Description of the tympanum of Conques, Chapter 3:
the paradisiac Houses of the Old Testament

Thirteen hieratic characters placed under six arches (1) and surmounted by thirteen characters who are marching, and advancing in procession, symbolize the history of Salvation through time, illustrating a eschatological calendar*.

The roof of Virtues: Charity, Humility, Faith, HopeThe Church marching towards Christthe awakening of the DeadSaint Faith

- On the ground floor: the base, the foundations of the house. For the Christian west, it is the time of the Old Testament; The patriarchs and prophets anterior to the Christian era are in what we call Limbo*.
- On the higher floor: the time of Christianity and of the New Testament. We observe, overseen by the angels, the march of the Church on its way towards the future and towards the Holy Savior. [see b in the following chapter]
- Between both, saint Faith’s spandrel, symbol of faith, ensures the passage from one to the other and the transmission of the message.

And symmetrically, the spandrel showing the awakening of the dead where we see the souls of the just ones called directly into the residences* after their Particular Judgment*.

This page is dedicated to the first floor of Houses, that of the Heavenly Jerusalem, in other words  the Limbo of the Old Testament


This "Bible in stone" relays the memory of biiblical heritage carving the main patriarchs. This is what we call the "History of Salvation".

The history of Salvation progresses with the centuries and the men. It begins with the patriarchs and goes on until today.
On the ground floor, under Jerusalem Temple’s big roof, the founder agents who keep the promise of salvation of the chosen people are resting.

We find seven prophets and patriarchs there; they are sitting frontally, all wearing the halo of the saints; first of all, in central position, is Abraham: “He is saint because he believed “ (Saint Paul).

The Father of the believers sits under the central arch which is crowned with two of the holy city´s crenellated towers; these are surmounted with the Temple’s pinnacle and oil lamp. The symbol of paternity embodied by Abraham, spiritual father of all the Chosen ones, is underlined by the presence, at his knees, of two children whom he embraces literally with an almost maternal gesture, a remarkable allegory of "Abraham's breast ".

Notice that in the Gospel, one identifies "Abraham's breast" (2) as the place where the poor, the just and the pure, such as Lazarus, are carried after their death (Cf. Luke, 16 : 22). Abraham's breast, is Limbo* (place for  the just men of the Old Testament and for the children who died without baptism); it is an integral part of the residences.

These two boys represent his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, who may be recognized thanks to their round scepters.
The symbol of these scepters announces the royal filiation of the Savior; this sign, as all the others on this tympaum, is a message of the History of Salvation.


Abraham, and his son, Isaac and grand-son, Jacob



The arches of the Celestial Jerusalem or the vetero-testamentary floor (Place mouse over image to display captions)


The link between man and the divinity is established by priesthood as the ministers gather the people near God. The pastoral and priestly Institution is represented here by a six arches and seven pillars bridge which shelters at least five of the Old Testament’s priests: Melchisedech, Aaron, Zacharias, Jeremias and Ezekiel, leading chronologically from the rite of Melchisedech (3) to the Last Supper and to the sacrifice of Jesus offered as a mystic gift. These Old Testament’s priests are represented here as prefigure heralds of Christ.  

Aaron is recognized thanks to the hand his brother Moses puts on his shoulder to invest him with priesthood.


Melchizedek, who in Salem (Jerusalem), already sacrificed offerings of bread and wine, may be recognized in the chalice (4) he holds with Zacharias.


Ezekiel, one of the three Big prophets of the Hebraic Bible with Isaias and Jeremiah, was a priest of the Temple before the deportation towards Babylon; we recognize him thanks to the tablets and to his bare knee.


These wooden pieces are another messianic message, a herald of the construction of a New Temple and a new time.
(reed more...)


The systematic reference to priesthood in the biblical times on one hand, and in the architectural construction of the arches on the other, is far from being a coincidence and cannot be reduced to a simple aesthetic process.

It is a characteristic example of the famous medieval Ars memoriae’s application (art of the memory) which has been outstandingly studied by Frances Amelia Yates (The Art of Memory, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966). As in a signposted trail, the path which connects the elements with oneanother, graphically and semantically, is punctuated with signs, marked out by signals, and by indications of direction. Let us follow the main milestones of this treasure hunt.



It is very likely that the monks commented tympanum orally to the pilgrims and the illiterate faithful. The commentator could follow the graphic signals of reminder to be guided in his speech or in the progress of the liturgical drama which he staged. Moreover, the tympanum in its integrity can be read as a route for memory.

(Place mouse over image to display captions)

Two sorts of mnemonic signs repeated over the three big central arches of the Old Testament´s gallery catch our attention: the crosses and the three points.

These techniques of "artificial memory" are inherited from Cicero, from Quintilian (5) and from the Rhetorica ad Herennium:
- The three vertical points, like the arrows, invite us to follow a direction. These dotted lines are engraved on banners painted with inscriptions. One counts at least nine series.

The first alignment is found just above Abraham, at the top of the temple pinnacle where Jesus was carried by Satan. If we follow its vertical direction, we meet the abbot followed by monks who carry, one the gospels, the other one the Tables of the Law. From the first patriarch to the abbot in exercise, there is an uninterrupted continuity.

Another alignment, situated above Zechariah’s arch, leads directly from the palm of this martyr to Saint Faith (but it also leads from his royal crown to the celestial crowning of saint Faith and from Melchizedek’s priesthood to the young martyr’s celestial ordination, as we shall see farther).

We still find these three small points after the words SOL, LANCEA and LUNA in the Sky (6) ; on both sides of the verb GEMUNT connecting both floors of the Tartarus (where they abound); and also on the last inscription at the foot of the tympanum after FVTVRVM (arrow that points towards Cerberus’s door  as to indicate a possible direction in case the spectator would not take into account the warning).




- The crosses indicate the paragraph, the passage and the link from an idea to the following one. Placed above the arches of Limbo, they mark the importance of the change in the nature of priesthood, by passing from one priest to the other and from one floor to the other to reach in fine the new priesthood of Christ.

Pass over the image to find mnemonic signs

The weighing of the souls under the feet of Christ, framed between two crosses.
(pass the mouse over the image to see the complete alignment.
 Another remarkable alignment of crosses takes place in the vertical central axis which descends from the Glorious Cross of the summit (level of Eternity) down to the wall which separates the residences* of Tartarus* with two small crosses which frame the weighing of souls during the Particular Judgment*, thus placing the psychostasic measure of everyone under the sign of Grace*

So, we can see that the medieval artificial memory is not reduced to a simple system of "reminder"! It is a real Ars memoriae.


Another trick of artificial memory consists of accommodating an idea in a precise place, by representing it with a symbolic image or a conventional, topographical sign, like a house for example. It is the method of places or loci. "A locus is a place, like a house, an intercolumniation, an angle, an arch etc. Images are forms, distinctive signs or symbols (formae - notae - simulacra). " (Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, 1966)

In the art of rhetoric, the great  XIIth century theologian Hugues de Saint-Victor recommends, in his Didascalicon, to use exactly the floorplan of a house. This topological organization, this  "topos" is repeated not only in the plan of our whole tympanum (God's house), but also, as in the Russian dolls, at the levels of Old Testament’s Jerusalem and at that of the Tartarus of the dead, each being thus sheltered under its vast roof. The same structure is repeated above the ecclesiastical procession protected by the roofs of the theological virtues.

In this domain, the symbolism of the door, which is represented twice, plays a fundamental role: the door of the Paradise or of the Tartarus, being at the same time threshold of separation and access way. Does not Jesus himself say: “I am the door "? (Jn 10: 9)


The tympanum is also a remarkable lesson of scholasticism which reveals the big mastery of the art of rhetoric by Conques’s Benedictine monks. The medieval exegesis, inspired by Origenes’s thought, (7) distinguishes four senses in the Scriptures, as Henri de Lubac admirably explained. (Cf. Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, Aubier-Montaigne, 1959)

In the same way, the sculptor combines here these four dimensions in his graphic expression. Here are the major principles:

  • The first level is the one of the literal meaning, that of the subject in the strict sense or the story in its first degree. The figure represents directly what the artist wants to express.
    For example, the girl prostrated in front of God’s hand evokes naturally saint Faith, who was tortured by Dacien in 303 for having remained faithful to her faith. It is Santa Fides or, in the Oc language, Santa Fe, to whom the basilica is dedicated, and whose relics (presented in extraordinary reliquaries) ensure the success of the pilgrimage.
  • The second principle is the one of tropology, or moral sense: it looks for figures that show the progress of the spirit towards God. In itself, as an explanation of the History of Salvation, the tympanum as a whole takes on an evident tropological meaning.
  • The third principle, the allegory, was systematically used by the Fathers of the Church who employed the method of correspondences, specially to connect the past with the present, in particular to enlighten the Bible with the Gospel: "Quod Moïses velat, Christi doctrina revelat " (What Moses veils, the Christian doctrine reveals it, as Saint-Denis' Abbot Suger would say). Numerous correspondences suggested on the tympanum underline the continuity of the  Scriptures, from Abraham to Jesus (through Melchisedech, Moses, Ezekiel, Saint John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene), in particular through the recurring themes of priesthood, sacrifice, royalty or faith.
    The interaction of the allegorical correspondences is also present in the twinning of the figures that are very often presented and associated two by two. It is systematically the case on the Old Testament floor with Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Melchisedech and Zechariah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and we shall find more examples later on.
the Chalice
The Chalice held by Zechariah and Melchizedek prefigures obviously the Last Supper.
  • The fourth sense is the anagogic sense, that is the spiritual, mystical one (it is the deepest one, that of the mysteries of Beyond). We shall give some examples through the images of the lamps, the throne or the three arches later on.

It is thus advisable to superimpose, to cross and to combine these four levels of reading to seize the whole semantics of the images and interpret the medieval sculpture in a more complete if not more just way. (8)

Saint Faith’s spandrel supplies a remarkable example of the overlapping of these four senses:

- In the literal sense, it represents the girl tortured for her faith; the irons evoke the numerous miracles by which she freed prisoners; the three arches and the altar represent Conques’s abbey itself.

- In the tropological sense, Faith symbolizes the faith; her prostration in front of God her humility, her consciousness and her submission to the divine power.


- For the allegorical sense it is the position and the shape of the spandrel that make sense: inserted between the registers of the Old and the New Testament, they seal their continuity and ensure the passage of Salvation by Law to Salvation by Faith. The corner pushed between both floors unites what it separates, as well as in architecture, the corner strengthens the unity at the same time it underlines the distinction between both levels. The Chalice and the arches echo the representations also appearing on the Old Testament’s floor.

- Finally, the anagogic sense is the most complex: we shall explain in the following chapter how the altar, the empty throne, the chalice and the steps on which saint Faith kneels down evoke her celestial ordination, her priesthood. The three intermittent arches symbolize Christianity; the new Church built in three days by Christ. Finally, the cruciferous nimbus pierced by the hand of God is a condensed image of the Trinity.

 The figures on the tympanum superimpose these four senses. The symbol determines the polysemy of figures and of prefigures, placing the ideas into one another in the style of Russian dolls, so that, for example, the palm of martyrdom of Zechariah, who was murdered on the steps of the Temple where, his father, Joad, was the high priest, also hints at another Zechariah, king of Israel, son of Jeroboam, who was killed by a usurper in 743 BC or still, at Zechariah, son of Barachias. But we can also think of other martyrs, such as Josiah (9), king of Juda killed in Megiddo or of another Josias, the scribe who was beheaded with James, son of Zebedee...

In the same way, we are now going to see that the queens and the matriarchs of Israel who are carriers of salvation constitute prefigures of Mary.

The all-male gallery of patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament concludes curiously indeed with the introduction of four women who stand, and are, all four, crowned like queens. Less rigid than the sitting patriarchs, they seem to come alive and announce a transition towards the upper floor, that of the new times, that of Christianity in motion. Two of them carry ointments; two others, at the extremity, hold a lit lamp in one hand, and an open book in the other.

How to identify these four women?

POLYSEMY OF THE FIGURES (10) : the example of Esther, of the Shulamite, and of the Holy women (top)

These four characters typically illustrate the use of the figures’ polysemy in Romanesque art on one hand, and the establishment of correspondences between the Old and the New Testament on the other hand; indeed the figures of the first prefigure those of the second.
Numerous feminine personalities can embody the providential way of Salvation: let us mention, among other biblical matriarchs: Sarah, wife of Abraham; Rebecca, wife of Isaac; Lea and Rachel, wives of Jacob.

There are also at least two queens:
- Esther married to the king of Persia who saved her people from extermination;
- The Queen of Sheba, also loved by a beloved king (Salomon), assimilated to the Shulamite, heroine of the Song of Songs. These four women are also interchangeable with the Saint women, the four women taking myrrh (among whom Mary Magdalene and Jeanne de Chouza) to Christ’s grave, on the dawn of Easter Day, with lamps, phials containing the spices to embalm the body, and the casket of ointments for the royal unction, a feminine and posthumous echo to the offerings of the Magi in Bethlehem.

Several of them, present at the foot of the cross and at the grave, the Gospels say to us, are called Mary: there is Mary, mother of Jesus, and of course Mary Magdalene, but also Mary Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of James and John of James and Mary of Clopas, mother of James the minor and of Joset... (Matthew 28: 1) Thoses women, who followed Jesus, were at the foot of the cross (Matth. 27,61 ; Mark 15, 40 ; John 19, 25) and during the burial (Matth. 27, 61 ; Mark 15, 47). Acording provencal tradition, Mary of Clopas (Marie Jacobé) and Mary Salome landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

The lit lamps supply an obvious example of anagogy: of course, it was dark because "the day had not broken yet" (Jn 20: 1). But this light also symbolizes the new day of the mystery of Easter. There is reason to consider that the disk of the beamless sun that is placed above these women and above the divided pillar (11) evokes the pale and red rising sun of Resurrection morning, the hour at which Jesus appeared. It was indeed dawn when Mary of Magdala (12) received the Good news of the Resurrection which she hurriedly took to the apostles, as the open Book she carries explains, action which won her the title of "apostle of the Apostles".

Here, the anagogical sense is as clear as can be.

These figures of matriarchs, queens and Holy women, prefigure the Virgin Mary, Queen (" Regina Cœli ") and mother of the beloved Savior. It is also possible to see here a reference to Myriam, Moses’s and Aaron’s sister, a vetero- testamentary prefigure of Virgin Mary. One may even see an allusion to the "wise virgins" that wait for the husband with lamps and phials (Matth. 25: 1-13).

Also, the love song in the Song of Songs is a transposition of terrestrial love into divine love, another example of the anagogical sense of the figures.

Royal ointment jar
Esther, Queen of Sheba, Myriam, Mary, Mary of Magdala and/or the myrrh carrying women

These women, who unlike the patriarchs, stand, as if ready to leave, accelerate the movement of Salvation which, from the Old Testament’s characters sitting in limbo, leads us to the step of the Church on the upper floor, where the right line, the royal line, leads to Christ. (next)

Next Chapter: Paradise Dwelling, the timeline of the progress of the Church

(1) there are six arcades, such as the tympanums of Lassouts (Aveyron), Saint-Genis and Saint-André-de-Sorède (Eastern Pyrenees) On compte six arcades, comme aux tympans de Lassouts, en Aveyron, et sur les lintaux de Saint-Genis et de Saint-André-de Sorède dans le Roussillon. (reed more) (back)

(2) Cf. Jérôme Baschet, Le Sein du père, Abraham et la paternité dans l'occident médiéval, Gallimard, Le temps des images, 2000. Children are seldom on tympanums. Abraham's sons look like twins. Couples are prevalent in Old Testament characters. Saint Faith was a young girl martyred for her faith. We can guess an abortion with the pregnant belly plunged into the cauldron. (back)

(3) ie offering bread and wine. This is an history of sacrifice : archangel Gabriel leads Abraham to immolate a ram instead of his own son; leading from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. Later, Melchizedek changed this sacrifice to a libation, commuting the blood of the ram into wine and bread. Thus, History of Salvation is progressing toward the Last Supper. (back)

(4) The chalice is recurrent : carved twice in the tympanum, we can found the first picture of Holy Grail in the Tresure with the reliquary of Pope Paschal II (dated 1100. See under the feet of Virgin Mary). (back)

(5) The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian (back)

(6) Sited above words SIGNUM, CRUCIS and CAELOCUM, these three points show the Direction of Heaven and link the meaning and the meant. (back)

(7) Origen, an early christian theologian has specified in his exegetical writings the four senses of Scriptures, fundament of the lectio divina (back)

(8) About the four senses of scripture, see H. de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, translated by Mark Sebanc (vol I), Edward M Macierowski (vols II and III), 4 vols, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998) (back)

(9) Josiah, King of Judah, was killed by Pharaoh Necho II at Megiddo in 609 BC. The Bible relates how he renovated the Temple, returned the Ark of Convenant to the Temple, reinstituted the Passover celebrationsroi de Juda (2 Kings 22:23, 1 Chronicles 34:35) (back)

(10) There are many case of polysemy : the four Queens, Zechariah, and Anthony the Great. (back)

(11) There are 6 arches and six pillars, but with this divided pillar, we count seven pillars like the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (back)

(12) Read the page about Mary of Magdala, aiming her rehabilitation, restoring her dignity and showing the prominency of her worship in Conques. (back)

Next Chapter: Paradise Dwelling, the timeline of the progress of the Church

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