Because of its mission in the welcoming of pilgrims and in the devotion to Saint Foy’s relics, the church is qualified as a pilgrimage church. It is considered a masterpiece of Romanesque art for the South of France and is classified among the Monuments historiques since 1840.

It is also registered since 1998 in the World Heritage of Humanity list by the UNESCO for the Routes to Compostela in France.

The stages of construction

The Abbot Odolric

The present Romanesque church construction started under the guidance of Abbot Odolric (1031-1065) on the setting of a 10th century basilica. The first campaigns of work concerned the lower parts of the apse and the minor apses, using the special red sandstone from Combret quarry in the Dourdou valley.

The Abbot Etienne II

The material probably considered too friable was not used again in the new project led by Abbot Etienne the 2nd (1065-1087) who continued the work towards the west side. The "rousset", a beautiful bright yellow limestone extracted from the Lunel plateau, was then generally preferred. Its warm key tones balanced the local grey schist used in the masonry as filling material wherever a cut stone was not necessary.

The Abbot Begon III

The great Abbot Bégon the 3rd, head of the abbey for twenty years (1087-1107), led an intense period of construction including the church upper-gallery and the cloister.

The Abbot Boniface

The role of his follower, Abbot Boniface (1087-c.1125), is uncertain. No document specifically indicates it. The vaulting of the church and the construction of the western facade were probably achieved under his governance.

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The vicissitudes of the abbey-church though history

The Romanesque cupola of the lantern tower, built too quickly above the crossing, collapsed at an unknown date. The consolidation works carried out in the 1980s by the Historical Monuments architects allowed a better understanding of the different stages of construction, the changes and the problems.

The main weakness came from the conical vaults meant to pass principally from a square plan to a circular one. The cupola was rebuilt during the second half of the 15th century with the deliberate choice for a Gothic vaulting.

A century later, in 1568, the abbey-church almost collapsed after a blaze set by the Protestants. The big choir columns were about to collapse after the intense fire and were held in place by iron braces and contained in a sustaining wall of masonry. During this attack, the front towers were knocked off as was the central bell tower. Since then it has been rebuilt with an extra level and crowned with a framed spire giving it the present look.


From 1837, restoring the church became possible after the involvement of Prosper Mérimée. At that time, he was Inspector for the Historical Monuments. The church was then in a pitiful condition largely abandoned since the Revolution years.

His long and detailed memoir addressed to the Ministry allowed him to obtain the classification of the edifice and a necessary grant. Etienne Boissonnade, the Arts Departments architect, became responsible for the restoration works starting with the most urgent ones. In 1874, the Arts Departments ordered a complete restoration project by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé. The masterpiece to be realized was considerable: the reconstruction of the choir colonnade and vaults, etc.

Later on in 1881, the elevation of the front towers was started, closely followed by their covering with the actual heavy pyramidal stone roofs.


The density of the crowds and their circulation determined how the abbey was constructed. The side-aisles boarding the nave were meant to direct the pilgrims towards the ambulatory. Its half-circled structure surrounds the choir, where the Majesty of Saint Foy and other reliquaries were exhibited to the people.

The quite important widths of the nave and transept were necessary in order to shelter hundreds of worshippers, allowing them to observe the priest facing the master altar during the office. This altar was located under the cupola, at the crossing of the two main perpendicular lines. Additionally, in case of exceptional attendance, people might have used the vast tribunes pierced by twin archways.

To the East, the seven chapels opened into the ambulatory and the crossing would multiply the amount of secondary altars, allowing simultaneous celebration of mass by the priests.


This cross plan with radiating chapels falls into the category of churches named "pilgrimage churches", such as Saint-Sernin basilica in Toulouse or Santiago in Compostela. Among them, Saint-Foy church nevertheless retains its own characteristics. For the most part, they are the result of natural elements, which the master planners had to deal with.


The location chosen by the hermit was ideal for meditation, but of a lesser advantage for the future raising of an abbey and a church of such importance. Sustaining walls had to be built to the northside, in order to prevent landslides, and to the south to hold the earth platform for the present cloister. As a consequence, as observed nowadays from Place Chirac, the church seems buried into a huge ditch, when from the opposite side its massive structure dominates the cloister perched above the ravine. The available area for the construction was then minimal.

The various elements dictated by the topography explain the extremely compact church plan. Here, the apse has a lesser depth and is flanked by three chapels instead of five according to a standard plan. The nave is quite short (20.70m) compared with the transept (35m).


In order to compensate for the reduced surface, the building was most developed in its height. Here stands its originality. Saint-Sernin in Toulouse is double Saint-Foy in its total length, but has a slightly lower central vault.

The same ratio can be seen outside on the high facade, which has the austerity of a fortress partly softened by polychromatic stone rosettes. From the sides, nothing alters the vertical lines of the buttresses as they rise towards the roof. Going around the building, the apse suddenly appears with its magnificent pyramidal elevation. Here, three different levels can be observed. They are built with splendid cut stones as an outside mirror of the inside structure.

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The central nave

Past the narthex covered by a rather lower vault, the visitor may soon perceive the impressive height of the building and the rhythm of the central nave heightened by its narrowness.

After considering this architecture as an ideal one for prayer, the elements of its structure can be analyzed in their main lines: centered archways, vertical supports and little ornamentation apart from the capitals as to accentuate the rigorous and severe general aspect.

The sanctuary and the devotion to relics

At the transept crossing, four massive pilasters rise up in single lines towards the supporting arches of the octagonal-framed cupola suspended over the void. Beyond the crossing, the sanctuary is composed of a straight bay in line with the nave and has the same height. It is completed by a horseshoe-shaped choir vaulted in a lengthened quarter sphere.

Surrounding the choir, magnificent iron gates from Romanesque time can be admired. They are composed of scrolled wrought iron ending with sharp spikes that top the whole ensemble at almost three meters high. Their original purpose was to protect the reliquaries from theft. Pilgrims used to gather beyond these gates, in the ambulatory where stone benches allowed them to rest from their long and strenuous walks.

The upper-gallery or "Tribunes"

The upper-gallery or "tribunes" offers striking plunging views. Its function was more architectural then for public use. In fact, they assure the general stability of the edifice.

Set above the side-aisles, their half-barrel vault on each side pushes against the vault birth of the nave and the crossings, where the thrust is the most important. Along their length, they play a quite similar role to the Gothic arched buttresses shoring up forces continuously.

This technique that appeared almost simultaneously in Conques, Toulouse in Saint-Sernin basilica and also in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela had for consequences both the height of the nave and the lightness of the side walls. The "tribunes" are widely opened by series of twin-bays set under discharging arches.

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The Romanesque capitals of the abbey-church, numbering around 250, are mainly installed within the church at the base of the half-barrel vault of the ambulatory, the nave and the transept vaults and, either at the level of the upper-gallery or at the birth of the vaults at the base of the transverse arches.

Well documented and analysed for their style by art historians, these pictures cut in stone allow a better understanding of the evolution of the construction that proceeded from East to West. Many sculptors' workshops followed one another or collaborated at the same time, using either red sandstone or limestone.

Past the period for the capitals with interlacing patterns observed mainly around the apse from the choir to the ambulatory, the figurative motifs and Corinthian-inspired style with angular leaves emerged on the capitals.


The first campaigns of work, under the guidance of abbots Odolric and Etienne II in the last part of the 11th century, gave one of the most important set of capitals of interlacing patterns with the set in Sant Pere of Rodes in Catalonia. They number around thirty, all sculpted from red sandstone and positioned inside the transept minor apses, around the major apse and until the northern door. The interlacing pattern is a specific motif composed of flat ribbons mostly made of three threads, crossing each other or forming a loop or a knot. Ribbons pass alternately on top of each other such as in basketry work, before ending with a palmette.


The four interlaced and palmette capitals from the northern crossing entrance are classified among the most spectacular ornamented works from Romanesque times. Years later, this style disappeared completely to the benefit of the classical Corinthian capitals re-interpreted by rows of stacked leaves bevelled and slightly detached from the basket at their tip. These leaves are often smooth and empty of all sculpture, looking unfinished.

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In the upper-gallery ("tribunes") at the level of the choir and transept, the capital baskets with bare leaves are the rule. However from the end of the 11th to the early 12th century, the sculpture entered a full expansion under the governance of Abbot Begon, with styles influenced by Auvergne workshops or the Tympanum master. Some of the most beautiful masterpieces may be seen in the upper-gallery, at the nave level for example.

Secular scenes and, on a lesser degree, religious ones are executed in an exceptionally brilliant manner. In a few cases, the iconography was probably taken from contemporary epic accounts. They diversified and spread their decor on the abacus with billet and foliage networks. They come alive with the most popular figures of the fantastic bestiaries.


The first experiments in the representation of the human figure, yet still with an interlaced background, can be found in the ambulatory. They are the preparatory works of the figurative motifs on capitals, the result of a fully developed Romanesque sculpture. As can be seen in the southern crossing, the "cycle of Saint Peter" occupies three capitals: the scene of the arrest, the delivery and the crucifixion of the apostles' prince, portrayed head down.

On the south side of the choir, between the two right bays, a capital represents Isaac's sacrifice set on a location usually reserved for the announcing of Christ on the Cross, next to the master altar.


On the north side, on the fourth pilaster of the nave, one of the last capitals is dedicated to the judgment of Saint-Foy, victim of persecution by the emperor Diocletian. Six figures line around the basket at regular intervals with their feet resting on the astragal.

On the right side, an angel carrying a cross rests his hand on Saint-Foy's shoulder as if to comfort her. A man is catching the saintly girl by the arm leading her, apparently by force, to stand in front of pro-consul Dacian.

On the opposite side, he seats on a throne and is passing the sword, the instrument for the beheading, to the executioner.

Left of the basket, Dacian's devilish spirit set opposing the guardian angel is depicted as a hideous devil holding a snake in both hands. This expressive figure created in a well-defined manner was already the forerunner of the tympanum of the Last Judgment.


In Conques, the most important ensemble of capitals is the one inherited from the sculptors from the early 12th century. They are located in the upper-gallery at the side aisles level. Once is perceived the amount of capitals baskets ornamented with numerous human figures or animal motifs spreading until the abacus, the sculptors' genius, talent and imagination appear beyond limit.

Except for the capital of the Annunciation, all the figurative capitals depict secular themes, among which some might come from epic accounts such as the Song of Roland.

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The group of the Annunciation

The sculpted group of the Annunciation is displayed at about eight meters high on the northern wall of the transept.

THE annunciation TO MarY

Set under a decorated archway, this traditional scene is composed of the archangel Gabriel identified by an engraved inscription on his banner. He is bowing slightly towards Mary in respect and is addressing her.

She is busy spinning wool and is handing her distaff to a young maid standing behind her on the right, a wool-ball in her hand. However, all is not serenity in Mary's attitude, as she is expressing her consent and submission with her hand wide-open in front of her chest.

Isaiah and Saint-John the Baptist

Statues of prophets are sheltered on each side of this high-relief, in the angles of the walls of the crossing.

The one on the left is holding a shaft ending with a three-leafed bouquet, as an evocation of the Tree of Jesse and, in his other hand a phylactery where can be read the prophecy: "and there shall come forth out of the stem of Jesse".

Opposite, John the Baptist stands wearing his garment of camel hair, his right hand stretched towards the Heavens, a book wide open with the inscription "John says: Behold the lamb of God".

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Few things remain from the medieval monastic building that used to shelter an important community of Benedictine monks. Only parts of the cloister square and the Abbots Chapel still stand.


The cloister, without a doubt one of the most beautiful in southern France, was erected at the end of the 11th century by Abbot Begon III below the southern part of the church transept. Unfortunately, due to lack of maintenance, it mostly disappeared during the early 19th century. The cloisters served as a quarry for the residents. Prosper Mérimée arrived a few years too late to save it.

The only rescued structures were, on the east side, two small arches opening into the former Chapter House and, on the opposite side, the six twin-bays allowing communication between the western cloister gallery and the monks refectory.

Close to thirty capitals from the lost arcades are now exhibited in the lapidary room, in the Joseph-Fau Museum basement. On the capitals' baskets and abacuses, as well as animal and angelic themes, a world of monk-builders, warriors, acrobats and monkey trainers all invite the visitor to bring this early 12th century society back to life.


Finally, the large cloister fountain has been reconstructed and restored with its original elements.

This basin made with a dark-green serpentine, a top quality stone, with the magnificence of its rhythm and sculpted decor, yet without its missing central bronze basin, still represents a monument second to none in all monastic art.


Open onto the cloister, the Abbots' Chapel from the 15th century is divided by three bays and includes the choir which ends with a flat apse.

The vault constituting a cross rib-vaulting with pointed arches, carries painted murals characterized by the association of religious and profane themes (based on the Grotesque) and was made during the early part of the 16th century, for the Abbot Antoine de Marcenac.

The representations of the Holy Face and the Holy Tunic, the symbols of the Evangelists in medallions or angel musicians, are set near hybrid creatures or poets' profiles in Roman antiquity style, all set in luxuriant surroundings of flourishes, festoons and volutes.

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