We need to delve a little deeper into the analysis of the Conques tympanum to go beyond the initial meaning of the images.
Indeed, to completely decipher this “Stone Bible”, it is necessary to undertake a sort of exegesis (i.e. explanation of the biblical texts).
The grid that we offer reveals among the Rouergat Benedictines the perfect mastery of the scholastic rhetoric of the Romanesque Renaissance.
Conques reveals their astonishing virtuosity in translating this methodology infused in monastic schools into statuary iconography. In this tympanum, they enjoy juggling the four senses of scripture.

These four levels of interpretation have been known for a very long time: this method of hermeneutic analysis dates back to the Judaic tradition and spread at the beginning of the Christian era among Greek philosophers like Philo of Alexandria then among the Fathers of the Church like Origen. It was very popular among theologians and exegetes of the 12th century, notably among Hugh of Saint Victor, nicknamed the “Second Saint Augustine”. In the 20th century, it was brought back into the spotlight by the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac.(1)

To present this intricacy of four levels of interpretation, we will take a first easy example, that of the Myrrhbearers.
These "Holy Women" are the four women placed under the last two arches of the heavenly Jerusalem.
They are of course veiled. But, surprisingly, they are also crowned, a sign of the celestial crowning of holiness. Unlike the patriarchs of the Old Testament, they stand, ready to set out too.

 Les Saintes Femmes

They are identifiable by the objects they carry: a vial of perfume, a pot of ointment, lamps and a book. So, they are called the myrrhbearers.These women went to the tomb on Easter morning. (2) With remarkable skill, the sculptor combines here in graphic expression the four semantic dimensions. Here are the four main principles


The first level is of course that of the literal meaning, subject in the literal sense, the story in its first degree. The figure strictly reproduces what the artist wants to mean.
These myrrhbearers women carry perfumes and aromatics intended to embalm the body.
Their lamps are lit because daylight had not yet dawned: “it was still dark.”
(John: 20, 1)

The second meaning is the figurative, symbolic meaning which often reveals the moral meaning (tropological meaning).
The image also says something other than what it shows: here, in a figurative sense, the lamps which illuminate the scene are associated with light, vigilance, waking and clairvoyance.

The third meaning is that of allegory. The image calls for another and functions as an echo, an analogical comparison, a metaphor highlighting the play of correspondences and prefigures. It is a sort of symphony concertante between old and new Testaments.
Here the lit oil lamps refer to the five Wise Virgins waiting for the bridegroom equipped with lamps and reserves of oil (See Parable of the Ten Virgins, Mt. 25: 1-13) but also to the miracle of the vial of oil which was used to light the menorah of the
second temple desecrated during the Maccabean revolt at the origin of the Hanukkah festival (cf. Babylonian Talmud).

Les femmes myrophores
The myrrhbearers

The fourth degree of interpretation is the spiritual, mystical sense. (anagogic meaning: that of the elevation of the soul) (3)

It is the deepest, that of the mysteries of the Beyond. It is often discreet but always essential and powerful.

It is suggested here by two symbols.
First of all, the presence of an open book. It is of course the Gospel, (from greek εὐαγγέλιον / euangélion meaning the Good News, called in latin bona annuntiatio and in french "La Bonne Nouvelle") (4), i.e. the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene is the first witness and Jesus sends her on a mission to witness. He invests her as "Apostle of the apostles".


La Bonne Nouvelle révélée à Marie de Magdala
The "Bonne Nouvelle"  (good news) of the Resurrection revealed to Mary of Magdala

A second sign illuminates the mystical meaning: it is the sun between the two arcades. It obviously symbolizes the Resurrection, the New Day of the Mystery of Easter. It is a rising sun, still pale and without rays, as at the hour when Christ appeared to Mary of Magdala. (5)


Le soleil pascal 
The rising sun of Easter Sunday Morning

This sun bears the remains of a chrism painted inside the disc, this confirms it symbolizes the resurrection of Christ whose monogram it bears.(6)

The chrism inscribed inside the paschal sun. (Drag the juxtaposition slider to move from the current state to its reconstruction)

Inside the sun, stones separated by joints are engraved.

They symbolize the stones of the temple of Jerusalem (literal meaning), erven the stones of God's house (figurative meaning). But above all, they symbolize the New Alliance, the New Church rebuilt according to the Prophecy “in three days”.
It is by extension the whole Christian ecclesial institution founded by Simon Peter (Kephas) (Matthew 16:18).



Les pierres de la nouvelle église
The stones of the New Church inside the solar disk
Some signs go almost unnoticed or remain secret. This is the case of the twin pillar between the two arches: would it be about reaching the perfect number of seven pillars of Wisdom for the entire arcature?
Le pilier double
The twin pilar

It is obvious that to fully understand the meaning of images, we must combine these 4 levels of interpretation.
Let us take another example, a little more complex, that of the spandrel of Saint Faith which constitutes an extremely important element of the tympanum of Conques.
With great ingenuity, the master of the tympanum here combines these four senses in a graphic expression of rare semiological density.

Ecoinçon de sainte Foy
The spandrel of Saint Faith

In the literal sense, the little girl prostrated before the hand of God represents the 13-year-old girl martyred in the year 303 by Dacien, prefect of Agen, for remaining faithful to her faith. She is Sancta Fides (latin), sainte Foy (french), Santa Fe (occitan language) to whom the basilica of Conques is dedicated (basilique Sainte-foy).
The hanging irons are the votive offerings of released prisoners, one of the specialties of Saint Foy, as recounted in her Book of Miracles.
The three arches and the altar represent the abbey of Conques itself.
The chalice evokes the Eucharists celebrated there.

The figurative meaning is obvious and the message is clear: faith saves!
As her name suggests, the little girl symbolizes faith.

The miraculous release of captives is obtained through the invocation of the saint.
Concretely, part of the offerings paid by the pilgrims was used to pay the ransoms of the prisoners to obtain their release. (7) They believed in her and their faith saved them.
The arches represent the universal Church which works for the Salvation of the World.

The ciborium materializes the Blessed Sacrament: the body of Christ is the Bread of Life: “the one who believes has eternal life [because] I am the bread of life.”
(Jn 6:47-48)

The allegorical meaning of this scene evokes the female priesthood. Yes, Saint Faith is a priest! The female priesthood was admitted at the time, at least in its metaphorical form. It was systematically attributed posthumously toevery martyr.

Four details are the sign of his priesthood: the altar, the ciborium (or the chalice), the cathedra and the two steps. 

These two steps at the top of which the saint is kneeling, symbolize the altar towards which rises the priest who prepares to celebrate the office by pronouncing the words: "introibo ad altare Dei". (I will go to the altar of God)

Les insignes sacerdotaux de sainte Foy
The priestly regalia of Saint Faith

The posthumous ordination of Saint Faith is shown just above by the scene of her celestial coronation. An angel brings to heaven a crown of Glory, Life and Justice deserved as a martyr. (8)

Le couronnement céleste de sainte Foy
Celestial coronation of Saint Faith


The spiritual, metaphysical meaning is suggested by the gesture: the prostration (proskynesis) of Saint Faith.
She prostrates herself before an astonishingly concise representation of The Trinity.

La proskynèse de sainte Foy
Saint Faith's proskynesis

- The Father appears in the form of a hand which gives His blessing;
- The Son is present in the cruciferous nimbus crossed by the hand;
- The Holy Spirit is perceptible through divine waves.




La Sainte Trinité
The Trinity or the invisible made visible

Another anagogical symbol must be explained: that of the empty throne. It is a custom inherited from the death of Alexander the Great. After his death, his officers left Alexander's seat vacant in their assemblies. The Romans, then the Early Christians, perpetuated this custom.Here, this empty throne evokes the messianic expectation of the return of Christ (the Parousia). (9)

Le trône vide
The empty throne, symbol of waiting for Parousia

The number of arches is also symbolic: these three arches remind the New Church rebuilt in three days by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The two ends are unfinished to signify, on one side, continuity with the heritage of Judaism, and on the other, openness to the future and the universal.

Les deux arches et demi

The 3 arches (2 arches + 2  half-arches linked to the past and the future)

Positioning of elements

No detail is left to chance. The positioning of the spandrel also has a mystical meaning:
- its symmetrical juxtaposition with the spandrel of the awakening of the dead (which presents an astonishing cinematic sequence) (10) makes sense: it is a question of emphasizing the cause-and-effect link between faith and salvation;

Un positionnement significatif
A cause-and-effect link between faith and the salvation of the Elect

- the vertical positioning of the spandrel, inserted between the middle and lower registers, ensures both the transition and the separation between the New and Old Testament.
Like a threshold, this corner connects and separates two stages of the history of Salvation: the time of the Law and the time of Faith.

Le positionnement vertical

We could multiply the examples of positioning of scenes and characters loaded with meaning: thus Ambraham and his son Isaac are not placed by chance in the center of the celestial Jerusalem, just under the pinnacle of the Temple. Indeed, the temple is reputed to have been built on the "Foundation Rock" at the summit of Mount Moriah, the site of the binding of Isaac (where the Dome of the Rock stands today on the Temple Mount / Haram al Sharif). This underlines the expiatory and purifying function of both the gesture of the "Father of all believers" and the sanctuary built by Solomon. Thus the Temple can be considered as an anagogical prefigure of the entire redemptive message of the tympanum. (And naturally the central position of the pinnacle echoes the navel function of the world of Jerusalem. The Omphalion.)

A partitioned but open plan

The Father's House is made up of very distinct compartments, separated by dividing walls and lintels (which carry the tituli). (see chapter 3)
However, these lintels and walls are deliberately discontinuous, interrupted by breaches and ruptures which open passages.


Les ruptures volontaires
Voluntary cuts

We have already mentioned the permeable partition between the lair of Tartarus and the gate of Paradise, with this angel passer-through-walls who kidnaps a deceased soul from under Charon's nose.

La paroi poreuse de l'antre de Cerbère
The angel-through-wall

More visible, the intermediate lintel within the Tartarus of the Living is interrupted at the level of heresies, providing circulation between the three sub-registers of sins of having, power and knowledge. The aim is to highlight the links that exist between these three interdependent areas.
In fact, heresies spread along trade routes: itinerant traders do not only circulate goods and money; they also convey news, ideas... and heresies. A good example is given by the Vaudois heresy, initiated by the Lyon weaver Pierre Valdès (Pierre Valdo, 1140-1206), excommunicated in 1185. Moreover, one of the names given at that time to the followers of these heresies was that of Texerans” (weavers).

La brèche des hérésies
The breach of heresies


An immense, more fundamental breach is opened by Christ between the upper registers of Eternity and the middle registers of Present time, since he belongs to both.
For Christians, Christ came to bring salvation to the living and the dead, and that for, he descended into hell
. (This is the "catabasis" or descent into limbo, a recurring theme in Christian iconography). Did not the blood of the crucified, who died for the redemption of the sins of the world, flow even onto the skull of Adam whose tomb is, for Christians, just under Golgotha?

La principale brèche ouverte par le Christ
The main breach opened by Christ throughout time
The Art of Memory (Ars Memoriæ)  

This  tympanum which relates the entire History of Salvation was the subject of an oral commentary addressed by the monks to the pilgrims gathered in front of the abbey, as is still practiced today. This lively interpretation is probably at the origin of the medieval mystery plays.
The monks used mnemonic signs: a coded artificial memory, actively recommended by Victorian scholastic didactics of Saint Victor Abbaye in Paris but inherited from Cicero and Quintilian.
This Art of Memory  is one more marker of the Romanesque Renaissance.

Un commentaire oral
Today as yesterday, the tympanum is the subject of a fascinating oral commentary

Mnemonic signs composed of series of dots and crosses are engraved in the stone.

There are 9 alignments of vertical dots inscribed throughout the tituli: these dotted lines indicate a logical direction to follow: they indicate, for example, a cause and effect link or a correspondence between the Old and New Testaments.

Crosses mark the end of a paragraph or verse. For example, they separate the verses that comment on paradise on their left from those which concern Tartarus on their right.

Les signes mnémotechniquesLes signes mnémotechniques cruciformes

Crosses and series of dots: mnemonic signs
L'ensemble des signes mnémotechniques du tympan de Conques

All 13 mnemonic signs: 11 series of dots (in red) and two crosses (in yellow)  To be continued...

Before concluding this exploration, let us take a moment to look at the inscriptions on the tympanum, where a poetic surprise awaits us. 9th Chapter

(1) Lubac (Henri de), Exégèse médiévale, Aubier-Montaigne, Paris, 1959 (return)

(2) There are at least three Marys: Mary of Magdala,  Mary of Clopas (mother of James the Less), Mary Salome (wife of Zebedee) plus "the other Mary" (see Mt 28:1 ; Mc 16:1 ; Lc 24:10 ; Jn 20:1) (retour)

(3) From ancient greek ἀναγωγή (anagogé) : elevation (return)

(4) From greek εὐαγγέλιον  (euangélion) that means Good News (return)

(5) As a whole, the tympanum of Conques, through its general theme (the quest for Salvation in the perspective of an imminent Last Judgment), espouses an eschatological and anagogical aim. (return

(6) Chrism, the monogram of Christ, is composed of the first two letters of his Greek name (Χριστός): XP (Khi and Rho). (return)

(7) In the feudal era, there was no shortage of prisoners and subsequent ransom exchanges, in the context of rivalries between lords but also in the theater of the Reconquista in Castile or Aragon where the Abbey of Conques was very involved in the 11th and 12th centuries and even in the Holy Land during the crusade. (return)

(8) The Treasure of Conques contains a mark of the priesthood of Saint Faith: originally the reliquary statue the saint was covered with an antependium, a priestly clothing. (return)

(9) The symbol of the empty throne, beyond its resonance with negative theology, evokes both the Ascension and the Parousia. An anagogic image, since in the literal sense the term ἀναγωγή (anagogé) means elevation towards the sky. From this point of view, this simple detail, in a certain way, is a mise en abyme of the entire tympanum of the Parousia. (return)

(10) The image sequenced over four beats shows the progressive opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the dead. This is illustrated in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians: "In the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet [...] the dead will be raised imperishable." (1 Cor 15:52) See illustration below: (return)

séquence cinématique de l'éveil des morts
Animation: cinematic sequence of awakening of the dead (return)

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