The 124 characters featured in the tympanum on Conques Abbey Church are almost a thousand years old. But they fulfil the task they were designed to do just as effectively: to bring over a clear message. At this staging post on St James's Way to Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims who were unable to read (which in the Middle Ages was most of them) could see all too clearly on the abbey church frontispiece the terrible fate that awaited them should they stray off the path of righteousness.
Conques: a work of great authority
The Conques tympanum is one of the fundamental works of Romanesque art. Completed in around 1125, it depicts Judgment Day, a popular theme at the time. On Christ's right-hand side lies paradise. To his left is hell. In heaven, all is order, calm and love; in hell, the scene is one of violence, agitation and terror.
In Moissac, Tarn et Garonne, another major staging post on St James's Way, the tympanum on the Abbey of Saint Pierre is an admirable work of art.
Moissac: convincing the onlookers
The Moissac tympanum is a good illustration of the strategy used by the bishops of the day to lead their flock to salvation while affirming the authority of the Church. The aim was to make it look as real as possible, to convince the medieval audience.
On the portal of the Abbey Church of Saint Pierre, The old men of the Apocalypse come out of the stone, lifting their gaze towards Christ. The diversity of their expressions, the precision of the outlines, the way the clothes hang: all are carefully constructed to maximise the impact of this work devised to illustrate the different stages to salvation.
In the cloister, consecrated in 1100, the effect is no less impressive. Here, Romanesque art is expressed with unrivalled sophistication and imagination. On the 76 capitals in the perfectly preserved cloister, animals, geometric patterns and plant designs combine with biblical scenes and tales of the martyrs in an attempt to maintain the monks' religious ardour.
An open book: the stalls in Auch and Saint Bertrand de Comminges
Who were the people who created these marvels? They were both artists and artisans, because until the 15th century both professions had the same status of modest workers.
Things slowly evolved, innovations burst forth from the studios and workshops, and a dialogue between the religious and the secular began. This is demonstrated by two masterpieces created in the first half of the 16th century: the oak heartwood carved woodwork decorating the stalls in Auch Cathedral (Gers) and Saint Bertrand de Comminges Cathedral (Haute Garonne).
The 113 stalls in Auch Cathedral, devised as a spiritual guide full of advice to the pious, took more than 50 years to complete (from 1500 to 1552). They feature references not only to the Bible but also to subjects such as nature, mythology and chivalry.
In Saint Bertrand de Comminges too, the mystical fervour of the Middle Ages is combined with the humanistic sentiment of the Renaissance. The set of cathedral stalls here, complete with saints and prophets, sirens and dragons, was inaugurated in 1535.