The Legendary Abbaye Sainte-Foy in Conques, France
The Legend of Saint Foy
As with many stories of early Christian saints, there are conflicting accounts and always the possibility that none of them are true. Foy (which translates as “Faith”) was apparently born in 290 and martyred in 303. The dates are disputed, but the general agreement is that she was a young girl who refused to recant her Christian faith during one of the periodic episodes of persecution during the Roman Empire, and she was tortured to death as a result. The popular legend is that she was burned to death on a red-hot griddle.
The martyrdom supposedly took place in the town of Agen, which is at least 50 miles to the west of Conques, and that was where Ste Foy’s remains were kept as relics in a monastery. However, during the 9th century, a monk stole the relics and took them to his own monastery at Conques, apparently without any efforts being made to retrieve them for return to Agen.
The Abbaye Sainte-Foy: A Place of Pilgrimage
The presence of the relics at Conques led to the abbey becoming part of one of the medieval pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There were many places along the various routes through France at which pilgrims would break their journey, and having a saint’s relics in one’s monastery was a definite attraction. This meant that pilgrims would spend money on accommodation and souvenirs (including supposedly holy relics), and over the years this led to places such as the Abbey at Conques becoming extremely wealthy.
Conques Abbey is one of 71 sites in France that together comprise the French “Routes of Santiago de Compostela” that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A nearby bridge over the River Dourdou is also on this list.
The abbey church at Conques dates from 1050 to 1135 and was built in the Romanesque style. Like most of the village, it was built into the side of a steep hill, so the outside view is very different depending on whether one is uphill or downhill of the building.
The short nave rises to 72 feet (22 metres) with three tiers of arches and 250 carved capitals above them. The transepts are as broad as the nave to allow for the maximum number of pilgrims to be accommodated. There are two short towers, with conical roofs, at the west end and a central bell tower over the crossing.
The tympanum over the west door is a 12th-century sculpture of the Last Judgement depicting both the Devil in Hell and Christ in Heaven. By contrast, some of the stained glass in the church is far more recent, being the work of Pierre Soulages and dating from 1994.
The apse at the east end contains three chapels that were built to house extra altars. The cloister is largely a reconstruction of the 12th-century original. However, 30 carved capitals have been preserved and are displayed elsewhere.
The abbey acquired many treasures over the years, some of which were donated by pilgrims who hoped to gain healing or heavenly reward from their generosity. These date from the 9th to the 19th centuries and are housed in a building that adjoins the cloister.
Pride of place belongs to the reliquary of Ste Foy, which was made from silver- and gold-plated wood. It is studded with gems and rock crystal, but the oddest addition is surely an intaglio of the Roman Emperor Caracalla, who was not noted as being particularly well-disposed towards early Christians!
Another noted treasure is a reliquary that was said to have been a gift from Emperor Charlemagne.
During the French Revolution, the treasures were hidden away by local people in their own homes to prevent them from being looted. It is remarkable that when more peaceful times returned all the items were handed back to the abbey!
The Village of Conques
The village itself does not appear to have benefitted greatly from the riches of its central feature, i.e. the abbey church. The narrow cobbled streets are lined by houses that have been there for hundreds of years, and there has been very little modern development.
The steep slopes to the north of the village have been cultivated for vines and there is a winery in the village.
© 2019 John Welford