Therefore, Conques tympanum represents the Parousia, the action preceding the Last Judgment. Yet, it is a question of a judgment. So, what is it about ?
L'archange saint Michel
Weighing a soul (psychostasis)
In fact, Christianity distinguishes two judgments:
- the Last Judgment, at the end of Time, which will be universal: all Humanity, the living and the dead will be judged for eternity.
Giotto, le Jugement dernier, Padoue
The Last Judgment, Giotto, Scrovegni chapel, Padua, 14th century. 

- According to Christian eschatology, the particular Judgment of every departed (dead) person undergoes immediately after death. This, is individual, on a case-by-case basis and its sentences are provisional.
Un Jugement particulier. (Maître de Seriguerola)
A particular Judgment, Master of Seriguerola, Vall de Ribes, 13th century. (source: wikidata)

What the Conques tympanum does show us is a particular Judgment, with the weighing of a soul (what is called "psychostasis"). The matter is about the possibility (more or less probable) of a difference in verdict between the two judgments. (redundancy is perhaps not systematic)

Literally, the tympanum stages an eschatological drama, that of a trial for the charge and the defense. All the actors of the court are in place:

- Christ is the sovereign Judge; he is the King Judge.
- Satan plays the role of the public accuser.
- The accused is the deceased whose soul is subjected to examination at the point of death.
- He is defended by two lawyers: the Blessed Virgin, "advocata nostra" and Saint Faith.
- The Archangel Saint Michael serves as clerk assisted by an assessor responsible for maintaining the register of the Book of Life.

Tous les acteurs du procès
But what will the verdict be? Condemnation or pardon? Hell or Heaven?

While waiting for the deliberations, let's take a moment to look at the tympanum project: what were the intentions of the Benedictine monks who designed it in the 12th century ?

- Their objective is primarily didactic: this “Bible in Stone” is intended to instruct the faithful on Holy History. The tympanum traces the main milestones.
- It is also, and above all, ethical: it is a question of training - and reforming - believers to allow them a (small) chance of salvation.

This is the meaning of the final admonition which concludes the inscriptions:

O sinners, unless you reform your morals, know that the future judgment will be harsh on you.

If it is not yet the End of Times, this is at least the time of the end; so we should prepare ourselves for it!

A SMALL TREATISE ON SOTERIOLOGY (or the Paradoxical Judgment)

The fundamental underlying theme is the question of Salvation, what theologians call soteriology.
This tympanum poses the question of Last Things: what will happen to us after our death? To this metaphysical concern as old as time, Christianity provides the answer in the quest for Salvation.

The point is clear for those who are entirely good, like the saints for example; they will go directly to Paradise;
it is also simple for those who are entirely bad: they will end up in hell.
But what about the majority of us, all those who are neither entirely good nor entirely bad? Here, the judgment remains uncertain: will there be many called but few chosen?

To this dilemma, the Conques tympanum provides a paradoxical answer. (That's one of the reasons that makes it so exciting...)

All the inscriptions remind  the rigor of the law:

Discedite a me <maledicti in ignem æternum>
Depart from me, <you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels> (Matthew 25:41)

Discedite a me maledicti

Sure, but the images say something completely different and give a fundamental place to Redemption. We will see that the tympanum implements two levers:

- the power of Grace. Salvation by Grace is to be consistent with the first dedication of the abbey church dedicated to the Holy Savior in 819;
- faith saves. This leitmotif of the tympanum is consistent with the second dedication to Saint Faith (in 883).

Demonstration by image:


Le diable triche
The Devil is pressing a finger trying to take it all.

Despite the devil's cheating, the balance is leaning towards the right side! Could the dice be a little loaded? How is it possible ? Let's take a closer look:

Le rôle prépondérant des croix
Roll over the picture to view details

- In the right tray, the soul of the deceased is materialized by his face and his works or rather his faults symbolized by flames. (Even seen in profile, we can see wide-eyed eyes and parted lips, surprised by what is happening to him.)
- In the left tray, two crosses symbolize grace and faith. Miracle: their preponderant weight outweighs that of actions. The devil won't be the winner!

Let us follow the journey of the soul after weighing. The soul falls at the feet of the Guardian of Hell who shoves sinners into Hellmouth.

 Parcours de l'âme après son jugement

Many souls are lining up at the gate... But, fortunately, this is not the only way out!
Let's look at what's happening on stage left:

Here we have an astonishing defector scene. An angel steals a escaped soul from under the demon's nose and leads it through a wall to paradise.
The demon turns around, furious but helpless. (2)

But how is this possible?

Un étonnant transfuge
The Suffrages for the dead

To understand this incredible escape, we must look just above where the Virgin Mary prays with folded hands.
But who is she praying for? If not to alleviate and shorten the suffering of sinners punishment?

The Catholic Church calls these intercessions with the merciful Christ the “suffrages” of the saints. The intercession of the saints on behalf of sinners allows their release or at least a certain remission of sentence.

L'intercession de la Vierge Marie

La Sainte Vierge orante

The suffrages of the Virgin Mary are not the only way of redemption. Other forces are at work in this tympanum, in particular divine Grace. This is the whole meaning of Christ's gestures:

The presence of the (invisible) Father is suggested by a series of vertical waves clearly visible in the upper register.
Christ's right hand, raised towards heaven, receives the Graces of the Father and his left hand, lowered towards the earth, pours them out towards men, the sinners here below.

Les Grâces divines déversées vers le hommes
Likewise, from Christ himself, other waves emanate, horizontaly. Softer, they radiate laterally not only towards Paradise on his right hand, but also towards the world of sinners on the left! Les Grâces du Fils rayonnent horizontalement



Truly, the conception of salvation in romanesque tympanum of Conques reflects the theology of Hugh of Saint Victor, the great theologian and teacher, Director of the school of Saint Victor abbey, on the Sainte-Geneviève mountain on the medieval outskirts of Paris.


Hugues de Saint-Victor
Canon Hugh of Saint Victor writing the Didascalicon
(Library of the Royal University of Leiden)

The main point of Hugh's theology is the process of restoration which consists of bringing a being - or a soul - back to its original purity, i.e. restoring to it the sight of God before original sin. Like the vision of Adam before the fall who contemplated God in all His light.    

Light, that is to say knowledge, plays an essential role in restoring this purity, this integrity. The work of restoration, or justification, begins with the study but continues post mortem in the afterlife.

This restoration work is precisely what we see in progress in Conques:

La vision de Dieu d'avant la chute
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The flames visible in the lower register illuminate the sinner but do not burn him. It is the purifying, expiatory, regenerating fire. It will be soon called purgatory. (3)




This is the reason why the faces of tormented souls always remain here impassive, even beautiful: no sign of pain. In Conques, they are all tormented, but they are not all Damned.

The contrast is striking with the very expressive, grimacing and ugly faces of the demons who put them to the test.

Des flammes qui éclairent mais ne brûlent pas
Purifying flames that illuminate but do not burn

Some impassive tormented:

Des visages sereins

Despite the harsh ordeals they undergo (tongues torn out, heads devoured, hangings and other tortures), the sinners show no sign of physical suffering. Barely, their eyes widen in astonishment. No fear, they remain and serene: they undergo a process of restoration.
Their attitude is related to the peace which reigns in purgatory according to Catherine of Genoa (4)

And there, right under Satan's feet, we find the restored Man rising and awakening to full consciousness. His soul is purified, justified by the purgatory fire.
How far are we from the “lazy” person identified by some folkloric commentators.

L'Homme restauré
The restored Man

Thus a major geometric line appears: “the diagonal of Grace”. This line takes its origin in the divine Waves, passes through the Hands and Heart of Christ and ends exactly on the Head of the restored Man lying at the feet of Satan.

La diagonale de la Grâce
The diagonal of Grace

Not all the elect admitted to paradise are necessarily saints. Some sinned and then were restored. They are saved because they have faith. Here, for example, is a group of three chosen ones, without aura, welcomed at the gate of Paradise and to whom an angel offers the “Bread of Life”. An illustration from the Gospel of John: “He who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life” (John 6:35; 47-48)

L'offrande du  Pain de Vie

Let us continue the approach by analyzing the composition of the tympanum. Third chapter: the Structure of the tympanum

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(1) "And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books." Revelation 20:12. (back)

(2) In The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff explains that psychostasis was considered in the Middle Ages as a real battle between the archangel and the Devil. Saint Michael cheats just as much as his adversary, and when the opposing forces are equal, Saint Michael always decides in favor of the deceased. Cf. Le Goff (Jacques), La naissance du Purgatoire, Gallimard, Coll. Folio Histoire, Paris, 1991. (back)

(3) The idea of a purifying fire is very old and the concept of Purgatory quite difficult to date precisely. Catholic dogma was established in the 13th century. and Jacques Legoff dates from the decades 1170-1180 the passage of the term purgatory from a state to a place, from an adjective to a noun; therefore well after the construction of the tympanum. The first documents using the term date from 1176 (letter from benedictine monk Nicolas de Saint-Alban to the Cistercian monk Pierre de Celle) and even from 1133 (note from the Archbishop of Tours Hildebert de Lavardin). However, the notion is even older and dates back to early Christian times, if not in the Bible. Pierre Chaunu points out the concept of atoning fire in Saint Augustine (354 - 430); Gregory the Great (ca 540 - 604) uses the expression "purifying fire". The Historian Le Goff himself notes that “the reality of helping the deceased through prayer and asceticism has been clearly established since Christian antiquity”. From this point of view, the Conques tympanum is not innovative! The concept of Purgaroire responds to an aspiration for clemency and fairness to offer a prospect of redemption to humans who have committed some venial sin but died without confession or absolution and for whom eternal damnation seems unjust. (back)

(4For the mystic Saint Catherine of Genoa, purgatory is a place of contentment where souls joyfully receive their purification. Cf. chapter 2 of his Treatise on Purgatory (early 16th century): “No peace is comparable to that of the souls in purgatory, except that of the saints in Heaven, and this peace continually increases by the flow of God in these souls, as the impediments disappear. The rust of sin is the obstacle and the fire consumes it without respite, so that the soul, in this state, also continually opens to receive divine communication." This state is not very far from ataraxia (state of absence of disorders).. (back)

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