Today, the medieval village of Conques is a truly stupendous tourist destination. But this was not always so—a thousand years ago it was struggling to attract visitors. Located in the middle of the inaccessible, remote, and difficult country for travellers, something special was required.
Nevertheless, monks in the Middle Ages were pretty sharp at marketing. They quickly worked out that the best way to attract pilgrims—and get them to loosen their money pouches—was to have a powerful relic on show. Preferably one with a history of miraculous cures. Or something that would aid and enhance a pilgrim’s chances of getting to Paradise.
The real deal ou pas?
Unfortunately acquiring authentic relics in France had its problems. Christ had never visited Europe, so there wasn’t much around. But inspired marketing soon solved the issue—a lively trade in holy relics was born.
Even though the most ham-fisted Roman executioner could hardly have used more than half a dozen or so nails, over 30 churches soon professed to have a Crucifixion Nail. And fragments of the True Cross, bits of Holy Shroud and pieces of the Crown of Thorns were always great crowd pleasers. However, the best pullers must surely have been Christ’s foreskins. And they were certainly spread around.
But wait! Forewarned is forearmed regarding the Holy Foreskin.
Since 1901—in an attempt to prevent levity or a stoking of the authenticity debate—the Vatican has warned Catholics that discussing Jesus’s prepuce (carne vera sancta) would result in excommunication.
You, therefore, read on at your own risk!
The story at Conques
So, back to the medieval village, where the monks had tried everything to attract pilgrims—without much success.
Eventually, their eyes turned to Agen Cathedral.
It was lucky enough to have the relics of St Foy.
She’d been making miracles and attracting hoards of visitors for years.
Her statue could—amongst other pretty impressive feats—restore sight even when the victim’s eyes had been physically gouged out.
So, a heist was planned.
And, although it took an imposter monk 10 years to pull off, he eventually nicked it from Agen and took it to Conques.
But, putting all this flim-flam aside, there’s no doubt that the Romanesque cathedral of Conques is one of the larger jewels in the crown of European church architecture.
All the classic Romanesque features are on display.
- A cruciform ground plan with a high barrel vault over the nave.
- Narrow supporting aisles and asymmetrical capitals with biblical themes.
- And only rounded arches—not a pointed one in sight.
The result: a mysterious and thoroughly intriguing interior.
And don’t miss St Foy’s magnificent—if stolen—relics. They’re on show in the trésor. Her statue, which contains her actual skull, is covered in gold foil and smothered in a profusion of precious stones. She is a seriously impressive sight.
Then there’s the stupendous tympanum—a marvel of medieval storytelling.
Christ in Glory is showing all the naughty people the way to hell. And he points the great and the good towards Paradise.
But wait! Isn’t that Charlemagne amongst the nice guys?
Yes, there he is being led towards Christ by the Abbot. What? Has the sculptor just somehow forgotten his massacre of 4,500 people at Verden?
Or is it something to do with Charlemagne’s gift to Pope Leo III in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor?
Nothing less than Christ’s foreskin. Or one of his foreskins anyway. Because, according to a respected Holy Foreskin expert, there were between 8 and 18 of them.
Hang on! This could be leading us all astray.
This is meant to be an article about Conques. But Christ’s private bits seem to have hijacked the conversation. So perhaps it would be safer to stop right here. Because we don’t want to get anyone excommunicated do we?
Have you ever been to Conques? What else did you discover there? Share your thoughts & experiences with us below.
All images courtesy of Ray Johnstone