The Last Judgment, Sainte-Foy at Conques

The abbey church of Sainte-Foy at Conques, France, was a landmark along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims stopped along the way to venerate the relics of the fourth-century martyr, Saint Foy. The relics, which the monks had gone to some pains to acquire (by theft, incidentally), were thought to work miracles, and their relocation to Conques shifted the path of the pilgrimage route. The resulting influx of travelers made possible the expansion of the abbey’s earlier, smaller church into a full-blown Romanesque monument.

The village of Conques is nestled in a shell-shaped -valley (from the Latin conca, shell, whence Conques), and its church can’t be seen from afar, so the monks didn’t bother to build the usual tall towers on the western end of the new edifice. Also, the medieval streets of Conques, pretty much unchanged today, were narrow and winding. As a result, the pilgrim would come upon the church, with its brightly colored portal, by surprise, as if suddenly summoned by the Last Trump. Only traces of the original paint remain, but it must have blazed with brilliant reds, blues, and greens.

Figures in the Tympanum

And here, upon the half-circle of the tympanum above the door, is indeed the Last Judgment. Christ is in the center in a starry mandorla, surrounded by clouds and an almost frenetic burst of activity. Following the medieval hierarchy of scale, Christ, the most important figure, is the biggest. He sits in an energetic and angular pose, indicating the blessed and the damned with his large and expressive hands. Above him loom the cross and the instruments of the Passion, the sun and moon, and two angels with trumpets announcing the end of time.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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