Chapter 5 : Structure of Tartarus

The concept of "Tartarus" is explicitly mentioned in the inscriptions (1) on Conques ‘s tympanum.

Many texts of the Romanesque period use this word, too often (mis)translated as "Hell", which implies that sentences are final, eternal and that it would then be a Last Judgment. (2)

In the twelfth century, Saint Bernard himself uses the term "Tartarus"* and "Mansions"* when talking about the distribution of souls after death. (3)

The words and images on Conques’s tympanum Parousia do not therefore come from popular imagination, but rather from a learned iconography and a highly spiritual imagination. (4)



Tartarus should not be confused with Hell

The jumble of the "Devil's Warehouse", which contrasts with the ordered arrangement of the Residences, is actually organized in two stages: at the bottom, Tartarus of the dead with flames ( which proof but do not burn ) ; above, the Tartarus of the living, who are well placed on the ground floor, -who were carefully represented- and who are classified on two levels. Satan sits in the Tartarus of the dead, but  the demons also inhabit the world of the living. It is remarkable that only the demons have grinning and distorted faces, perhaps out of rage at their powerlessness. The tortured ones do not seem to suffer the ordeals imposed to them. The flames do not devour the dead. Pain is not  reflected anywhere. Impassive and fearless, they are awaiting the Last Judgment and their restoration* thanks to the prayers of the chosen ones.

Tartarus, a grace of God !
The Face to Face with Christ, more or less experienced throughout life, is renewed at the time of death, during the weighing of the souls. Long before the Last Judgment, a salvation is offered to sinners (at least to those whose sins have not earned them eternal damnation) : Tartarus becomes a kind of purgatory.

It is a grace and not a punishment, because even though the tests are hard, they will mean the release of the sinner.
Mary's prayers and those of the believers,  meet the Redeemer's meekness and the King-Judge's mercy. Indeed, Tartarus is not closed ; it is not Dante's Inferno ! We have seen that, at the Tartarus's entrance  door, an angel was pulling to the good side the soul of a deceased person who still had one foot in Cerberus's den. The stay in Tartarus is only temporary : the Romanesque pastoral shows that, for most of the mortals' souls, access to the Mansions will take place sooner or later, after they leave Purgatory, after restoration*. (5)

(Top of page)

According to the Romanesque monastic vision, demons will enjoy reminding the deceased his breaches of the Law (because they themselves are fully aware of it!) during his stay in Tartarus. But because of this, they will reproduce the words which act as the test of fire that purifies. "Yahweh's words are pure words: silver refined in a furnace, refined seven times." (Ps 12 7) Despite himself, the devil becomes the Lord's spokesman, so that Satan will be "cheated" as the Greek Fathers express. In Conques, the Devil laughs, but it's more pretense than real laughing. A forced laugh. His face, twisted by the rictus of rage, shows his impotence and his disappointement  before the final victory of Christ who  is, in some way, the master of everything including the underworld. (Learn more about Satan´s rage)


What then does the little devil whisper in his ear that causes  such fury in Satan?
No doubt these words from the Apocalypse : "There are no more delays [...] the mystery of God is over." (Revelation 10, 2-7)

Satan has just understood that he is not even the master of his warehouse, that purgatory is only temporary and that Tartarus itself is a grace from God. He feels bitter, robbed : many punished people will sooner or later escape him, when their restoration comes: those will not stay in hell for eternity.
(Top of page)

Early twelfth century: the representation of an open Tartarus with the struggle of angels and demons for the possession of a soul, with the prayers of the living, with God's mercy and grace,  foreshadows Purgatory to come, as historian Jacques Le Goff defines it : "this future and general doomsday shows only two possibilities : life or death, light or eternal fire. Purgatory will depend on a less solemn verdict, an individual judgment immediately after death which medieval imagery likes to represent 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 a complex legal process. They can indeed benefit from a remission, an early release, not due to their good personal behavior, but due to external interventions, prayers. The length of the sentence depends therefore, apart from God's mercy, symbolized by the zeal of angels snatching souls from demons, on the deceased personal merits which he acquired during his lifetime and the Church's prayers  obtained by parents and friends." Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du Purgatoire, Gallimard, 2002. (See translation by Arthur Goldhammer, The birth of Purgatory, Univ. Chicago, 1984.)


Tartarus- Purgatory is the product of the interconnection of time and of the interdependence of human beings.
While some sin, others pray for their release, by interceding for the sinners with their prayers. So that to understand Tartarus, it was necessary to begin the history of salvation with its heavenly side.

Therefore the historical scenes of the devil's house are ordered by themselves.



Perversi” ? I. E. that is turned
upside down, reversed. They reversed the order of the laws.
In a corner (now a subversive one), here is  the inventory of the inversions represented in the spandrel opposite to saint' Faith's :

- Role and gender inversion:
the  hunted hunter, skewered by a chimera: a fallen angel with a hare's head, an unclean and coprophage beast. Leporids also symbolize sodomy, according to Barnaba's Gospel: this is the sin against nature. (6).


Roll mouse over to see details
Roll mouse over to see details

This hunter kisses a toad on the mouth; this is an explicit reference to the practices  of the Stedingers (sect of Stedingen, country of the Weser river delta). The amphibian's drool had the effect of erasing all memory of Christianity from one's mind. (7)

A Stedinger ritual

- Reversal of meaning :
This monk, who had probably become a gyrovague had probably sung some "Carmina Burana" and other lewd or profane songs on his rote (or Rotta, the ancient psaltery) which was normally dedicated to sacred psalms; That's why he is having his tongue torn out by pincers by a demon who confiscates his instrument.


psaltery Rote or  psaltery Blasphemous monk

- Inversion of life:
suicidal plunges the dagger in his throat, just above the Tartarus's door.

Roll mouse over to see details

(Top of page)

Despite appearances, there is some order in chaos!
In the world of the living, vices are classified by hierarchical levels: individual sins occupying the lower level, while collective sins occupy the two upper levels.

Roll mouse over to display comments

Here, three types of sins are particularly stigmatized: they have to do with Power, luxuriousness and Knowledge.
In the spandrels of the inversions, power and knowledge were already implicitly suggested: the hunter alluded to the seigniorial privilege of hunting, and the monk who utters the sacrilegious words knows the sacred chants and knows very well what he profanes. But the most obvious examples are at the level of the individual weaknesses (for example the knight, the miser or the cauldron with its evil potions); they are finally evident at the level of collective temptations (pelf, and temporal and spiritual powers) . This is the subject of the next chapter.

Next Chapter: 6) individual and collective sins

(1) The text of the whole inscriptions and their translations can be found in the inscriptions section or visualized in situ in Latin and French.
(back to text)

(2) In the vocabulary of Christian eschatology, the term Tartarus appears at the beginning of Christianity, under St. Peter's pen (second epistle, 2: 4). Brother Jean Regis Harmel, Premonstratensian canon of Conques, points out that this term is actually in Scripture, a hapax, that is to say the only occurrence of the word in the whole Bible. This Greco-Roman word replaces the Hebrew Sheol which Peter adapts for the Gentiles in their pagan cultural universe where Tartarus is simply the realm of the dead. The Christian meaning is of course quite different: for Saint Peter, the idea is to invite the converted pagans to be patient in relation to the intermediary period between death and the Last Judgment, the unjust ones being thrown into the dark pit of Tartarus while waiting for Parousia. ("God did not spare the angels who had sinned, but he put them into Tartarus in the depths of darkness, where they are kept for judgment..." II Peter 2: 4). Tartarus became a place of waiting, a transitional journey. It is even provisional, because, says the apostle of the Gentiles, "the Lord shows patience with you, for he does not want some to perish, but all to come to repentance. [...] The Lord knoweth how to free the pious ones from ordeal and keep the unjust to punish them on Judgment Day" (II Peter 2: 9). Liberation, ordeal, the two words, which do imply a transitional journey, also contain in essence the seeds of Purgatory, leaving the  punishment of the unjust ones for the Last Judgment and giving this temporary residence the dimension of repentance, the opportunity to repent, a sort of purgation and finally, the expression of redemption. This word Tartarus is thus fundamental: place of waiting, it constitutes an additional evidence which demonstrates that it is not the final judgment but the Parousia that precedes it. See in F.A.Q. question No. 7. On the correspondence between the tympanum and Peter's Epistles, see here. (back to text)

(3) "When the sins of a few, as well as the obvious zeal for the good of a few others are on trial, then the first ones, who do not  care for an immediate sentence to the measure of their own crime, will disappear in Tartarus. The others directly and without delay, the soul fully freed, will rise to the mansions that have been prepared for them." (Dictionary of Theology) (back to text)

(4) Cf. Pierre Séguret, Chapter: Les Sources théologiques, un imaginaire savant, in Conques-Perse, Flammes et Lumières de l’Au-delà, 2007 (back to text)

(5) There is an early eighteenth century description of the tympanum, quoted by Nathalie Poux in an article published in the Revue du Rouergue, which had well understood the presence of purgatory: it is the letter sent in 1725 by François Xavier Bon de Saint-Hilaire, President of the chamber of Montpellier Court of Auditors, to the paléographe and archaeologist Benedictine Dom Bernard de Montfaucon in which he refers to Christ under the name of  Savior and using the words limbo and Purgatory: "on the left, near the Savior there are four angels or saints who carry, some of them books,  another a censer and the last a standard, next to these saints is the representation of purgatory." (Nathalie POUX, Une représentation du tympan de Conques au début du XVIIIe siècle, Revue du Rouergue, n° 44, hiver 1995, p. 489 - 497) (back)

(6) The inversion continues until today, since many see today here a "poacher" punished for his violation of the (human) law and not the true hunter. In Romanesque times, the "hunters", forest men, refugees in the forest, a place of madness, had a bad reputation. They were "out - laws", living on the margins of society, violating the laws (of nature) for they were suspected of practicing both homoseuality and "charm". (see the work of Jacques Le Goff on medieval imaginary). The hare, ambivalent nightlife animal was a symbol of paganism in medieval Christendom. In ancient Greece, the hare was a pederast offering, the gift of the erastes to his eromene. (see the 480 BC Attica red Figure ceramic kept in Paris Louvre museum, representing in the bottom of the cup a young man playing with a hare) (back to text)

(7) The Stedinger were a people of fishermen, pirates and peasants - pioneers who, early in the eleventh century, conquered and drained the marshes and polders of the Mouths of the Weser and Friesland. They became a free independent-minded people, organized in popular assemblies (the Thing in german) who did not accept to pay taxes to Bremen bishops. Chroniclers (Adam of Bremen) criticized their pagan practices inherited from the ancient Germanic religions. They were also supposed to practice satanic rituals, and accused of developing a Manichean heretical sect. In the thirteenth century they were all excommunicated (1230) and pursued by a crusade launched by Bremen Archbishop, supported by Dominican preachers and armed by Florent IV Count of Holland, (son of William 1st), Duke Henri 1st of Brabant (called the Warcaster), Marie of France's husband (daughter of Philippe Auguste), and Count Thierry of Cleves. The Stedingerkrieg ended in 1234 with the Battle of Altenesch on the banks of the Weser where 6000 Stedinger were massacred. (see Claude Fleury, Histoire ecclésiastique, XVII and Journal des sçavans, volume 157, Amsterdam, 1751). This happened at the time when the crusade against the Albigenses had just ended (Treaty of Meaux, 1229) and when the court of the Inquisition was settling in the Languedoc which had fallen into the hands of the king of France (1233). Whether these free peasants were satanic or not, practices which consisted of kissing toads on the mouth or cloaca (or cats) were sometimes reported in witchcraft trials. Some satanic sects had probably noticed the hallucinogenic and amnesic effects of a toxic secretion of the toad's skin which contains, among other poisonous substances, bufotenin. (back to text)

Next Chapter: 6) individual and collective sins

Top of page
Page précédente


Back to former chapter (4. Line of the time of the marching Church)



Previous page