Chapter 9: Romanesque Aesthetics


Should we speak of aesthetics or "Ars"? Romanesque art is primarily a functional technique, with a didactic purpose. Using sensitivity has no other purpose than teaching. The idea is to look for the form that will transmit thought in the best way. This in order to make complex theological and eschatological concepts perceptible to the faithful who is illiterate.

So art is didactic and committed. Here in Conques, it is put to the service of a theological and pedagogical project, the narration of the history of salvation. The story is based on a classical pattern and applies the rules of any composition.  The different parts are balanced, they combine in a plane, and according to the laws of symmetry, rhythm, proportion, movement, diversity, repetition, opposition or similarity, in other words  all artifices available to the "artifex", the craftsman- artist.

We may include, among other features, the twinship of characters (evident under the arches of the Old Testament patriarchs as these are presented in pairs), or the repetition of topics: for example, three women, the Virgin Mary, Saint Faith, and Mary Magdalene appear twice together, as well probably as the Nicolaitane (first with his concubine and then ridden by Tisiphone ).
The topic of priesthood is mentioned several times, for example with Aaron, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, St. Peter, St. Jerome (Hieronymus) or the abbot or even Saint Faith;  while that of the chalice is repeated in the Old Testament with Melchizedek and, of course, in Saint Faith's spandrel.
The throne is also a redundant topic, whether it is occupied by Christ or by Satan or when it is represented empty behind Saint Faith.
Here, as we have seen, the plan adopted and several times reiterated, sometimes inserted, is that of a house: foundations, pillars, arches, peristyle, roofs, rooms, corridors, windows, thresholds, doors, entrances and exits, passages, up to the detail of the brick walls which are represented... in this well structured and compartmentalized space, openings carriers of meanings were knowingly included. (
More about circulation inside the tympanum in french).

bricks paradise's door
brick Tartarus' door

The walls of the two houses. Each has a gate, a rounded and decorated one for the first, a square and simple one for the other.

The architectural layout of the House of God

Red line: separation between past and present, New and Old Testaments, the living and the dead
Orange line: the passages, doors, hatches, and loopholes that allow passage.
The protective roofs of the church are in green, the heavenly Residences in blue, and that of the Devil warehouse in black

Also savvy mathematicians quite found of sacred geometry  undertake the study of the tympanum.

sacred geometry

Many  geometric  figures, visible or hidden,  (pentagrams, hexagrams, heptagrams, rectangles, squares, circles, vesica piscis, rays, angles, lines, points,  etc.) must be identified, decoded and interpreted. Many details, such as the number, shape and position of the stars represented in mandorlas remain to be explained. For example, what do the six stars in the first mandorla represent? Are they the six planets of the solar system known at the time? What do the eight branches of the star above Christ's right hand mean when others only have six? These are signs whose meaning still eludes us sometimes. There is still a field of study to clear...


One will notice the correspondence between the interior of the basilica and its facade, the whole edifice being cadenced by a seven step rhythm (7 panels of the middle register, 7 arcades of the Old Testament, 7 sequences of the dead’s Tartarus...). (To see pictures and more information in french click here)

One can guess  that an architect's blueprint preceded the tracing of the geometric lines of the triangle of St. Faith's spandrel, of the right frieze showing the church walking on the royal road, of the angles of the roofs of God's and the Devil's houses, of the broken line of the angels roof formed by banners or the transcendental diagonal of Grace.

Geometric lines of Conques Tympanum

The realistic style, modeled on the ancient canons, mimics human nature in its gestures and morphologic constitution, for example, according to the new philosophy of Hugh of Saint Victor, who introduced the compliance with the laws of nature and of the person in theology. The tympanum, carved in the blond stone of Lunel, extracted a few kilometers away on the plateau, still bears polychrome traces (see illustration) that reinforce both the realism of the characters and their symbolism as red, blue, and gold dominate.

An example of the realism of Conques tympanum: a Christ with a Semitic profile.

Christ turns a merciful look to the world and to the pilgrims who come forward to the parvis. (© Photo Louis Causse. Reproduction prohibited).  The detail of the look full of kindness shows that realism always agrees with symbolic meaning:  the topic here is not the last Judgment when God Almighty will punish the damned for eternity; it is the Son of God made man to save the living and the dead.

This realism never abandons its symbolic function. Thus, the presence of certain anatomical details, sometimes abnormally enlarged, reinforces the semantic value of the signs. Thus hands, which symbolize possession, are important in the representation of the clothier, Lilith, and the demon swallowing cloth. The hand of Mammon, above the coiner, is frankly exaggerated. (See also section in french devoted to the analysis of the semantics of gestures)

Mammon's hand

When it comes to evoking power, arms play the first role: see Henry IV's arms, those of the anti-pope and those of the devils taking him by force. As for Knowledge, it is symbolized by the head, which is sometimes devoured by Lucifer, sometimes the only visible part of the body.


Nakedness is common to Tartarus. Except for the demon with a potbelly that catches the clerks in his net, the thinness of the Devils’ busts shows their ribs. Some only wear a histrion's skirt. Kings are naked. They only distinguish themselves thanks to their crown and to the purple cloak thrown over their shoulders, like the anti-pope. The garment is used to help identify the characters: thus, one recognizes the chasuble of the simoniac bishop or the knight's chain mail. Two women, the concubine of the Nicolaitane priest and Tisiphone, perched on the shoulders of a cleric, are topless. The miser hanged with the purse around his neck, and the clothier, wear cloths around their lower body while Charon or the usurer are totally naked. Yet the tympanum is never obscene, except for Satan showing a long pair of testicles.

satan's balls


The picture, however, requires some comments.
The inscriptions in rhythmic verses allow for the effects of oratory. Monastic liturgy includes liturgical drama, sung or even danced inside the basilica. Thus in Conques, the profane text of "Santa Fe cançon" was accompanied with a kind of braided procession and rhythmic steps like a Carol.

Naturally, the liturgical drama is externalized when the clerk in charge of teaching adds the action to the voice, mimicking the historical scenes of Conques tympanum before the crowd gathered on the parvis, like an "opera mundi". The sculpted work is then accompanied by a true opera libretto.

The "Birth of Purgatory" entails the genesis of the "mysteries",  the dramatic games that will flourish on the parvis of the cathedrals from the  thirteenth century.

Seen in this light, Conques seems to be the source of two major medieval literary genres: the theatrical representation of mysteries and epic, suggested by the Carolingian hero figuring prominently on the tympanum. Duby stressed the links between tympanums and theater: "For many years, we had used the artifice of theater to explain the meaning of the Chapter liturgies to people. These periodic representations are immobilized here in sculpture". (Georges Duby, Art et Société, Moyen Age – XXe  s, Gallimard, Quarto, p. 634...) Thus, by staging the divine drama, the twelfth century monks applied the methods of Hugh de Saint Victor evoking the Didascalicon about art and joy “the descent of the soul into the harmonies of the body."  These medieval Benedictine finally practiced a theology close enough to that of Hans Urs von Balthasar that places art and drama at the basis of the perception of God. (1)

Thus, by combining hearing and sight, listening and contemplation, the tympanum was a powerful instrument of medieval pastoral.  It was this same connection between speech and vision that the encyclical “Lumen Fidei" emphasizes. (2) Oral interpretation is an illustration of St. Paul's "fides ex auditu" (faith is born of what we hear). (Rom 10: 17)

Jean Régis  explainations
Today, like in the past, the tympanum is explained with fascinating words


This “cartoon" made in stone, as it is so often called, uses almost cinematic devices to suggest motion and time. This is the case for example in the scene where an angel opens the coffin of the dead to welcome them in the Mansions.

Animated sequence of the dead’s awakening
Contrôle :
e eepauseempty(Stop)
emptyplay (Replay)

The face to face with “God made man” to which the tympanum invites us is the idea that ​​ "He made ​​man in His image." (3)   Therefore, the realistic style contributes to the adequacy of form and content. This is what gives birth to the sense of beauty. The pilgrim receiving his salvation from the Christ of the Parousia can say, like Jacob after his struggle with the angel, “I saw God face to face and I was spared." (Genesis 32, 31)

The highly didactic and committed art of this tympanum implies a theological reading and not a "folkloric" one. The biblical axiom "man made ​​in the image and likeness of God" has given rise to so many comments, according to periods and schools (Chartres, Victorine, Cistercian, etc.) in the twelfth century in particular, that we can only refer to the works of specialists, such as that of Robert Javelet, "Image et Ressemblance au XIIe Siècle." (4) In a word, through the lapidary theology of twelfth century Benedictine Rouergue, the visible reveals the invisible and  the interpretation of the image leads to contemplation... See also the rubric "Art History " which shows how this tympanum is a milestone in the history of art (in french).


With its realism, Conques tympanum distinguishes itself from another older Romanesque tympanum, engraved on the porch of the Church of Perse, a priory of Conques, located near Espalion, in the Lot valley. In Perse, the style is decidedly symbolic even abstract, and its simple low relief graphism contrasts with the high relief of Conques figures, which makes them appear almost as sculptures in the round.

Symbols  Leviathan expectorating the Dead
The weighing of the souls and the Leviathan’s mouth

Like Conques (so often called "Last Judgment" because of its so called "Hell"), Perse tympanum is the subject of a hasty superficial, and wrong interpretation, which places it in the category of the Pentecosts. We think it is rather about the Resurrection and we give the main arguments in the page dedicated to Perse. We shall discover that the tympanum, far from being clumsy, conceals treasures of subtlety and many riddles.
In a style that is completely different from that of Conques, this archaic tympanum shows an almost abstract symbolism of Catalan-Roussillon influence. To decipher its composition and grasp its meaning, a detour through contemporary art will bring some light. From Kandinsky's pamphlet "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" to Picasso's perspective, from the decoration of Vence Chapel by Matisse to Chagall's "Fiddler on the Roof", we find enough correlations to wash this work of all contempt and give it its proper place in the history of Romanesque art. If Conques-the-realist manifests the immanence of the Spirit, Perse-the abstract represents its transcendence. Conques embodies history, the present, action, the here and now, existence; Perse, the Word, the afterlife, the spirit, the essence.  The two worlds are but one. With the tympanums of Perse, Cahors and Conques, we are in the presence of three jewels whose originality is sufficient to award their creators the status of Romanesque school of Aquitaine.

Perse Effusion of the Spirit on the 10 apostles Mary receives the Holy Spirit Weighing  the soul in the kingdom of the Dead Satan Leviathan expectorating a soul Christ in the most eastern corner of the tymanum Dove of Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire Effusion of the Spirit on the 10 apostles Moon Sun The Man (Matthew) The lion (Mark) Eagle (John) The ox (Luke)

Perse tympanum (Roll over picture to get captions. See more in french here)



The inventory of the characters and themes represented on Conques  tympanum reveals a very modern anthropology; although the term  tartar* refers to the ancient cultural substratum, its content is full of topics that are still relevant: it has to do with financial  speculation, conflict between political and spiritual powers, race for prohibited arms, lucre, sexuality, misguided science, abortion,  suicide, marriage of priests, sects. And one would like to believe that any resemblance with today characters and the questions that agitate our society today is pure coincidence? Are the ethical issues, the question of the relations between power, knowledge, and property, so clearly presented by the twelfth century sculptor,   so different from the discussions that fill our daily press?  Is it really so hard to recognize ourselves in the mirror that shows us the fallen knight, the witch's cauldron in which a round belly plunges, the inverted hunter with his inverted hare, the suicidal plunging a dagger into his throat, the usurious lender always desirous of a fuller purse, the crossbow user, the excommunicated emperor banished to the nations’ border or the amnesic kiss to the toad? 
Isn't the hierarchy of human weaknesses always the same, and doesn't their symbolic image keep its relevance?

On the opposite, the characters of the Paradisiac Residences address both our collective unconscious and our individual consciousness. There, we find Charlemagne, Father of Europe, and the whole saga of the Carolingians behind the epic gest of chivalry that will charm the West with dreams over the centuries, down to Monty Python's Holy Grail. We also see there what looks like a defense of the "women's cause" as twelfth century monks imagined it, embodied by three women surrounded with many fantasies:
- Marie-Madeleine, sometimes "sinful" and sometimes Mary from Magdala "apostle among the apostles";
- Saint Faith, a mischievous girl who posthumously became a priest of Jesus Christ, after martyrdom;
- And finally, the universal archetype of the Virgin Mary, "vita nostra" "Mother of the Living."

Between the two worlds, dialectical witness to the ongoing struggle of Good and Evil, Devil and God, the balance oscillates and satisfies our innate need for justice. It embodies the old dualistic myth at the base of any dramatic staging, and carries with it the same anguish and existential hope of human destiny. It is also a reflection of our consciousness.

Freedom of conscience, equality, justice, accountability, need for love, all find their fulfillment and their justification in the unconditional granting of divine Grace, constitutive of Creation, guaranteed by the gesture of Christ, master of all worlds. This vision is that of the Catholic doctrine of the medieval Christian West, but it expresses particularly the sensitivity of twelfth century Benedictine monks in Pays d'Oc, which can be summarized as a preference for pastoral joy at the expense of pastoral of fear.

After this story of salvation, the question seems to us settled. This is not Hell: it is the Tartar, a foreshadowing of Purgatory. This is not the condemnation to eternal punishment due to the last judgement: it is the Grace of Tartarus. This is not the pastoral of fear, but that of joy!

Let the picture enter our soul... To contemplate is to observe carefully, to go from eye to ear, from seeing  to hearing, from vision to understanding, to discover in the here visible what is there and invisible, in the face of the Son of Man, King and judge, the two eyes of wisdom, the rigor and the temperance of God.

By resorting to the grace of the beauty of forms, twelfth century Benedictines deduced from the Son of God's descent on earth the Ascension of man to heaven. From Parousia, they deduced the resurrection of the dead. In this way the tympanum intended to be performative: it induces what it shows, Grace. With the grace of the chisel, the Master of Conques tympanum has implemented Hugh of Saint Victor's maxim: "If words say things, things say something else."

Basing his argument, not on the fear of eternal punishment in hell, but on the gift of God's Grace, the restoration of souls, and the believers' redemption, this tympanum,  which was designed nine centuries ago, delivers a message that is still audible today. Our time, which hardly believes in the throes of a punitive hell, remains receptive to a humanistic pastoral founded on hope and love, and perceives better and better that a reading of the true meaning is more credible than a poor simulacrum deduced from a superficial and erroneous interpretation.


As written by Yves Christe, "The Last Judgment is nothing but the picture of God's glory, which was somehow adapted to the revelation of  humanity's fate at the End of Times" (op. cit. p. 351). Similarly, this illustrated portal that reaches us from the bottom of the middle ages, holds a mirror in which, we the living immersed in today's world can contemplate ourselves. And, just as twelfth century pilgrims did, we see the world in its current state and the judgment that awaits us tomorrow at the hour of our death. For all these reasons, the village of Conques, its church, and especially its tympanum and its treasure, deserve their 1998 registration as World Heritage by UNESCO on the Ways to Saint James of Compostela.

Through this study, we hope our visitors will realize how much Conques tympanum is the antithesis of a "barbaric work" dating from a "coarse period” as Prosper Merimee qualified it seven centuries after its erection. (5)

The tympanum of salvation is therefore presented as a work of descriptive geometry. It presents a three-dimensional problem on a plan: area, volume, movement, showing the history of human destiny graphically through time, space, Eternity, God's Grace and the sin of man. A work of measure, but an excessive one, yet an orderly one, the invisible in the visible,  the senses in the feeling of the senses, a perfect match of form and idea, of object and subject, a sum, a work of art. This work combines gesture, speech and voice; it goes beyond the view to bring the vision; it stages small scenes of great concision; it chants them with verses of a perfect leonine metric; it reveals a masterful teaching composition which is a holistic work that is complete and coherent, and includes a system of thought, representation of the earthly world, and of the hereafter, in short a true theatrical opera.

Is there in the world another work of art that condenses into such a small area, so great a range of intellectual and spiritual concepts? Is there in the world a masterpiece comparable to Conques Portal of salvation, that joins the wonder of the soul to the emotion of the senses aroused by art, and that orders with so much logic and aesthetics an anthropological analysis associated with a metaphysical story inserting man in its timeline?
What then can be said of a millenary work that remains highly relevant, not only as an exemplary witness of a stage of civilization, a vibrant reflection of twelfth century Occitan civilization (6), but even more as a carrier of a Renaissance seed, with the surge of Parousia and of an everlasting present?
What could we answer except that the tympanum of the Redemption carries Dostoyevsky's prophecy to perfection: "Beauty will save the world”?


So that we can complete the analysis of the tympanum, we now propose to look at epigraphy.

(See also the page in french about History of art)

Last chapter: 10) Epigraphy

(1) Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Divine Drama, vol.5  Lethielleux Editions, Paris and Lessius, Brussels, 1984-1990. By combining view and hearing, the tympanum becomes a powerful instrument of Romanesque pastoral. (Back to text)

(2) See Lumen Fidei, encyclical by Pope Francis, chap. II, 29, 30, Vatican, 06.26.2013. (Back to text)

(3) A God with a human face. Just like "God fashioned man in his image," twelfth century theologians gave the Creator a human dimension, up to the point of thinking with Honore d'Autun that Creation is due to the Son. For this theologian of the first half of the twelfth century, Universe, Life and Humanity are images, reflections, echoes, shadows of Christ, God incarnated from eternity on, that is to say the Verb: "Every creature, says Honorius Augustodunensis, is the shadow of Truth and Life, in other words, of Christ. Since Christ existed from the first day on, since he is, in his humanity the craftsman of all things, the world which his reason brings out of nothingness takes human dimensions. The question that held Christians in awe when facing the mystery of the world and of their own anxiety - How is the face of God? - finds its answer in the science of French theologians: this face is a human face "Georges Duby, L'Art et la Société, Moyen Age - Vingtième Siècle, Gallimard, coll. Quarto, p. 636. (back to text)

(4) Robert Javelet, Image et ressemblance au douzième siècle, de Saint Anselme à Alain de Lille, 2 vol. Editions Letouzey et Ané, Paris, 1967. (Back to text)

(5) "The front door tympanum, covered with well-preserved sculptures, deserves a detailed description. Although the work is barbaric, one". Prosper Mérimée, Notes dUn Voyage en Auvergne, Paris, Fournier, 1838, p. 180. One could laugh at the naiveté of such a comment, although it is very revealing of its time, but we must pay tribute to the Inspector General of Historic Monuments, who foresaw, under a facture that he considered barbaric, the whole aesthetic and moral finesse of the Roman civilization, and who, in doing so, was able to save the Basilica of a planned demolition. (Back to text)

(6) "The essence of Occitan inspiration shines in Romanesque art. [...] Grace is the source of all this art. [...] The essence of Occitan inspiration is identical to that of Greek inspiration. It consists of the knowledge of force. This knowledge belongs only to supernatural courage. " (Simone Weil, Le Genie d'Oc, Marseille, February 1943) (Go to text)

Last chapter: Epigraphy

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