they continue to serve the church and offer hospitality to the scores of pilgrims and hordes of tourists who visit each day.
The church is designed for pilgrims. There is a semi-circular ambulatory with seven chapels around the choir and the altar. The transept is wide and long; the compact building, situated on the side of the mountain, is similar in design to the much-larger St. Sernin church in Toulouse. The design purposely and sympathetically allows and encourages calmness and serenity.
There are 250 capitals and several statues, intricately carved, depicting the life of St. Foy and her condemnation under Diocletian. Here also are depicted, in similarly striking fashion, Isaiah, St. Matthew, St. John the Baptist and the Annunciation, along with Roland, who fought under Charlemagne, plus monsters and animals, musical instruments, birds and flowers.
The church's greatest sculpture, created by the same artisan who worked on the sculpture at the cathedral of Santiago de Compestela, is the tympanum above the portal of the west faÁade of the church. The sculpture depicts the Last Judgment; Christ is in the center with his right hand pointing upward to the saved and his left hand downward toward the damned.
There are 124 figures in the tympanum, most in a remarkable state of preservation. The work is 11 feet high and 20 feet long. Above Christ two angels hold up the cross. To his right is Mary leading St. Peter, bearing the keys of the kingdom, and other saints. To Peter's left are the souls consigned to hell, in great misery and contortions: the greedy and the proud, including monks and kings. Leviathan with his mouth wide open awaits them.
From here, upon entering the church I was struck by the light, comforting and assuring. It was as if I had arrived home after surviving a dark ordeal. This marvelous effect is due in large part to the windows created by the celebrated French artist Pierre Soulanges. In 1987, after having refused several other public commissions, he accepted the request of the French minister of culture to create 106 new windows for the church to replace the banal and pedestrian stained-glass windows of the 1940s. In accepting the commission, Soulanges noted that it was on his first visit to St. Foy, at age 14, that he had vowed to dedicate his life to art.
For eight years he worked with Jean-Dominique Fleury and Eric Savalli, experimenting with many different materials. He decided no color would be in the glass; he wanted to preserve and enhance the power of the design of the church before glass was used. He finally decided on an opalescent glass that is translucent but not transparent—a soft light filters through like a vapor, kissing the stones.
The Norbertine monks maintain a hostel for about 50 pilgrims; tourists and pilgrims alike join in the Liturgy of the Hours, which is chanted four times a day. Mass is at 8 am week-days and at 11 on Sundays. The two Sundays I was there, the church was full. Night prayer is at 8:30 p.m. After the prayer, the monks offer a special prayer for the pilgrims. A hymn is sung recalling Charlemagne and the nearly 1,000 years of the pilgrimage, and then a small loaf of bread is presented to each of the pilgrims. All then walk over to the north transept, where on the wall above is an exquisitely carved statue of the Virgin Mary. The Salve Regina is chanted. The faith of the assembly is palpable.
After night prayer, one of the monks plays either the organ or piano while people linger to pray or meditate. Some nights there are escorted visits to the tribunes, from which the capitals are visible.
Although all are finely carved, the guide explained that the less intricate designs on some indicated those periods when the artisans weren't getting paid on time.
At St. Foy the past becomes present, and the future is now. For the pilgrim, for the seeker—for an artist on retreat like myself—this stop was not just a glimpse of eternity, but a moment in it.
Geoffrey Gneuhs writes from New York City.