The amputated tympanum


The amputated tympanum

But where are the infrastructure elements of the tympanum?
All portal consists of two elements:
- The superstructure in the form of a semicircle which is the actual tympanum;
- An infrastructure consisting of two support pillars at both ends of the lintel (the jambs) and very frequently a central column (the trumeau).
Form being inseparable from content, the supports sculptures are of course carriers of meaning: they make the foundations of the figurative scene s on the tympanum.

Yet, by an architectural anomaly,  the three support partsof Conques tympanum are missing here, leaving a baseless tympanum, almost suspended and cracked. In place of trumeau and jambs, a simple stone arrangement, a bare wall. Yet, these elements were originally planned, carved, and are present in Conques.
Derrame sur : San Juan Bautista Derrame norte : Isaïas

Present state : mutilated  tympanum, crippled

Reconstitution by abbot Rascol
(pass over image to see comments)

For some unknown reason, probably indicative of a disorder in the history of the abbey, they were not put in place (or were later removed) and were then incorporated into the interior of the basilica in an unusual place, high on the dark wall of the north transept. Yet these are three beautiful masterpieces, most likely from the hand of the Master of the Tympanum. They represent Isaiah, the Virgin of the Annunciation, and St. John the Baptist. (1)

Isaiah, Holding stem of Jesse (Isaiah´s tree) (North jamb)

Annonciation (central trumeau)

Saint Jean Baptiste vêtu de sa peau de bête constitue le pied-droit sud du tympan
St. John the Baptist 
(South jamb)

Reconstitution  of the original portal with its achitectural and semantic supports (Moldings of  the Cité de l'Architecture,  in Paris)  

Several hypotheses on their original location and their displacement have been proposed (2).

Anyway, if these three elements (the two jambs and the trumeau) were ever below the tympanum, the architectural plan was in perfect harmony with the theological level.
The architectural amputation of the tympanum base repeats the removal of the introduction in the History of salvation. Indeed, these three components are essential to announce the coming of the Messiah:
- Isaiah unveiled the promise; his phylactery proclaims: "A shoot will come up from the root of Jesse", that is to say, from King David's father, the ancestor of Christ. Isaiah is the prophet of messianism, of the story divine plan, of resurrection and salvation granted as a grace by a merciful God who will not remember our sinns but will offer himself in sacrifice. He announces a universal salvation: "I make you the light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth" (Is 49: 6). He is also the prophet of liberation, and he is placed -this is not accidental- vertically above the shackles of the prisoners released by Saint Faith. (3) If he is the symbol of messianic expectation for the people of Israel, for the Fathers of the Church, he is a foreshadowing of Christ

- John the Baptist, immediate precursor of Jesus, announces the close fulfillment of the prophecy, the imminent arrival of the Messiah. He also raises his right hand to clearly identify the one he annouces;
- Marie finally, at the moment of the Annunciation, accepts the Incarnation of the Verb in her flesh and opens the new era of the coming of Christ, the Savior.

Thus, the scope of salvation evolves over centuries, starting with a God who saves a chosen people but finally achieves universal salvation.

To understand the judgment announced for the End Times, one must include its beginning here.

The tympanum bears other scars. Indeed, we mentionned when we reviewed the texts on the angelic banners, the erasing of a virtue, "Temperance," replaced, it seems,  by "Constance" mention still readable at least in Merimee's time. (Read more on the interpretation of the inscriptions, in Sesame In french.)


The first and third erased banners
Go over the banners to display the legend

This "correction" of the original might reflect a theological position, which would be based on the assumption of a representation of a final judgment and a vision of Hell, "correction" based on a prejudice, which, in our point of view is anachronistic and in contradiction with the essence of the figurative scenes.

Architectural anomaly and correction of the inscriptions, could be the scars of two fractures in the course of the history of the abbey, in conjunction with the time these events occurred (see historical record). Anyway, the tympanum door bears the signs of the times carved in stone. (next)

Next Chapter : 8) The Signs of the time (english version coming soon: translation in progress)

(1) This logical structure is found on the jamb and on the side wall of the right tympanum of Saint-Pierre de Moissac abbey with figurations of Isaiah, of the Annunciation, and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist. The Tree of Jesse, David's father, is of course one of the correspondences between the Old and the New Testament. The prophet Isaiah announces that "a shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse" (Isaiah 11: 1). Specifically, members of the Nazorean clan, based in Nazareth of Galilee, saw themselves as the descendants of David and thought that a Messiah would come out of their stock. (back to text).

(2)  On these hypothesis, see the work of Father Louis Bousquet (in Revue du Rouergue 4, 1947); the abbot Marcel Rascol, (in Bulletin de la societé archéologique du Sud de la France, Privat, 1942-1945)... One can find in Les Cahiers de Conques, No. 1, March 1995, Enfer et Paradis : L'au-delà dans l'art et la littérature en Europe, p. 79-92, a critical study of the hypothetical displacement of the tympanum and its incompleteness, in the writings of Louis Causse, recognized architect of the Buildings of France, Director of the Departmental Service of Architecture and Heritage. Also Pierre Séguret, Conques, Contemplation du Tympan, 2004, Appendix II. Finally, work on the likely displacement of the Tympanum, which seem to have been originally installed in the narthex: "Le déplacement du tympan de l'abbatiale de Conques," Louis Balsan, in Minutes of meetings of La Société des Lettres, Sciences et Arts de l'Aveyron, Volume XLIV, 1984. (back to text)

(3) Isaiah is the prophet of liberation; the temporal freeing of the Jews deported to Babylon like the prisoners freed by Saint Faith, but also the spiritual liberation of Tartarus’s prisoners: Isaiah's God of is a god "who throws man's sin behind his back." "You have taken my soul away from the pit of destruction [...]; I do not remember your sins" (Is 43:  25; 44:22). He is a merciful Savior. "He will take the faults of all of us" (Is 53: 6). Isaiah announces the sacrifice : "He gave himself to death." (Is 53:12). He foresees its universality: "I intend him to be a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Is 49: 6)
Isaiah's feet rest on a dog holding a twig in its mouth. The image of the dog probably refers to the constellation of the same name. But it has the brightest star, Sirius. In pre-Christian times, its appearance coincided with a heat wave and announced the Nile flood, indicating the beginning of the Egyptian calendar. It brought the assurance of the renewal of life. The star is also a sign of royalty. In alignment with the belt of Orion (the three Magi) December 24, it is associated with the Star of Bethlehem. All these symbols announce the coming of the King of the Jews, Jesus, son of David and Jesse, source of life and resurrection. On the other hand, one can notice that the central trumeau and the two jambs refer to events refering to important dates on the calendar: St. John at the summer solstice on June 21, the Annunciation celebrated on March 25, very close to spring equinox, and finally the dog to the feet of Isaiah reminds the new year in ancient Egypt and the Nile flood, with the appearance of Sirius about July 19. (back to text)


Next Chapter : 8) The Signs of the time (english version coming soon: translation in progress)




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