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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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.