Description of the tympanum of Conques, Chapter 2:
The triumphant Parousia and the diagonal of Grace
Parousia Imperial triumph The diagonal of Grâce Slideshows : Parousia; Heaven

Christ addresses a piercing look on and his greetings to anyone who walks in front of Conques Tympanum: semaphore gesture of both arms, his right hand turned towards the sky, its sinister bent towards the earth, a unique position in the iconography of tympana but a capital one.
(more on the gestures of the tympanum)
It is these gestures which give us the subject of the composition: Parousia* and redemption.

The hands of Christ receive the Graces from the Father and pour them over humans

This gesture often appears in the representations of the Ascension. For example, it is the case of the Ascension represented on the tombs in the crypt of Saint Victor of Marseille, which date from the third century. Christ appears rising into the clouds, his right arm raised toward heaven, as if he were drawn by the Father, his left arm lowered toward the earth as a sign of farewell. The same gesture is reproduced in Saint Georges in Camboulas in Aveyron.

But this gesture also represents, textually, the return (ie the Parousia*), since it is written in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1. 9-11), that his return will happen in "the same way" as his Ascension, surrounded by clouds. The gestures of the hands also evoke the dual nature of the Messiah, both divine in his origin and incarnate, the son of God made man. It says that Jesus "died, descended into hell, rose again and ascended into heaven from where he will come down again to judge the living and the dead" (Creed).

Here comes a victorious Christ with all the pomp of a Roman emperor’s triumph:
King and Judge, accompanied by his legions of angels, the waist bound with the supreme magistrate’s belt, the chest partly bare under the paludamentum (hinting at the spear wound on the right side), enthroned on a chair surrounded by stars and illuminated by a new sun charged with flowers and palms, topped with trophies of victory (the spear, the nails and the glorious Cross), flanked by two candle holders (Torch bearer angels enlightening the World) and perfumed by the thuriferous angel. It is really in a triumph that Christ appears and welcomes the world with an imperial gesture. (2)

Christ's Parousia
Christ in the mandorla and his triumphal procession
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This Glorious Cross does not refer to the cross of Golgotha. It symbolizes here the sign of Christ's victory at the end of time. It is compared by Honorius, the theologian of the twelfth century, with the banner of victory in the Roman Emperor’s triumph: "Just as when the Emperor enters a city, the crown and other insignia of power are brought before him so that his "Adventus" be known to all, when Christ returns for Judgement, the angels bearing the cross will precede him" (Honorius, quoted by Yves Christe, Les Jugements derniers, Zodiac, 2000 p. 195). This is exactly the scene depicted in the center of the tympanum.

THE DIAGONAL OF GRACE (back to the top)

The Judge- King will pronounce his sentence. Can one guess its direction?
The philacteries that frame the top of Christ’s mandorla refer to Matthew’s Gospel about the Last Judgement* "Come ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world" and then: "Stay away from me... damned ones." This reference portends a severe judgement, a rigorous application of the Law.

But the gesture means something completely different.
Unlike Satan, Christ does not point a vengeful index at the outcasts or rather at the tested ones. On the contrary, he opens widely the palms of his hands. With the right one, he collects the graces* come from the Father and with the left one, he pours them on those who need them, the tested ones, in the Tartarus*, the sinners that he comes to save, according to his statement: "I didn’t come to judge but to save." His hand does not reject anyone, it symbolizes Mercy.

The geometric construction of the "diagonal of Grace" strengthens the body language that clearly expresses the gift of Grace*.
If we draw the line that passes through his hands, we shall see that it originates in the vertical waves falling from the sky, and that it ends on the head of the “restored" man as Hugh of St.-Victor would say, a man who wakes and stands up, calm and surprised to find himself under the feet of Satan, sitting on a bed of flames that do not burn. It is the metaphorical fire of the judgment that enlightens the conscience of the sinner. "Legislator, Illuminator, Christ is the Savior."
The Judgement is not the condemnation of the sinner, but that of sin. The Justice of the Messiah is the justification* of the sinner, not for his (very hypothetical) good works, but by pure gift of the Grace* of God to those who had faith in him. (3)

The diagonal of Grace on the "tympanum of Redemption"

Restored man
The restored man, awaking in the realm of darkness

This geometric line that passes through the hands of Christ and goes from the Father’s waves to the restored* man who is standing up in Tartarus*, gives the most concise existing representation of the granting of salvation.*

In the Realm of Darkness, a man wakes under the feet of Satan. He looks peaceful. He is just restored. Doesn't it seem like the verse of St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians ?:
Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
’’ (Ephesians 5:1)


"Where sin abounds, Grace abounds" ! (Saint Paul, Romans 5, 20)
On this point Hugh of Saint Victor meets the apostle of the Gentiles: "From the world's beginning until its end, there is no true goodness without justification* by Grace, and no Grace without Christ" (in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, Paris, Beauchesne).

"In Romanesque times, the Judgement is not yet a trial, but the revelation of a person, transcendent Christ, master of death and life, savior of believers. He appears calm, without severity or weakness, his look somewhat distant, contemplating the horizons of Redemption. He is what is real, and men value their eternal destiny in comparison with him. They are free to go and place themselves, depending on their works in this world, to his right or his left, for eternity". (Gerard de Champeaux, Le monde des symboles, Zodiac, 1980)

Christ's feet rest on a base tilted toward Tartarus. This angle (found on the lower branch of the Orthodox cross), recalls the descent of Jesus to the kingdom of the dead before his resurrection. It means that the Messiah is taking salvation as far as the depths of hell

The tilted base below the feet of Christ

Orthodox cross


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Let’s unveil another clue confirming the assumption of divine mercy.
Indeed, a proclamation announces the beginnings of the verdict that the angel dancing in the archivolt has guessed. But it is still secret...
It was necessary to wait for the invention of the twentieth century zoom lens to understand that what was considered a simple decoration at the bottom of dress of the angel with the horn, who is flying over Tartarus, was in fact an enigmatic Arabic inscription written in Kufic script: "Al yum" or "al hamda" ("Happiness" or “Glory ")

The presence of a floral Kufic writing, calligraphy of the Persian Sufi of the years one thousand underlines the constant relations that the abbey of Conques maintained with the Near East and which the "Book of Miracles" of sainte Foy recalls, in particular through the story of Jean Ferré, a converted Saracen.
The thesis defended in this site consists of showing that the tympanum at Conques can (and should) be considered as a representation of the Parousia and the history of Salvation rather than of Last Judgement.
In this regard, the comparison of Autun and Conques tympana highlights two very different approaches of the Judgement: the first one, fulminatory and terrifying, the second one merciful and full of kindness.

Representation of the Parousia in Conques is not an exception in the expression of the Romanesque thought of the time. On the contrary, it is its perfect illustration. Defining the concept of Last Judgement in Romanesque art, Marcel Durliat writes: "The Last Judgement with its deterrent value does not correspond to a generalization of fear. It takes place in a global awareness of human destiny in which confidence in salvation has the greatest place. The Romanesque man hopes for the mercy of God and knows the glory of the Risen one. In his fight against Satan, he knows he can count on the support of the Virgin Mary, the saints and the angels of heaven." (Marcel Durliat, Romanesque Art, Paris, Mazenod)

The historian Yves Christe, a specialist in medieval iconography, confirms this view: "The Last Judgement is not a major theme in Romanesque art, especially not in the field of monumental sculpture. It was not until the turn of the years 1200 that the topic of Last Judgement took off. "(Yves Christe, The Last Judgement, Zodiac, p. 199). The fact did not escape this author that the timeframe of Conques tympanum isn’t set in the distant end of time, but rather in the immediate present, "One has noticed however, that here, a just one is shown being saved in a extremis from damnation; admonition (6) is not for a distant future, it is immediately that the message should work." (Y. Christe, op. cit. p. 183).
That’s why Conques tympanum may not be classified in the category of the Last Judgements, but in that of the Parousias, a theme also represented, as noted by Yves Christe, in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. (7)

It is time to explore the two side panels of the triptych: the mansions and the Tartarus*.

Special thanks to Ann Souchaud, who is teaching litterature in Monterrey, Mexico and translates this site. The whole site translation is in progress. The following pages are coming soon... or latter.

Next Chapter: 3) Paradise mansions

(1) Parousia : second coming of Christ. (from the ancient greek word meaning presence).
Yves Christe, Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Geneva, explains that the representation of Parousia is quite common, "Some Last Judgments are in fact only second comings of Christ, as in Beaulieu tympanum. According to Munster and Saint-Gall Judgments, as well as to the Bible of Farfa, the second coming of Christ according to St. Matthew is not an isolated phenomenon, but a standard pattern." (Yves Christe, Les Jugements derniers, Zodiac, Coll. Les formes de la nuit, T. 12, 2000, p. 147). This is also the subject of a fresco on the choir ceiling of the Cathedral Sainte Cecile in Albi, which was painted in the early sixteenth century. See also the analysis of the gesture. (Back)

(2) Also in “Les jugements derniers", Yves Christe describes the representations of Christ in a mandorla. He is surrounded by angels and his glorious Cross stands above him:
"This idea will be regularly included in Conques and Beaulieu... It is the image of the return understood as Adventus, as a triumphal procession in which the Emperor is preceded by officers carrying his badges and trophy. This is how St. John Chrysostom had described the second coming of Christ according to St. Matthew in a famous sermon, quoted throughout the Middle Ages (Mt 24: 30-31)". (Yves Christ, op. cit. p. 172)

(3) "The Redeemer is no longer a threatening judge, He is the suffering Saviour, the victim offered in sacrifice for the salvation of humanity." (Yves Christ, ibid p. 18) (back)

(4) "This is a formula to glorify God, al-Hamda, that is to say "glory" is used here in direct relation with the central topic of the tympanum. This translation was confirmed by the department of languages and translations of al-Azhar University in Cairo. A first reading was made by Ms. Madeleine Viré, from the Arab Institute for Advanced Studies in Tunis, who saw the word Al Youm, i.e. "bliss". (Cf. Proceedings of the Society of Sciences and Arts of Aveyron, t. XXXVIII, 1954-58, p. 339.). [...] The word al-Hamda ("Glory to God") adapts so well to the topic of the Last Judgement on the tympanum of Sainte-Foy in Conques, that it is no longer possible to attribute this inscription a simple decorative value. Its author, the Master of the tympanum, or less probably a member of his team, was fully aware of what he was engraving at the bottom of the angel’s dress. Did he come from Mozarabic Spain? The question may arise." Jean-Francois Faü, linguistic attaché at the Embassy of France in Cairo, "About the kufic on the Angel playing the oliphant in Conques Sainte-Foy’s tympanum", in Enfer et Paradis (Heaven and Hell), Conques, Papers 1, European Center of Medieval Art and Civilization, 1995, p. 67-70.) This encrypted statement holds, together with the other inscriptions, the clue to the interpretation of the tympanum of salvation, a clue that we decode in the page entitled "Tympanum Sesame." (back)

(back) Previous page

(5) It would be interesting to reflect on the reasons for these respective choices, according to places or periods. (back). (back)

(6) The strip at the bottom of the tympanum bears the following admonition: "O sinner, unless you do amend your manners, know that you will receive a terrible sentence" (O PECCATORES TRANSMVTETIS NISI MORES IVDICIVM DVRVM VOBIS SCITOTE FVTVRVM ) (back)

(7) It is somehow as if the men of the early twelfth century were seeking to express a sensitivity, that of redemption, and above all to represent the topographic place corresponding to it, but which has not yet been conceptualized, (calling it Tartarus for lack of a better idea), and that, starting with the last quarter of the century, when the concept (and then the dogma) of Purgatory emerges, they prefer to turn away from it to now privilege in sculpture the topic of the Last Judgement, of Hell and of the fear it inspires. (back)

Next Chapter: 3) Paradise mansions

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