Respecting the invisibility of the Father, Heaven is empty, just flooded with divine waves which materialize His Spirit. These vertical, transcendental waves are the first - or at least one of the oldest - representations of the Holy Spirit in the shape of waves. Traditionally, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, tongues of fire or rays of light. With these waves, a liquid or undulatory element, this is close to – but also distinguished from – the usual sign of theophanies in the Old Testament in the shape of clouds. (Exodus 13: 21-22 ; 19:16)

Le Ciel, noyé par les ondes divines

This choice is similar to the form chosen at the same time by Hildegard of Bingen to illustrate her mystical visions. (see illustration from her Scivias)

The Last Judgment having not yet been pronounced, Heaven remains empty of men for the time. It is crowded, however, by angels whom announce the Apocalypse (playing their horns) and carry the symbols of Adventus, including the immense Glorious Cross brandished like a trophy.


Le trophée de la croix glorieuse
The Glorious Cross

These two angels also carry the Instruments of the Passion (Arma Christi): the Holy Lance (LANCEA) and the Nails (CLAVI). On the vertical arm, the titulus ironically designates the crucified: IESVS NASARENVS REX IVDEORVM (JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS)

Les intruments de la Passion : la lance

Les instruments de la Passion : les clous
Jésus de Nazareth Roi des Juifs
The Titulus
The Instruments of the Passion

The secret of the angel's robe

In the 1960s, the telephoto lens revealed an unsuspected detail: at the bottom of the dress of the trumpet-blowing angel on the right, we discovered an inscription in Arabic, engraved in Kufic characters.

Le secret de la robe de l'ange
The inscription al hamda means “Glory to God.”  L'inscription arabe koufique


On the Elect's side, a cohort of 13 characters forms the procession of the Marching Church. Eyes turned towards Christ, it moves towards Salvation.


L'Eglise en marche vers le Salut

A Woman leads the march: the Virgin Mary, mother of God, Queen of Heaven. The gesture of her clasped hands clearly indicates that she is praying (for sinners and souls subjected to Tartarus). The Marian cult experienced a new boom in the 11th century under the action of Pope Gregory VII and grew with the Romanesque Renaissance of the 12th century, under the influence in particular of Bernard of Clairvaux.

La Vierge Marie

She is followed by Saint Peter, founder of the Church and first bishop of Rome. His theology particularly emphasizes the saving role of faith. He holds the keys to Paradise and his pastoral staff points precisely at the lock of the door of Paradise.

Saint Pierre détenteur des clés du Paradis

Dadon (Déodatus) became a hermit in Conques in 785: he is considered the founder of the abbey. He stands in heaven although he is not a holy man. Besides, he doesn't wear a halo. In fact, it was a matricide who allowed his mother to die, taken hostage, so as not to lose his horse demanded as ransom during the Arab-Berber incursions..
He owes his salvation to his repentance and his Christian faith.

Dadon, fondateur de l'abbaye
Dadon with his pastoral stick Tau-shaped


Next comes the Abbot of Conques with his abbey crosier. Tradition identifies him as Bégon III, famous abbot from 1087 to 1108, at the height of the abbey, the probable time of the design of the tympanum.
But beyond, this monk personifies the continuity of the abbey function, perpetually renewed over time (at least until the secularization of the abbey in 1537, under  king François I when the Benedictines had to give way to canons appointed by the bishop of Rodez)

L'abbé de Conques

The abbot leads a king identified as the Emperor Charlemagne: in fact he wears a fleudelized crown and a scepter composed of an orb topped with the Tree of Jesse which recalls that the Carolingian restorer of the Holy Roman Empire was called "New David". (1)


Like Dadon, Charlemagne is not without reproach: he is said to be incestuous and intemperate (2): despite that, he will be beatified in 1165 by the Antipope Paschal III at the instigation of Frederick Barbarossa. However, the official Roman Church has never called into question this quasi "canonization".

His presence in paradise can be explained by the significant land assets with which he endowed the abbey in its early days and by the remarkable relics he offered it (the "A" of Charlemagne, a first piece of the True Cross...).

The emperor walks slightly stooped, obediently led by the abbot. Here we have the image of the relationship between temporal power and spiritual power as the Church idealizes them. In the wake of the Gregorian reform, politics must be subject to religion.


L'empereur Charlemagne
Charlemagne guided by the Abbot

Around Charlemagne, two famous characters from Carolingian mythology flank the emperor: behind him, his son Louis the Pious (called the Fair or the Debonaire), great benefactor of the abbey. Indeed, in 818, he granted it protection and the status of imperial abbey just four years after his accession to the throne. Then, there will be no less than ten donations the following year.


Between the emperor and the abbot, Pierre Séguret believes he recognizes the tutor of young Louis, the knight Guillaume au Court-Nez, alias William of Gellone, first cousin of Charlemagne, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Toulouse who distinguished himself in a heroic resistance to the advance of the Saracens in Languedoc and Provence during 9th century. His facial injury earned him his nicknames (Short-Nose and Fierabras) and his glorious military exploits were at the origin of the famous epic cycle of William of Orange, from which the character of Guillaume d'Orange (Guilhem d'Aurenga) emerged. (3) At the end of his life William founded the abbey of Gellone, soon to be named Saint-Guilhem-du-désert, to retire there. This is why his hand makes a gesture of faith.

La mythologie carolingienne Louis le Pieux Guillaume Court-Nez Le geste de foi
Two characters from Carolingian mythology: Louis the Pious and Guillaume Court-Nez

Then come two clerics, one carrying the Stone Tablets (Tablets of the Law) , the other the Gospel. This presence manifests the fundamental role of the Scriptures in the pastoral action of the Church and underlines the continuity and complementarity of the two Testaments in the History of Salvation.


Les Tables de la Loi et l'Evangile
Gospel and Tablets of Stone
The last four figures, above a raised titulus, appear of a slightly downsized different style, perhaps more archaic, and represent the first four periods of Christianity.

Les quatre derniers personnages
The first four periods of Christianity

From the left end of the frieze, first comes a woman. She is Mary of Magdala, first witness to the Resurrection. She represents the time of the Apostles inasmuch as she is appointed Apostle of the Apostles.

Marie de Magdala
Mary of Magdala

How was the author the first to identify Mary of Magdala? Simply by observing the traditional iconography which represents her with her knees bent, as for example, on the capitals of Autun and Saulieu (Burgundy).

Chapiteau du Noli me tangere, Autun
Chapiteau du Noli me tangere de Saulieu
Noli me tangere capital of Autun (left) and Saulieu (right)

And also by analyzing the position of his feet turned in another direction to evoke her Reversal. (4).

Le retournement de Marie de Magdala
Mary of Magdala's Reversal

She is followed by a third woman, more precisely a little girl, Saint Faith who shows her palm as a sign of faith and carries the palm of her martyrdom. It illustrates the time of the martyrs. (5)


Sainte Foy : le temps des martyres
Saint Faith

Then comes the time of the anchorites with Anthony the Great, the hermit of the Egyptian desert. The slightly bent knees could evoke the tremors he suffered during his visions and temptations.Maybe he wears a bell which recalls the distinctive sign of the Antonines, a brotherhood of monks and hospital knights created at the beginning of the 12th century and who was responsible for cleaning the streets with herds of pigs announced and identified by bells.

Saint Antoine
Anthony of the Desert

Anthony with the bell and the pigglet

Finally, here is the time of the Church Fathers with Jerome of Stridon, translator of the Bible into Latin.


Saint Jérôme
Saint Jerome

Note the significant place given to the women who lead this procession (6). 

A monastic calendar

Un calendrier monacal

By chronologically classifying the figures in the frieze, we see that it is organized like a double-entry monastic calendar, progressing from the oldest to the most recent starting from the two ends to converge by the central pivot of the present embodied by the permanence of the abbot. Now, it's time to analyse the lower register devoted to biblical times. To be continued...

Next chapter: the Bosom of Abraham

(1) The Tree of Jesse (King David's father) represents the genealogy of Jesus on the maternal side. Among Charlemagne's titles, let us note that of "Christus Domini" (Priest - King). cf. Yves Sassier, Royauté et idéologie au Moyen Âge : Bas-Empire, monde franc, France (IVe et XIIe siècles), Armand Colin, 2012 (return)

(2) Charlemagne's first virtue was not fidelity and we count at least five wives (Desiderata of the Lombards,  Queen Hildegard, Fastrada of Franconia, Liutgarde of Alemania, Maldegarde, Adelinde...) and several concubines (Himiltrude, Gerswinde of Saxony, Maldegarde, and Regina...). Rumour also reports an incestuous relationship with some of his own daugters and his sister Gisela. (return)

(3) Coincidence or on purpose, the character's nose is missing. (return)

(4) Mary of Magdala makes several reversals after the Passion and the burial on Good Friday: once the Sabbath has passed, she returns to the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week with ointments and spices. Finding the sepulcher empty, she returns upset, completely overwhelmed, and sees a man whom she takes to be the gardener. After briefly questioning him, she turns away. Then Christ calls her by name, she turns around and finally recognizes Him. Then Christ entrusted her with the mission of returning to her Brothers to bear witness. It is also the image of her metanoia, her spiritual reversal which makes her move from sight to vision. (return)

(5) Faith is a twelve-year-old child from Agen martyred in 303 by Dacian for refusing to deny her Christian faith. Her martyrdom is commemorated on October 6. In 866 her relics underwent a “furtive translation” from Agen to Conques. She is famous for her miracles (notably the release of prisoners) whose reputation justified the success of the pilgrimage to Conques and increased the influence of the abbey. She is also famous for her pranks narrated in the Book of the Miracles of Saint Faith (Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fides, early 11th century. (Read latin text on Gallica). Her life and her martyrdom gave birth to one of the oldest literary texts in the Occitan language, the Cançon de Santa Fe (the Song of Saint Faith), a poem of nearly 600 verses also dating from the 11th century. (facsimile and french translation on Gallica) (return)

(6) Women play a transitional role at both ends: on one side the Virgin Mary is in physical bond with her son; on the other, Mary of Magdala and Saint Faith ensure the connection with the lower register of the Old Testament and with the intercalary spandrel of Saint Faith. (return)

Previous Page

Previous Page