Conques Tympanum:

Description and interpretation of the first judgement tympanum by Pierre Seguret

The common sense classifies Conques’ Romanesque tympanum (Aveyron, France) among Last Judgements. Most of reporters and visitors see hell and paradise. It seems obvious. It’s easy and comfortable. Fore ones it’s funny, for others it’s efficient. Ones laugh at medieval beliefs, others hope to worry minds. Almost all of them agree to take it down to misleading appearances and are satisfied with a too quick glance. However, reality is more subtle and complex. Just a closer look reveals signs leading to nuance the interpretation or change the common understanding. This tympanum deserves a more detailed analysis. It’s worth it. You will discover a large panel of images and symbols, a consistent message, strongly hopeful and charitable, based on Holy Scriptures and early twelfth century theological reflection. A whole system based upon mercy and Salvation.

Is it really Hell that we see represented on the left hand of the Lord?
Is damnation final and will the inflicted tortures last for eternity?
A good look at the historical scenes reveals that the scenes presented do not quite show the Paradise / Hell alternative that would result from a final sentence: sure, there are ugly and grimacing devils (see illustration), but none of the damned seems to suffer from the torments imposed on them. No sinner's face is contorted with pain, no snarl suggests the slightest trace of human suffering (see illustration). We can see the flames, but they do not seem to burn ... (See illustration)
On the contrary, all the humans represented in (what many believe to be) Hell, show faces that are impassive, insensitive, inert and even sometimes serene. Some even, we shall see, escape from it! What use would the Virgin Mary’s intercession be – an intercession clearly represented by the gesture of her joined hands- unless it is to release the damned? (See illustration)
Quite a strange hell where the damned are insensitive to torture and of which they could get out! Faced with this hiatus, one remains perplexe.

General overview of the tympanum

However, it is really a trial, with its balance, but if it is not the Last Judgement*, what judgement is it indeed?
And if this is not hell, what is this place where the fearless souls we see are tormented by demons? And how should we call it?

The answer is written on the tympanum "[H] sic sunt omnes perversi in Tartara mersi": all perverted ones are submerged in Tartarus *

What is actually Tartarus?
For the religious minds of this first third of the twelfth century (1130-1140) it is simply the place where the dead are awaiting the Last Judgement. It looks like Sheol. But, we will show that the tympanum of Conques is an amazing foreshadowing of what will soon be called Purgatory, a concept formalized during the Council of Lyon in 1275.

The weighing of a soul in her Individual Judgement : the scale beam tips to the angelical side.

The scene represented on the tympanum of Conques happens precisely at the moment of Christ's return to earth at the end of time, what theologians call the Parousia*
According to Scriptures, the Messiah must return to "judge the living and the dead" in the Last Judgement*. The tympanum depicts the moment before the trial: it is announced, it is imminent but not yet delivered. All actors are in their place. What will the verdict be? Damnation or Grace*?

One hundred and twelve characters, men, women, angels and demons, one hundred and three inscriptions in a striking face to face with the spectator, depict a liturgical drama whose issue is no less than human destiny: life or death for eternity.

Here we would like to get away from the simplistic, sometimes incorrect or even absurd projections that contemporary society has applied to the tympanum since the nineteenth century, to offer an interpretation which of course is original, but enlightened by the works of medievalists and the writings of medieval theologians, and above all, one which is likely to reflect as closely as possible the monastic thought that presided over the edification of this masterpiece.

From this point of view, the general theme of the tympanum of the abbey church dedicated to Saint Savior (1) naturally becomes one of salvation*, especially salvation* by faith, ie the redemption granted by a merciful Christ to all those who believed in Him.

We shall show that the scenes describe the steps of a real "history" of Salvation, from the biblical times to the most recent actuality of the early twelfth century.
This story is framed in a political context, a Catholic doctrine and monastic mentality which this site will try to enlighten.
But, Parousia, the Second Coming, being -according to St. Irenaeus- an "eternal present", doesn’t the tympanum also somehow refer to the present time? On his return to earth, doesn’t the Messiah find the world in its current state? And can we not recognize ourselves in this stone fresco, as we are, here and now?

It is to this pioneer reading of Conques tympanum that Pierre Séguret, the author of this site, invites you.

To interpret the tympanum, according to the leading thread of the Salvation thesis, we propose to follow a reading organized in nine chapters (2) that will help identify the characters, to decipher the symbols and analyze both graphics and gestures. A summary is offered in the form of animated slideshows (french version).

After the inventory, the portal of the abbey of Conques will appear as the best "exemplum" of the "Romanesque Renaissance" (3) of the twelfth century; through the magic of the chisel, it makes visible the invisible, but efficient, Grace* of Christ.
Read more

* NB The words marked with an asterisk are defined in the glossary.

Chapter 1: General structure

Technical Recommendation: many illustrations on this site are dynamic: placing the mouse over them allows you to view the important details (Active technology X). If you use Internet Explorer, you may have to allow Active controls in order to enable these effects. Just click on the yellow information bar (it appears either at the top of the browser window or at the bottom, depending on the versions). No problem if you use Mozilla Firefox.

(1)This first dedication to Saint Savior was very common in the primitive times of the Church in Gaul. In the ninth century a second dedication will be awarded to Saint Faith. (go back)

(2) HELP TO NAVIGATION: the sequence of the ten proposed chapters is based on a logical arrangement that provides an important element of understanding of the tympanum at Conques. We urge you to follow the eleven main pages on this site in order. Many additional pages revolve around them (see site map). The set is a dense body of some sixty pages which will certainly offer the demanding user something to think about. But this reading will take time. That’s why an animation in the form of slide shows is provided under the rubric "guided tour". Buffs will find under "Tools" a series of tools to enhance the discovery of the tympanum, further reflection on its analysis, promote research and facilitate navigation within the site. (go back)

(3) Romanesque Renaissance
The Romanesque civilization unfolds and evolves over several centuries, from the Carolingian period to the twelfth century. After covering the West with a "white mantle of churches" and brought forth the Gregorian reform, it peaked in the early twelfth century, just after the First Crusade. From the cultural point of view it is characterized by an illustration of "Fin Amor", courtly love of the Occitan troubadours who invent the "Courts of Love," and from the religious point of view by a flowering of great religious orders (order Grandmont founded in the late eleventh century; Carthusians founded by St. Bruno monks in 1084; Cistercian abbey founded in 1098 by Robert de Molesmes; Cistercian reform and foundation of the Templar order by St. Bernard of Clairvaux; Fontevrault Abbey founded in 1101 by Robert of Arbrissel; Premonstratensian order founded in 1120 by St. Norbert of Xanten, not to mention the order of the Canons founded by Hugh of St.-Victor, etc.)... This monastic refoundation is accompanied by a renewal of theology. It is precisely to Hugh of St.-Victor, the great theologian of the twelfth century that we owe the foundation of what will be called "Romanesque Renaissance". Art, especially sculpture, will be its main landmarks; among them the tympanum at Conques is an exemplary jewel, both for its aesthetic innovation as for its prefiguration of Purgatory under the antic title of Tartarus. (go back)

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