Le Bien et les élus au Paradis et dans les Limbes Le Mal dans les Tartares Rythmes binaires et ternaires

The composition of the tympanum is organized according to geometric rules punctuated by repetitive structures, sometimes binary, sometimes ternary.

A first structure stands out: that of a diptych with two very distinct worlds:
- to the right of Christ: the Good, the Elect in Paradise;
- to his left: Evil, and tourmented souls tested in Hell.

Un diptyque
The diptych of Good and Evil

Between these two panels, the central space dedicated to Christ in Glory, in the heart of his Mandorla, insure a transition. However, the importance given to this central panel by its dimensions and  its narrative function ultimately transforms the dual composition into a true triptych.

The central panel of the parousia constitutes the main element of the composition

Un triptyque
The triptych

Another structure is easily perceptible: the division into three registers:

Une division en 3 registres
The 3 registers

This horizontal division corresponds to a spatio-temporal structure which distinguishes three places (celestial, terrestrial and underground worlds) but also three times (eternity, present, past)
- Upper register = time of Eternity / celestial world
- Middle register = Present time / terrestrial worlds
- Lower register = Passed / underground worlds.

La structure spatio-temporelle du tympan
Spatio-temporal Structure


Now just have a look to the vocabulary about the different places which occupy the whole space of the tympanum of Conques. Theologians call them the “Mansions”.
Inventory :
- In the upper register, Heaven, the home of the Father (We will return to this very soon);

Le Ciel
Heaven, the room of the Father and the angels (see chap. 4)

- In the middle register on the right hand of the Messiah: the paradisiacal Mansions where the elect advance in procession towards Salvation: this is the Church go marching in during present time;
L'Eglise en marche
The heavenly residences and the march of the Church
- In the lower register, in limbo, the "Bosom of Abraham", this kind of "antechamber of Paradise", relates the beginnings of the History of Salvation in the time of the Old Testament.
Le sein d'Abraham
The Bosom of  Abraham or the limbo inside New Jerusalem


Le sein d'Abraham
The Bosom of  Abraham stricto sensu
Chapiteau Unterlinden
The Bosom of  Abraham , Romanesque capital, Unterlinden museum (Colmar, Alsace)

Abraham is represented with open arms embracing his descendants (Isaac and Jacob): it is the image of his Bossom in the strict sense. But the symbol of universal paternity also encompasses all of the Righteous of the Old Testament, gathered under the arches of Heavenly Jerusalem. This is the broad meaning of Abraham's bosom.


What is Tartarus?

Les Tartares

It is with this term that the places located to the left of Christ are textually designated on the tympanum:
“HOMNES PERVERSI SUNT IN TARTARA MERSI” (Thus all the perverts are plunged into the Tartarus).

Tartarus is a Latin term from the Greek Τάρταρος (Tartaros) which designates the abode of the dead. It is the equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol (1). Or rather Gehenna, originally an antechamber, a transitional stage of purification of souls. In Greek civilization, it is a vast underground region which contains, among other places, the palace of Hades. There we meet Sisyphus, the three Erynies (or Furies) such as Tisiphone and Megara, the Gorgons, the Cyclops, the Titans, the Hecatonchires and all the chthonic deities (Hades, Demeter, Persephone...)

Sisyphe, Gorgonnes, Erynies, Démeter et Perséphone

Christian civilization keeps the term in the New Testament, where it is used just once. It is therefore a hapax, inserted in the second epistle of Peter: “For if God did not spare Angels when they sinned, but sent them in Tartarus and delivered them to the depths of darkness, to be held reserved for Judgment [...] if it is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the Day of Judgment." (2 Peter 2:4 - 9)

Tartarus is therefore a place of waiting for the Last Judgment. (2) The quote is interesting because we learn that even angels (fallen angels, sinners) can be sent to Tartarus!
Moreover, several demons in Tartarus got wings, like angels:

Lucifer, the Fallen Angel

démon ailé

Four winged demons

We can draw another lesson from this verse: it is that some sinners, plunged into this place of darkness awaiting the Judgment, can be "delivered from the trials " and ordeals: this is exactly what the tympanum of Conques shows. It is only a few, the “godly” who will be rescue because they believe. (Their faith save them).

N.B. The term Tartarus is here in the plural form (Tartara): there are several Tartarus. We can distinguish the Tartarus of the Living (middle register of present time) and the Tartarus of the Dead (lower register of the past). We will see that they are quite different in content and structure (3)

Un terme pluriel : les Tartares

But, before diving into the deep Tartarus, let's ask a few questions:


Tartarus is Hell, but it’s not just and only Hell:
- it could be temporary and open: an escape or even an exit are possible;
- it is sensitive to the intercession and to the suffrages of the saints;
- it can admit a restoration process;
- one could benefit from a possible grant of Grace.


- Not really either, because if in this place of the dead we find venial sins that can be redeemed ie forgivable, redeemable), we also find mortal sins which are not. The first abound in the Tartarus of the Living in the middle register and the seconds are numerous in the Tartarus of the Dead which actually looks like Hell.

- NOT AT ALL, they say, because there cannot be devils in Purgatory!

This strong argument is brandished by some of our opponents, focused on the absolute and exclusive presence of Hell to the left of Christ of Conques. These ecclesiastics, still influenced by a Manichaean conception, were undoubtedly right from the 17th century, but they are mistaken for the 12th century.

On this subject, they should read the 42nd sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153) about his vision of the five regions of the afterlife. Here is what he wrote about the third region, that of purgatory precisely:

I will see how a Father full of goodness abandons into the hands of the tempter the children whom he must then glorify, not so that he may kill them, but so that he may purify them; not to incur his wrath, but to obtain his mercy; not for their destruction, but for their instruction."  Saint Bernard, Complete Works, Volume III, Various Sermons, XLII, 5. Read the french version online on the website of the Saint Benedict Monastic Library)

For pleasure, we also offer them an image taken from the Alsatian manuscript of The Golden Legend (15th century preserved at the Library of the University of Heidelberg) representing the Purgatory of Saint Patrick (4)

Le Purgatoire de saint Patrick
(sce : Librairy of University of Heidelberg)
Tartarus is not (only) hell! And here, in Saint Patrick's Purgatory, there is indeed a little devil in purgatory..

The Tartarus of Conques is a complex, nuanced universe which shares common characteristics with Hell but also with Purgatory, but it is nevertheless distinct from them.
It is halfway between the two and does not tolerate sweeping judgments. Still, the principle of the intercession of the saints and especially their suffrages are perfectly consistent with the concepts of Restoration and Purgatory. Conques appears as a key stage in the genesis of the dogma of Purgatory. This tympanum appears as an intuition, a premonition, a prefiguration of the concept of Purgatory.   By proposing a more nuanced and subtler response than the simple alternative of Hell vs. Heaven, Conques takes sides against Manichaean Cathar heresy which was expanding then in Languedoc.


Let's go on the analyzing of the structure of the Tympanum. Its composition follows a well-thinked construction. The Benedictines took up the methods of scholastic teaching established by Hugh of Saint Victor. This future Director of the Victorian monastic school wrote around 1130 a teaching manual, the Didascalicon, a reading method which very quickly enjoyed enormous success through Western Christianity. Actually, Hugh, an important link in the transmission of ancient heritage, takes up classical educational principles borrowed from Quintillian. (5)

Le Didascalicon
L'Institution oratoire de Quintilien


Hugues recommends an effective method for structuring and clarifying a speech: it consists of organizing it like a house plan, with its fundamental bases, its entrances, its logically arranged rooms, its floors, its doors and windows, etc. Each idea then takes place in a locus, in a significant place.

The designers of the tympanum applied this trick exactly :

Le plan de la maison
The plan of the “Father’s House

Like nesting dolls, the houses fit into each other. Under the great roof of the gable, the “House of the Father” shelters not only the roof of the heavenly Jerusalem but also that of the Devil’s warehouse, because “He reigns over both worlds”. In this model, everything is in place: from the gates of Paradise and Tartarus, the walls, the arcades, the floors and ceilings which bear the inscriptions (tituli), to the gable roofs. 

Thus, te space is very compartmentalized.

Notice the details: the towers and battlements of the ramparts, their stones and even the fittings are designed!

The luminaries and the pinnacle of the Temple of Jerusalem dominated by the crenellated towers of the ramparts
(placed in the center of the arcature, it marks the locus of the Hierosolomytan omphalos of the Christian world)
Les ferrures de la porte du paradis
The lock and hinges of the gate of Paradise

The framework of the composition is now fixed, it is time to explore the carved scenes. Fourth chapter: decryption of the scenes

(1) Sheol, like the belly of the monster that swallowed Jonah, closely resembles the Tartarus of Conques, like a place where divine Grace penetrates: “from the bosom of Sheol, I called, you heard my voice. [...] Yahweh commanded the fish which vomited Jonah onto the shore. » (Jonah 2, 3; 11) (return)

(2) Saint Augustine (De Genesi ad Litteram, 12:32) and Honorius Augustodunensis (Elucidarium, 3, 2) believe that there is a temporary place of waiting while awaiting the advent of Christ. They undoubtedly rely on the Apocalypse of John: “Death and Hades [i.e. Tartarus ] returned the dead they were guarding, and each one was judged according to his works” (Rev 20:13) (return)

(3) We could cite here the description of Purgatory by Geoffrey of Poitiers (died in 1231): “There are various dwellings in Purgatory: some are called dark places of darkness, others hand of hell, others mouth lion, other Tartarus." (Quoted by Jacques Le Goff, The birth of Purgatory, Folio Histoire, ed. 2002). (return)

(4) The Purgatory of Saint Patrick (Tractatus de purgatorio sancti Patricii) is an account by a Cistercian monk of H. (Henry?) of Sawtry, in the 1180s and soon translated into French in a famous lay of Mary of France (l'Espurgatoire Seint Patriz), poet of the Romanesque Renaissance at the end of the 12th century. The story tells how Saint Patrick obtained from the Lord the creation of a place, in Ireland, where sinners would be purified of their sins. Image source: St. Patricks Fegefeuer, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, "Elsässische Legenda Aurea" — Straßburg - Werkstatt von 1418 - 1419 (Cod. Pal. germ. 144, folio 338r) Source : Bibliotheca Palatina. (return)

(5) Quintilian, a Latin educationalist from the 1st century AD, author of The Oratory Institution (De institutione oratoria) is famous for his method of analysis based on the key questions: Who, What, Where, When, How, Why? (WWWWWH method) (return)

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