Chapter 8 : The signs of times

Directly from the twelfth century

The romanesque clergy wanted to make it clear that salvation, like penance, are fulfilled in the present time. So this "stone Bible", a true comic strip, bears the marks of this present time... We can read there the echo of major political events, but also of the institutions, mores, social and economic circumstances and even of the clothing fashion of that time, and the reflection of its profane or sacred culture. We have already mentionned the references to the Gregorian reform of the years 1073-1085  (fight against married priests, simony and the Emperor), but there are other echoes of the political context.

Thus, for example, the rise of Charlemagne in Paradise corresponds to the desire to legitimize the Capetian succession, while the placing in the Tartarus of the Salian Germanic emperors  Henry IV and Henry V, both excommunicated, evokes the investiture controversy and their eviction by the new dynasty of Hohenstaufen, due to the election of Conrad III in 1136.


The pairing of spiritual and temporal powers, represented by the characters of the Old Testament frieze  (the two tandems of Moses and Aaron first, and that of priest-kings Zechariah and Melchizedek second) corresponds to feudal peerage, the pact of friendship; obviously with its demonic corollary, the association of bestial man with the horse, rabbit, snake or toad in the depths of Tartarus.


Go over the image to see the Tartarus’s bestiary

The knight who has failed chivalrous honor  falls into Tartarus where he meets the damned of the new merchant and financial society represented by the clothier sitting on a piece of fabric and being devoured by the devil whose foot stands on the belly of the usurer (see Job 18.15 and Isaiah 34.14 ).

What we see is a snapshot of twelfth century feudal civilization. The three main social groups are represented: clerics (oratores), knights (bellatores) and workers (laboratores). In the Tartarus of the living, orders are separated, as emphasized in the division of the lintel that shows, on one side, the powerful ones, with the emperors and the anti-pope, and on the other, the craftsmen and traders. If the clothier and the usurer represent the trade and finance that accompany the transformation of a society becoming urbanized and rich, it should be noted that farmers, peasants or villains, except for the lawless hunter, are absent of the fresco.


Nothing is left to chance: every detail bears meaning. Thus, Abraham's and Melchizedek's beards are cut in the Assyrian fashion, showing an archaic difference with the other biblical figures like Moses or Aaron, modern. Finally, the outfits: the twelfth century artist takes care of draping Christ the antique way, clothing the hermit Dadon in the eighth century fashion and Charlemagne in the Carolingian costume; he doesn't forget the details of the knight's equipment with his armor (the long chain mail shirt, hooded head of the "amice mesh") which is typical of this period when arming has perfected a weapon as "unfair and deadly" as the crossbow.




Moses and Aaron
Moses and Aarón                                               
Cota de malla
The Knight in his chainmail

Moda carolingia
Charlemagne dressed in the Caroligian fashion

The new weapons (1)


Finally, from the theological point of view, the presence of salvation finds its justification in Saint Irenaeus's aphorism: "The Second Coming is an eternal present".

In short, whether Parousia or purgatory-Tartarus, it is a representation of the present time which is just before our eyes. Indeed, the Fathers of the Church, the clerics were wondering where the realm of the dead was and when the time of  purgatory, the penance leading to salvation, could took place. Isn't the answer  simply: here and now?
Let us hear what St. Augustine says, as written by Jacques Le Goff: "The linking of penance and " Purgatory ", which will be so important in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, appears for the first time with clarity in Saint Augustine. Finally, if Augustine explicitly reduced the time for purging the Last Judgment to the period between death and resurrection, he tends to pull this purgation even farther back, that is to say here. In the background of this trend there is the idea that our earthly tribulation is the main form of purgatory; hence his hesitations about the nature of purgatorial fire. If it is exercised after death there is no objection to its being "real"; but if it exists on earth, it must be "moral". » (J. Le Goff, cited work)

Just like people sought Earthly Paradise (which they imagined to be near Abyssinia) in medieval times, Hughes de Saint-Victor thought Purgatory could in some cases be here on earth. Even today, some Christians admit that moments of paradise (or purgatory) can be experienced here and now on earth by the living. Notice that the term tartarus that is used in plural accusative (" ... sunt in Tartata mersi"; ie: are immersed in the Tartara, plural form of Tartarus). Indeed, we have before us two Tartara: on the lower floor, the Tartarus of the dead lit by purgatorial fire; on the top two levels, the Tartarus of the living without flame but with explicit references to current events. This is not the future hell: it is rather our world, our time, our present life. (see also question 16 in the FAQ dedicated to medieval society).

The tympanum shows us the edifying spectacle of a contemporary world yelding to passions, to impulses of power, to knowing and having, a society where the Pope and the Emperor are clashing with new deadly weapons, and in which heresies develop. But it is also full of the collective euphoria born from the victory of the First Crusade in July 1099. The miraculous liberation of the tomb of Christ would certainly announce the imminent return of the Messiah. The vocabulary used in the versified inscriptions translated this optimistic collective joy: LAETVS, GAVDIA, GAVDENTES (pleased, joy, joyful).



According to specialist Jean Leclercq, monastic mentality is characterized by "the love of learning and the desire for God."(2) The third and fourth books of St Faith's Miracles, the Chronicle of the Abbey, the story of the relics' translation, the liturgical pieces, the hundred and three inscriptions of the tympanum (including 12 leonine verses) are eloquent witnesses.

The sculpted work should not be excluded from the study of monastic mentality, quite the contrary, since the stone work embodies an intellectual purpose. The monastic school of Conques abbey may not write a theological treatise, but it will give an image, giving the aesthetic sensation the care to convey the message, form implying content. In this sense, the tympanum of the Second Coming is a summary of the doctrine of salvation, from the perspective of the period.

Forms and style are similar to the classical culture inherited from antiquity. Christ appears surrounded by angels bearing signs containing the list of the elected winners  (Liber Vitae) (see illustration); angels bearing censers, soldier-angels armed with sword and shield, with all the pomp of a Roman imperial triumph.
Tartarus itself borrows Virgil not only its name, but above all its iconography, from Charon to Cerberus, including Tisiphone, one of the Erinyes (or Furies), which, says the author of the Aeneid (Book VI, circa 577), welcomes the defendants "by jumping on them and beating them with threatening snakes" as we see her specifically represented on the ground floor of the devil's house, riding the shoulders of a monk, "the threatening-snakes whip in her hand," while her head is gripped by the claws of the devil and the mouth of a snake.
Even if only for this reason, Conques tympanum is the emblem of this twelfth century "Roman Renaissance", marked by a renewed interest in the works of Greek and Roman Antiquity.


Tisiphone riding the shoulders of the monk.

Tisiphone whipping the monk (perhaps a fornicator) with threatening snakes

The Latin inscriptions that comment the scenes on both parts are written in leonine verses(3). If the chosen style and the chanted rhythm  express the desire to join elegance and pedagogy, the choice of vocabulary expresses the depth of feelings, "Laetus, Gaudia, Pax, Requies", adding to the "love of learning" that joy and peace that only "the desire for God" provides.

The love of Belles Lettres, classic literature and studies, generates a mincing research for Hellenisms to the point that it encourages Bertram (the famous monk of Conques, author of the 3rd and 4th Books on Saint Faith's Miracles) to attribute to its own Liber Miraculorum the Greek term "Panaretos" (ie the Ineffable). This same appeal is reflected in the graphics of the tympanum inscriptions, where the word "Christo" is written in Greek fashion (XPISTO) and also, for the metric convenience of versification, the Greek term "demonas" (demonas). cleverly replaces the Latin "demons". (4)
XPISTO (Christ)



But, again, this mincing shape reflects the desire of the Latin world to open to the Greek world, a desire that is all the more remarkable that it comes just after the schism of 1054. This welcoming movement of the Eastern world, already evident in the choice of Saint Jerome "the easternmost among all the Latin Fathers" as the sole representative of the Church Fathers in the frieze of the Church march includes even a Sufi Islamic contribution, expressing universal (if not ecumenical!) hope in a merciful judgment in flowery kufic script ("Bliss", "Glory" or "Today 's thanks giving *") on the hem of the robe of the angel with the horn (Review the illustration). Jean-François FaĆ¼ stressed this highly developed feature: "The engraved inscription is reproduced on the entire stripe repeatedly from right to left according to Arabic script, and then from left to right following a format that is found on some coins of the Fatimid era". He also highlighted the characteristic aspects of the Spanish-Umayyad eleventh century calligraphic style, which is floral and adorns the stems of aleph and lamed with stylized plant motifs. "This plastic mode of expression shows the evolution of an Islamic art in full possession of its technique". (Jean-François Faü, A propos de l'inscription en caractères coufiques sur l'ange sonneur d'olifant au tympan de Sainte-Foy de Conques, Cahiers de Conques n°1, Centre Européen d’Art et de Civilisation Médiévale, 1995, p. 67-70.)

Conques had a priory on the banks of the Euphrates, as related by the Arab come from Damascus, converted and then ordained Benedictine monk with the name of Jean Ferret, who became a messenger of Emperor Michael of Constantinople and was sent to Conques. (Cf. the Book of Saint Faith’s Miracles) The area of ​​extension of Conques monastic culture lay in the East, from the Tiber to the Hellespont and from the Golden Horn of Constantinople to the Euphrates.(5) Far from being ignorant, the monks and artists of the Romanesque period drew their inspiration from sometimes very distant and old sources, as far back as ancient Egypt. Indeed, how can we ignore the Egyptian Book of the Dead when we see the scales of psychostasy, the lotus flowers adorning the celestial sun register or the three waves that bathe Christ's feet? Le Goff noticed that medieval imagery often resumed very old patterns that came from far away (Cf. The Birth of Purgatory).


The balance of psychostasy from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

A striking analogy between Archangel Michael and Anubis
lotus flower
Sun with lotus
Lotus flower in the sun
Divine waves
Divine waves under Chrit’s feet

The symbolism of the lotus flower deserves some explanation. At the top of the tympanum, the sun and moon frame the Glorious Cross. They illuminate it with their radiation suggested by a double crenellated aura for the sun and a pale halo for the moon. The day and of the night star both carry two lotus flowers. These lotus flowers, typically Egyptian symbols, reflect the creative power of light, source of life and divine power that transforms solar energy into lotus flowers. Sprung out of obscure depths, they are the sign of birth and rebirth. Their representation two by two is not accidental. Each bouquet, each pair, means marriage harmony, man-woman wedding, man-God  and God-man hierogamy...

Initiated at the top, the theme of the twins appears to be a major structure. It underlies the whole construction of the tympanum. This binary couple with its dialectic is a general symbol for space-time, heaven and earth, good and evil, Tartarus and heavenly mansions, Old and New Testaments, angels and saints, and all matched characters. The twinning lotus sign becomes "the general symbol of duality in likeness as well as in identity. Twinning links the creatures together, and it links all parties to the divine oneness. Balanced duality, it reflects the interior unity obtained by reducing the multiple to the single.” (Dictionnaire des symboles, Mythes, rêves, coutumes, gestes, formes, figures, couleurs, nombres, Alain Gheerbrant et Jean Chevalier, collection Bouquins, 1997)


Conques tympanum is far from being a "barbaric and coarse" work, as Merimee (but also before him, alas, some great minds of the Enlightenment or Renaissance) qualified medieval artistic expression in general and Romanesque in particular. it rather embodies the acme of a civilization that would soon sink. It is a masterpiece created by "the men of the Romanesque period [who] were aware of living a true revival. The phenomenon affected the whole historical field, from language, literature, plastic arts to economy and society, without omitting the theological formulations and psychological and moral sensibility" explained Marcel Durliat. (6) We propose now to continue its contemplation by an aesthetic approach. (next)

Last Chapter: 9) Esthetics

(1) Many weapons are represented in the tympanum. Besides Charon and his club, the devils use weapons that speak to our imagination: we find not only a crossbow, but also a fork, ropes, a sword, a pin, pliers, a knife, an ax, a mace, a pickaxe, shields, a spear and a net. An arsenal intended to impress the sinner prompted by such arguments to reform his manners. (go back)

(2) «The monks speak with images and comparisons which are taken from the Bible, and which include at the same time a mystery proper to what is to be expressed. » Dom Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Society for Promoting Christian, 1978. (Back)

(3) Impregnated with classical culture, readers of Vitruvius, Quintilian, Cicero's Ars Memoriae and even Plautus's comedies, the twelfth century monks have included in their thinking intellectuals patterns inherited not only from the Fathers Church, but also from Greek and Roman Antiquity. «The intellectual life of that time is marked by the fascination of origins, that of Cicero and Virgil, the concern for good Latin. The Church does not stay away from this movement. » André Vauchez, La Spiritualité au Moyen-âge Occidental, Seuil, p. 74. (See also our page about inscriptions. (Back)

(4) See François De Coster’s works, Pour une relecture des inscriptions du tympan de l'abbatiale de Conques, Etudes Aveyronnaises 2010, p. 308. The Benedictine and great medievalist Dom Jean Leclercq stressed the influence of Origen, father of the Church, of Greek origin, particularly in the twelfth century: «We can notice that each time and in every milieu where there was a monastic revival, we are witnessing a revival of Origen. This is true of the Carolingian reform; this is even clearer and in any case easier to see, about the twelfth century monastic revival. [...] The revival of Origen coincides with the twelfth century monastic revival which is connected to the name of St. Bernard» (Dom Jean Leclercq, L’Amour des Lettres et le Désir de Dieu, Cerf, 2008, p.93) (Back)

(5) One perceives, in this village nestled at the bottom of the wild ravine hacking the rugged wilderness of Conques, the marks of a definite globalization in this distant early twelfth century: placed on the road to Santiago de Compostela, this abbey of the Duchy of Aquitaine, lost on the borders of the current departments of Aveyron, Lot, and Cantal, it inscribes in stone references that evoke an expanded European and Mediterranean area and which refer to the German Empire (Charlemagne and his globular scepter, Henry IV and Henry V), the King of France (Louis the Pious), to ancient Rome (the imperial triumph), Etruscan and Greek roots (Charon), Jerusalem (representation of the Temple and towers), Sinai (the Tablets of the Law), the Arab-Muslim world from the neighboring Iberian Peninsula to the banks of the Euphrates (Arabic inscription in Persian kufic script). (Back)

(6) Marcel Durliat, L'art roman, Citadelles et Mazenod, 1982 (Back)

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