Conques is one of the great villages of southwest France. It occupies a spectacular position on the flanks of the steep, densely wooded gorge of the little River Dourdou, a tributary of the Lot. It was its abbey that brought Conques into existence, after a hermit called Dadon settled here around 800 AD and founded a community of Benedictine monks, one of whom is said to have pilfered the relics of the martyred girl, Sainte-Foy, from the monastery at Agen. Known for her ability to cure blindness and liberate captives, Ste Foy’s presence brought the pilgrims flocking, earning the abbey a prime place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
The village is very small, largely depopulated and mainly contained within medieval walls, parts of which still survive, along with three of its gates. The houses date mainly from the late Middle Ages, and the whole ensemble of cobbled lanes and stairways is a pleasure to stroll through. At the village’s centre, dominating the landscape, stands the Romanesque Abbey Church of Ste-Foy, begun in the eleventh century, whose giant pointed towers are echoed in those of the medieval houses clustered tightly around it. Its plain, fortress-like facade rises on a small cobbled square beside the tourist office and pilgrims’ fountain, the slightly shiny silver-grey schist prettily offset by the greenery and flowers of the terraced gardens.
In startling contrast to this plainness, the elaborately sculpted Last Judgement in the tympanum above the door admonishes all who see it to eschew vice and espouse virtue. The interior was designed to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims, channeling them down the aisles and round the ambulatory. From here they could contemplate Ste Foy’s relics displayed in the choir, encircled by a lovely wrought-iron screen, still in place. There is some fine carving on the capitals, especially in the triforium arches; to see them, climb to the organ loft, which gives you a superb perspective on the whole interior.
Conques Abbey’s most prized asset is its hoard of extraordinarily rich, bejewelled medieval reliquaries, including a statue known as the A of Charlemagne, because it is thought to have been the first in a series given by the emperor to monasteries he founded. But it is the astonishing gilded statue of Ste-Foy, parts of which are as old as the fifth century, that is the highlight of any visit: seated, with a blank expression, it looks more like an Inca idol than the work of a Catholic artist. Writing in 1010, a cleric named Bernard d’Angers gave an idea of the effect of these wonders on medieval pilgrims: “The crowd of people prostrating themselves on the ground was so dense it was impossible to kneel down… When they saw it [Ste-Foy] for the first time, all in gold and sparkling with precious stones and looking like a human face, the majority of the peasants thought that the statue was really looking at them and answering their prayers with her eyes.” The treasure is kept in a room adjoining the now ruined cloister; in addition, the Musée Fau, in the cathedral square, holds a miscellany of sixteenth-century and later tapestries, furnishings and medieval statues.