Les Tartares

Let's start with the Prince of This World (Jn 12: 31): Satan

Shaggy, grimacing, bulging eyes, legs entwined with snakes, the obscene Satan sits... on a paltry stool.
The Devil laughs. A forced laugh. (1) His grin shows rage.


His anger perhaps comes from what the histrionic imp whispers in his ear, for example, a verse from the Gospel of John: “The Prince of this World is already condemned. » (Jn 16:11)
Indeed, the Evil One is not entirely the master of his own home: under his own feet, a sinner is being restored! And the Apocalypse announces its final destruction (Rev 20, 10



The Benedictines cultivated a love of God... and a love of Belles-Lettres. They also drew their sources of inspiration from ancient texts.

They imagine a really Virgilian Tartarus. We indeed find there characters from the Aeneid (canto VI):

- Charon, the Ferryman, or more precisely Charun, his Etruscan counterpart, equipped with a hammer intended to knock out the stubborn deceased;

- Cerberus the terrifying guardian of the gate to hell.


Charun    Charun 
Charun, the Etruscan psychopomp ferryman

Charon et Cerbère
Charon and Cerberus at the gate to Tartarus

- The Erinye Tisiphone whips the deceased with twisted snakes.
   Tisiphone  Tisiphone et ses serpents
Tisiphone armed with snakes


Un Tartare structuré

Despite an appearance of clutter, Tartarus is a well organized space.

We first distinguish in the middle register, the Tartarus of the Living gathering the societal sins of the contemporary world. Some are venial, therefore redeemable, but not all... Here, we will find the actors of everyday life there: artisans and merchants, monks and ecclesiastics, monarchs and knights... The environment is open, without lateral closures.

Un Tartare structuré
 The Tartarus of the Living with the social failings of the present time

- The Tartarus of the Dead in the lower register is very different: here it a closed world, enclosed between solid walls. A gable roof hermetically covers this Devil’s Warehouse. Here, personal sins are represented (relevant to the private life of individuals), sometimes capital (i.e. fundamental and at the origin of other sins), even mortal (i.e. non-redeemable, non-redeemable). This Tartarus is therefore not so far from Hell.

Le Tartare des Morts
                                                                     The Tartarus of the Dead gathers personal sins

Le Tartare des Vivants qui rassemble les principaux maux de la société, dans les domaines économiques, politiques et religieux.
Il est pour cela subdivisé en trois sections qui correspondent aux grandes catégories du Savoir, de l'Avoir et du Pouvoir.

The Tartarus of the Living which brings together the main evils of society, in the economic, political and religious fields.
It is therefore subdivided into three sections which correspond to the main categories of Knowledge, Having and Power.
(Tiara & Crozier; Purse & Merchant; Crown & Sword)








The first social fault identified concerns a merchant or artisan draper dominated by a demon who devours the piece of fabric in which he is draped.
Naked, like most of the victims, he sits at the feet of a demoness, Lilith, whom he embraces by the hip.

Lilith, Adam’s first wife, was created from the slime of the earth. Judaic tradition (Talmud, Kabbalah, Midrashim), from Assyro-Babylonian tales from the time of Gilgamesh, describes it as an evil and androgynous being.

Here, Lilith, dressed in a short, fringed skirt, wears long braids but has no breasts. Reference to Lilith's "breasts always remained empty", which had the reputation of causing the death of newborns. She was also called a "still virgin prostitute" because of her practices...

Is it coincidence that she poses like a crane, even though this bird is one of the nicknames of the prostitutes of ancient Rome?


Le drapier et Lilith
The draper and the androgynous demoness Lilith

Right next to this merchant, here is the moneylender, hanging by his feet. Usury, that is to say the lending of money against interest, is a trade allowing one to enrich oneself based on the needs of those poorer than oneself, and for this reason condemned by the Church.

This greedy usurer covets with envy (a capital sin) a purse of money placed before his eyes.

L'usirier pendu par les pieds

Astonishingly, some commentators are still repeating over and over again to the tourists gathered at the square that it is a "vomiting drunkard" (sic).
Yet you just have to look and see.

Il ne s'agit pas d'un ivrogne
The Usurer and not the Drunkard (hover over the image to locate the purse)

The Master of MoneyIs is'nt he the most guilty of all the servants of money? Here he is sitting in the (hellish) flames of his forge with all the instruments necessary to mint money: the crucible, the anvil, the mallet (partly broken) and the punch. He is indeed the servant of Mammon, the god of money.
A demon makes him drink his molten gold, as Moses did to the worshipers of the Golden Calf.

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."  (Matthew 6:24)

Le serviteur de Mammon, le Maître de l'argent
The true Coiner, servant of Mammon (hover over the image to view his tools)

The plaster casting of the tympanum (2) revealed an invisible but significant detail. On the reverse of the punch, on the side used to mark coins, there is an inscription invisible from the ground. It is written: CUNEUS (the hallmark). This is the mark of the coin maker.

This is not a counterfeiter but rather the official Controller of Coinage.

The Benedictines of the 12th century. are more radically committed than we would like to think.

CUNEUS : la marque du poinçon
CVENVS : the mark of the coin maker
Hover over the image to view the inscription

About this other "collective sin", the tympanum depicts the famous Investiture Controversy (1075 - 1122), that is to say the long struggle between the Germanic Emperors and the Pope for the investiture (choose and installation, appointment) of bishops and for the definition of the balancing between temporal and spiritual powers.

This struggle, which sometimes became military confrontations, began with the Gregorian Reform initiated by Pope Gregory VII, who, for example, released clerics from all vassalic oaths (Council of Clermont, 1095) and ended with the Concordat of Worms. (1123).

But the rivalry between temporal and spiritual powers will soon resume, particularly under the reign of Frederick Barbarossa, who will elect several antipopes.(3


La Querelle des Investitures
The Investiture Controversy

The main actors of the Contest are plunged into Tartarus and exposed to our eyes, in particular the two emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, both excommunicated (from right to left):

- Henry IV, naked under his purple cloat, to whom a devil makes a reverse genuflection in derision for his false submission in Canossa (1077). He will be excommunicated several times (1076, 1080 and 1094)
- Henry V, his son, crowned but naked, also excommunicated, seems to point to his alter ego, Charlemagne, according to him unfairly placed on the right side of the tympanum.


Les empereurs germaniques Henri 4 et Henri 5    
Henry V (1086 - 1111 - 1125) and his Father Henry IV (1050 - 1084 - 1105), the excommunicated emperors during the Investiture Controversy


Here comes antipope Gregory VIII, choosen and elected by Henry V. A demon tears off her tiara and impales her with a spear (disappeared, of which only the tip remains sticking out of the nape of his neck)

L'antipape Grégoire 8
Antipope Gregory VIII (alias Maurice Bourdin of Uzerche, 1118 - 1121)

Political power goes hand in hand with armed force. Conques presents us the diabolical soldiery with all its arsenal: spiked war hammers, flails, crossbows, shields, and other weapons.

Crossbow, deemed disloyal, was anathema at the Second Lateran Council in 1140, a directive reinforced in 1143 by Pope Innocent II who threatened all crossbowmen and manufacturers of this new weapon with excommunication.


L'arsenal des soldats
The crossbow, a weapon condamned by the Church laws




We must place ourselves within the framework of the Gregorian Reform. The tympanum is harsh to erring clerics. No fewer than thirteen prelates, priests and monks populate this part of the tympanum, including a pope, a bishop and an abbot.


Les clercs des Tartares
13 clerics plunged into Tartarus

One of the major projects of the Gregorian reform is the fight against simony (that is to say, the commerce in the sacraments). Caught in the devil's net, here is a bishop thrown to the ground with his episcopal crosier broken. Above him, an abbot holds his abbey staff upside down, also broken.

As luck would have it, the scene takes place near the worshipers of the god Mammon.

La simonie
The simoniac abbot and bishop


This reform of the clergy which aims at the collective practices of the Church, also has repercussions at the level of individual behavior, castigated at the lower register, that of personal faults.

Indeed, the Gregorian reform fights against Nicolaitanism, that is to say the cohabitation or even the marriage of priests, a relatively frequent practice at the time.
Here is a couple composed of a cleric and his concubine perched on his shoulders

Le prêtre nicolaïte et sa concubine
The Nicolaitan priest and his concubine

The holders of feudal power can also commit personal sins: this is the case of this other emblematic character of feudal society, the knight in chainmail. With his mount, he is the first to fall into Tartarus. A felonious knight, he betrayed the moral code of chivalry meant to defend the widow and the orphan and sinned through pride (a capital sin, that is to say a main sin at the root of all evil according to Pope Gregory the Great).

As the Magnificat proclaims, “He hath scattered the proud [...] He hath put down the mighty from their seat .”






Le chevalier félon
The unhorsed knight: the Superbia (vice of pride) thrown down

.The anthology of humanity's failings does not stop there. It continues in the next chapter.

7th capter: The Hierarchy of Sinns  

(1) About laughter, see the section Is the tympanym funny? (in french) (return)

(2) The integral molding of the tympanum of Conques was made in 1939 by Camille Garnier. It is exhibited at the Cité de l'architecture & du patrimoine at the Palais de Chaillot, in Paris La moldura integral del tímpano de Conques fue realizada en 1939 por Camille Garnier. Se exhibe en la Cité de l'architecture & du patrimoine del Palais de Chaillot, en París. (return)

(3) A similar conflict in England opposed the Archbishop of Canterbury to Henry II Plantagenet between 1160 and 1170, the date of his assassination in the cathedral by the king's henchmen. The Abbey of Conques is honored to venerate a statue of Saint Thomas Becket, a vestige of the chapel, now disappeared, which was dedicated to him. Un conflicto similar en Inglaterra enfrentó al arzobispo de Canterbury con Enrique II Plantagenet entre 1160 y 1170, fecha de su asesinato en la catedral por los secuaces del rey. La Abadía de Conques tiene el honor de venerar una estatua de Santo Tomás Becket, vestigio de la capilla, hoy desaparecida, que le estaba dedicada. (return)

Previous page


Previous Page