✿ Lessons in Stone (Dennis Aubrey) ✿

In early October last year, PJ and I returned to Conques for two days. While there, we saw something that took us back to the origins of this great pilgrimage church. In the late morning, I was photographing the tympanum over the west portal. This sculpture has the same subject as many similar works, the Last Judgment. The tympanum of the Basilica of Saint Foy astonishes with its imagination and power and is in remarkably fine condition. There are still traces of the polychrome painting that originally colored the work.

Tympanum of the Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As might be expected on a fine October morning, there were a number of people in the square admiring the sculpture, but one group got my attention. A Danish family of four – the parents and two boys aged perhaps twelve and seven – were standing in front of the tympanum. The father held the hand of the younger boy and was explaining each scene of the complex carving. He pointed out the details and then how each scene fit into the overall scheme of the Last Judgment. The more he explained, the more the boys understood and, perhaps more importantly, the more awed they were.

I saw him point out the wonderful detail of the weighing of the souls. An angel and a devil are determining whether a soul goes to heaven or hell, and the devil is cheating. His finger is clearly pressing on the scale to tilt the balance in his favor. The boy was aghast at this cheating, but the father smiled and said, “Han er en djævel”. “He is a devil.”

Tympanum detail, “The Weighing of the Souls,” Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I watched the scene for a full fifteen minutes as the father explained the scenes one after the other. Most of their time was spent reviewing the torments of hell, which are far more gruesome (and interesting) than the benign rewards of heaven.

Detail of Tympanum, “Torments of Hell”, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the small boy showed intense interest in the panel of Saint Foy, where the hand of God reaches down to bring her to heaven as the reward for her faith and martyrdom. Indeed, the name “Foy” means “Faith”.

Tympanum detail, “Sainte Foy”, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The scene reminded me that this exchange was the purpose of the tympanum in the first place. It was a vehicle to instruct and awe the pilgrims as they made their journey of penance. The stories told there reminded the each person of the importance of the pilgrimage and why it was important to endure the hardships that accompanied it. And it was clear to me that this same scene had been played out by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, parents and children, over and over. For almost a thousand years, these stones have witnessed their story being explained from one generation of the faithful to the next.

Later, we stopped for lunch in a small restaurant (aligot and saucisson, of course) and saw the Danish family sitting at the table across from us. The table straddled the interior and exterior of the restaurant. The father, mother and youngest son were inside and ate heartily, laughed, and talked. But the older boy sat on the outside, eating quietly and looking down the street. In the distance, visible across the square, was the church and its tympanum. I could only imagine that Saint Foy was still speaking to him, sparking imagination and reflection. The stones of the great abbey church had done their work again, as they had for their thousand years.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If you are interested in more about Conques, here is an article on different tympana in France and an article PJ did on details of the tympanum.

16 thoughts on “✿ Lessons in Stone (Dennis Aubrey) ✿

    1. Stephen, what Ruskin called the savage energy of medieval art is so apparent here – the figures breaking through the boundaries into the accompanying panels, the dynamism of the characters. It is a masterpiece.

    1. Viv, the ability of the tympanum to capture the young imaginations was the icing on the cake for me. To see the older of the two boys sitting on his chair, staring down the street to the church was proof that those artists knew exactly what they were doing.

  1. Three years now I needed perspective during the last few months of my 33-year-old stepdaughter’s life. As I began a two day retreat at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, the spiritual guide asked whether I was concerned for the state of Katherine’s soul. “No,” I said, “I don’t believe in hell.” “Well,” said the wise Benedictine monk, “We Catholics believe there is a hell, but in all likelihood, there’s nobody in it.”

    Like the tympanum in your photos and commentary, the Faure Requiem’s Libera Me strikes the deepest chords of my soul – both the horror of despair and separation (which is hell itself), and the cry for the hand of God that reaches into our hells to fetch Saint Foy and the not-so-faithful such as I from the torments of the human soul and psyche.

    Thank for you for a wonderful piece. No wonder the boy continued to fix his gaze on the tympanum down the street.

    1. Gordon, your note elicited so many responses for me. First of all, I felt “If there is a hell, I hope it is populated” because there are people who intentionally inflict such horrors on their fellows that no other punishment other than eternal damnation is appropriate. Alas, I don’t believe in hell, though. I know how important the Faure work is to you – and how much music moves you. I think we share this.

      Finally, your retreat at Saint Johns Abbey brought to mind the extraordinary Saint John’s Bible. I used to be a calligrapher (of course) and Donald Jackson was one of my heroes. This post is a tribute to my teachers, Roger Marcus and Arnold Bank, and through Roger, the work of Donald Jackson.

      Thanks for writing, as always, Gordon. It is a pleasure to see your name on a comment.

      1. The St. John’s Bible is a great work of art. It’s an interesting set of questions – intentional evil, punishment, consequences, repentance, un-repentance, forgiveness, and the power of love to heal and recreate. William Sloane Coffin once declared that there was more mercy in God than sin in us. I know enough of my own shortcomings and offenses to take hope that not everyone who belongs in hell is or would be there if such an eternal state were to exist.would be there. As the Benedictine explained it from his tradition, the category of “Hell” preserves God’s prerogative as the only Judge of the living and the dead,, but it is in the face of the Prince of Peace whose Reign is Love that we see the eternal nature of the Judge. Anyway, that’s my take on it.

  2. How nice to visit again Dennis, it’s been far too long, superb photographs as always, this tympanum is wonderful and the story about the two boys and their reactions, terrific. Your observation that they were more interested in the violence and torments of hell made me smile, typical boys. They are fortunate of course to have, as we had, parents who showed them the wonder of such things. One worries that not all young people really get encouraged to look properly at our past and its artistic glories. If nobody takes the time to guide them through it, how will they feel those links of connection,? A sense of connection of course that is vital for some sense of connection & understanding of the past, and indeed for a true and rounded understanding of the present. Anyway, excuse me pontificating, (sorry!) Really I just wanted to say what a pleasure it is again to visit. My admiration & very warmest regards. – Arran.

    1. Arran, welcome back and feel free to comment, pontificate, or orate to your heart’s content. I always reserve a soapbox for you.

      Your comment identifies precisely what caught my attention. I was waiting for the sun to drop behind the buildings on the other side of the parvis so I was doing nothing but admiring the tympanum. Many people were looking, but the group of three stood out because they took so long and were so engaged. They were only 20 feet away so I could try to eavesdrop as much as I could. I took notes on my cell phone note pad because I knew this was something to be recalled later. My notes even have my phonetic transcription of the father’s explanation – I wrote “Hanner enja val.” Later I broke it down into syllables: han er en ja val.

      “Ja val” was, of course, “djævel” and the phrase came out to be: “Han er en djævel”.

  3. many thanks for the occasionally use of the soap box Dennis, 🙂 It’s a privilege, & one I’ll certainly endeavor never to abuse. Also have to say, very impressed by your ability to record & transcribe those scandinavian phrases phonically, well enough to translate them later. You had me scrambling for my Google Translator as well in fact. Never expected to learn some Danish today, but delighted I have! As always, with your great posts; the djaejal’s in the detail !

    1. Arran, the trick was actually not so great, since I knew the panel that they were talking about, and the context. The boy was aghast at the cheating and the father’s response had a little of the “but of course he cheated” tone to it. That’s how I was able to find the word devil. And yes, the the djævel’s in the detail!

  4. European children are taught to be aesthetically sensitive to their ancestors’ art, which is intentionally meaningful. While I was studying art history I was also raising sons and attempted to teach them, like a European parent, about interesting artworks, taking them to the art gallery etc, but they couldn’t get into it. I think it’s because the European tympanums and sculptures are in public, in the street, and people don’t have to go into a gallery to see them, that they interest children more. Also, as you’ve shown, they are full of meaning, unlike modern Australian sculptures and art generally, which are so abstract there’s nothing to explain.

    1. Trish, the point you make about the art being public makes a big difference. The tympanum on the north portal of the Cathédrale Saint Etienne of Cahors is filled with scatological details and I suppose that every generation of young Cadurciens stood in front of that sculpture, jaws open as the realized what was being depicted. But another thing that we’ve seen is long lines of school children snaking through the churches and cathedrals while a nun or priest explains what is going on. Kids are kids, but there is fascinating stuff if their imaginations can get sparked.

      We were at the church of Saint Etienne in Nevers with my parents a few years ago. As PJ and I set up for our work, several kids approached my parents and asked if they could explain the church. Clearly part of some school project, they brought out their drawings and diagrams and talked to my parents for ten minutes. Absolutely delightful.

  5. Coincidentally, I have been rereading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a discussion group. His porteayal of a Jesuit sermon on Hell which stretches for many pages is a verbal counterpart to the images on the tympanum-but possibly without the mercy.

    1. One of the my favorite books from my youth – maybe time to reread it again. This was the book that had me running for the library to understand what Joyce was talking about – Parnell and the like.

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