Description of Conques tympanum, chapter 1:
Structure of the tympanum of the “first” Judgement "

The tympanum of Conques features an eschatological drama: the sentence is not yet decided but all the actors of the court are in place.
True opera, it manages several actors: the Accuser (Satan), the defenders (Saint Foy and Mary), a bailiff or clerk (the Archangel Michael) and the Judge, Christ, King-Judge ("ivdex REX ").
The actors are organized into a triptych of which Christ occupies the central panel.

The protagonists of the court

On the tympanum archivolt, fourteen "curious" angels are carved. They are curious about the verdict of the final trial, which they still ignore (see The First Epistle of Peter, 1.12). Let’s make no mistake, these angels are not intrusive, they are preparing to wrap the firmament, which "disappears like a scroll one rewinds.” "(Apocalypsis, 6, 14) For the viewers of the court, the curtain is raised, like on the stage, to shed light on the scene that will unfold before their eyes. They watch with interest the announcement of the Judgement.
Now, all actors are in their place. The scene opens on the world. The liturgical drama of salvation will begin.

Curious Angels
The characters, living or dead, are located on both sides of Christ, either in the angelical Mansions* (also called Paradise Mansions), to the right or in the Tartarus, on his left (1), according to the terminology used by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux when he mentions the distribution of souls after death: "When the sins of a few, and the obvious enthusiasm for the good of some others are on trial, then the first ones, careless of an immediate sentence to the measure of their crime, will disappear in the Tartars (in Tartara deficiuntur). The others, their soul fully freed, will rise directly and without delay towards the residences prepared for them (sibi regione parata sibi sedes). "(Dictionnaire de Théologie, Paris, libriarie Letouzey, 1931). (2)
The tympanum has three distinct worlds: the Tartarus, the Mansions (or Paradise) and Heaven.

Roll mouse over image to hide captions

Heaven must no more be confused with Paradise, than hell with Purgatory (or here, Tartarus).
Heaven will welcome the chosen ones, resurrected in a "glorious body", after the Last Judgement, while Hell will receive the damned, in both cases for all eternity.
Quite different is the residence of the dead, especially after the individual judgement delivered at their death, in wait for the last Judgement at the end of times.
- Paradise, also called by theologians, Angelical Mansions or Paradise Mansions, is the transient stay of the "Blessed" between the two judgments;
- Purgatory is the place of penance for sinners who will eventually be saved but who are till then subjected to purification tests;
- Finally, a certain region of the Tartarus could also be the place where the souls that are found guilty and cannot be redeemed will wait from their Individual Judgement to their eternal damnation until judgement day, when they will really be thrown into hell. From this point of view, apart from the demons that inhabit it, hell would be empty for the moment, but not all theologians agree about this.

The tympanum represents the city or Mansion of God. It is composed of Heaven, of the Mansions and of the Tartarus (because He rules over all the worlds). All its people (the dead, the live ones, the sinners, the saints, the chosen ones, the angels and the devils) are spread on three vertically organized layers corresponding to the three levels of time: past, present and future

The three time levels (Future, Present and Past)
  • On the ground floor, is the down on earth layer of the Past with:
    - The characters of biblical times housed in Limbo* (ie place of the Old Testament Patriarchs) represented by six arches on the right of Christ ;
    - The dead thrown into the Tartars* (place of the dead, which will soon be called purgatory*) on the left.
  • On the central stage, it's the Present, the down on earth layer of the living, with:
    - The key figures of the Christian era and the church lined in procession on the side of the Mansions* ;
    - The living, crammed with their depravity on the side of the Devil’s "warehouse".
  • At the top: here is the Future, after the Judgment. It is Heaven, eternity, timelessness. It is represented with the Glorious Cross, the blooming stars of the new sky (or the sun and the moon before the rupture of the sixth seal of the Apocalypse (book of Revelation) that are not yet obscured or bloodied, the paternal waves, and the angels blowing their trumpets (wearing dresses embroidered with mysterious inscriptions).

One will notice that Christ opens a gap between the middle level (Present) and the upper one (Future), belonging to one as well as to the other, because the Parousia* could be considered also as "an eternal present", or even both as an "already here and a not-yet-here".
Christ belongs at the same time to the earthly time (which is historical, and human), and to the celestial time (which we can’t measure) ; in the same way the distinct forces of justice and Divine Grace are inextricably linked by his Incarnation. Heaven is presently (or at least that of the terrestrial clock) inhabited only by the angels that appear bathed by the waves of the Father.
The chosen ones, presently placed in Mansions, will only access Heaven at the end of times, after the Last Judgement.

God’s three levels Mansion is deployed in two side flaps: the "Mansions"* and the Tartarus. Through the tympanum, a real eschatological timetable of history unfolds before our eyes, a procession of characters who are wisely aligned to the right of the Messiah. They suggest the work of the Church, while building on the foundations provided by the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets represented on the lower level, in Limbo*. It is also a "baroque" and fascinating fresco of the present, with the dense tangle of individuals in the hustle and bustle to the left of Christ.

Eternity, New times and the living, the Past and the dead

FIRST JUDGEMENT (or Private, but not "Last")

We’ll come back to the characters with more detail in the following pages (Judge, angels, intercessors, elected officials, tested ones in Tartarus*...), but for now, let’s witness the trial taking place before our eyes, for it is truly a Judgement which is delivered under the feet of Christ. But this one is the Private Judgement, the one that comes for every man at the point of death, we could say daily, anyway long before the Last Judgement* of the end of time. We are witnessing the first trial of a deceased person, chosen as example among others. It could be ours, and today. It is not yet the Christ who "will judge the living and the dead", ie all of humanity, at the end of time during the Last Judgement. But it is still a key trial, even if it is temporary, which results from a dispute between angels and devils, as noted by Le Goff (3).

Let’s witness this first trial: what will the sentence be? Damnation or Grace*? What criteria will prevail: Law, or Faith?
Let’s look carefully...

Paradoxical weighing
Both weighing scales of the soul are engraved with figures almost invisible to the viewer on the ground, but known by the initiates (which suggests an oral commentary of the tympanum by a cleric presiding over some dramatic liturgy).
On the plate leaning towards the side of the angel, these figures represent two crosses potent;
The plate on the side of the devil is fully occupied by a man's face (very burdened by his sins) (4).
Paradoxically, the balance leans on the angelic side which is the lightest. Although the soul on the empty plate is almost devoid of merits, the cross of faith is heavier than the sins. The devil tries to restore the logical order of the weight of sin, which is expected to tilt the beam on his side, not on the angelical side. But it will not be so because in the eyes of Divine Justice, the faith of the deceased and the graces of the Lord* represented by the cross, far outweigh the weaknesses of the dead.
Here, the victory over the devil is not deferred to the end of times. It is acquired now, at the time of death

Struggle between angel and devil for the soul of the deceased, in the psychostasy (3)
Place the mouse over the image for a few seconds to view details
(If that fails, be sure to allow ActiveX controls)

Let us follow the soul of the deceased after its trial...
The soul descends to the gates of Tartarus through a trapdoor.

Place mouse over image to view details

It falls at the feet of Charon, who, as in Etruscan mythology was armed with a club and who stuffs the dead in the jaws of Cerberus. (5)
Yes, but this is not the only way out!
Behind Charon, the door separating Tartarus* from the Mansions* is not airtight. The granting of divine mercy is renewed and again, an angel saves a soul from the clutches of Charon. This angel also cheats a little, when stealing the soul of a deceased under the nose of Charon! It is the zeal mentioned by J. Le Goff. (see footnote 3)
In the words of a theologian of the time, even if the angel was mistaken in his choice, Saint Peter would not blame him for doing so in favor of a soul condemned to the tests of Tartarus*. The angel guiding the chosen one whom he takes away from the devil turns around and faces Charon, who himself turns, cheated, angry but powerless.

Pass mouse over details so you can see the details and captions

A soul goes from Tartarus to the Mansions
Pass mouse over details so you can see the details
Before following the souls of the chosen in the angelic Mansions* and those of the tested ones in the Tartarus*, let us pause a moment on the main character, the Christ of the Parousia who is in the center of the tympanum.

Next chapter: 2) the triumphant Parousia and the diagonal of Grace

(1) N. B. The tympanum is a mirror. Tartarus which appears to the left of Christ is therefore on our right. (go back)

(2) The word Tartar will still be used a century after the erection of the tympanum of Conques, by Geoffroy de Poitiers (dead in 1231) whose description of Purgatory is quoted by Jacques Le Goff: "There are several Mansions in Purgatory: some are called obscure places of darkness, others hand of hell, others mouth of a lion, and others Tartarus." (J. Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, University Of Chicago Press). In Conques, one will also notice the plural use of Tartarus (Tartara). See the definition in the glossary. (go back)

(3) One can find in the writings of Jacques Le Goff, a definition of the private Judgement which is an excellent summary of Conques tympanum : "(the) future Judgment, the last one, the global one offers usually only two possibilities: life or death, light or eternal fire. Purgatory will depend on a less formal verdict; an individual judgement immediately after death. Medieval imagery often represents it as a struggle between good and bad angels, demons and angels, for the soul of the deceased. As the souls in Purgatory are chosen souls that will eventually be saved, they depend on the angels but are subject to complex legal proceedings. They can indeed benefit from a reduced sentence, an early release, not for their personal conduct, but because of the external interventions, the votes. The sentence length depends thus, apart from the mercy of God, symbolized by the zeal of the angels to rescue the souls from the devils, on the personal merits the deceased acquired during his life and the votes of the church obtained by parents and friends of the deceased." (Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du Purgatoire, Gallimard, Folio Histoire, 1981)
Furthermore, you will find in the FAQ section, question 5 a summary of the arguments that plead in favor of Private Judgement. (go back)

(4) The presence of a human face in the balance will become a classical theme, often repeated in the Gothic period.
Thus, for example, in Chartres Last Judgement, "there are two human heads on the plate, one expresses serenity and the other terror" (Yves Delaporte, Review of Chartres Last Judgement). This coincidence justifies the opinion of Emile Male, who saw in Conques tympanum the origin of the Gothic Tympana in Ile de France. One also finds the same bias in favor of salvation in the psychostasies* of Paris or Amiens cathedrals.
However, unlike for example the representation of the portal of Amiens Holy Savior, the face of the man in Conques does not express the terror of the Judgement (see illustration), it simply highlights the mystery of Divine Grace* that outweighs the weight of evil.
About balance, vacuum and counterweight, one is struck by the appropriateness of Simone Weil‘s writings about the genius of Oc and Romanesque art: "[The essence of Occitan inspiration] shines in Romanesque art. Architecture [...] has no concern for power or strength, but only for balance. [...] The Romanesque church is suspended as a scale around a point of balance, a point of balance that is based only on vacuum. [...] This is what it takes to enclose that cross which used to be a scale in which the body of Christ was the counterweight of the universe." (Simone Weil, under the pseudonym of Emile Novis, in "The genius of Oc", Cahiers du Sud, 1943) (go back)

(5) We prefer to call the monster that watches over the gate of the Tartarus Cerberus rather than the Leviathan, because we will see that the references to Greco-Roman antiquity are numerous in the tympanum. (go back)

Next chapter: 2) the Parousia triumphant and the diagonal of Grace
Top of Page

Previous page




Previous page