Since 1994, a public order has allowed Conques abbey-church to obtain contemporary art glass windows made by Pierre Soulages. 


The genesis of the masterpiece

“From the beginning, I was moved by the desire to serve this architecture as it came to us, in respect of the purity of its lines and proportions, the modulation of the stone tonalities, the order of the light and the life in such a space. Far from recreating a Middle Age mimicked or dreamed of, I looked for a glass that fit the identity of this 11th century sacred architecture and its artistic emotional power, with the available contemporary technologies".

In 1986, after refusing many projects for different monuments, Pierre Soulages accepted with enthusiasm the one presented by the Culture Ministry. It consisted in the creation of one hundred and four windows ordered by the Arts Delegation and Heritage Direction for St.-Foy Abbey-church located at short distance from his native town, Rodez.

The discovery of the church itself, a masterpiece of the western Romanesque art on the Compostela trail, drew Pierre Soulages to consecrate his life to arts. "When I was 14, it was in front of Conques abbey-church that I decided Art to be my sole interest in life (...) Conques is the site of my first artistic emotions".


A question of proportions

Pierre Soulages faced then a huge challenge, filling with light one of the jewels of Romanesque art, worldwide known for its architecture and its prestigious treasure of gilded art, sheltering in its heart the statue-reliquary of Saint Foy.

The artist started by analysing with method and objectivity the architecture, "in order to put aside the emotions linked to childhood". The massive structure of the imposing church with the ambulatory and radiating chapels, the beautiful proportions, the nave swinging high (one of the tallest of Romanesque art, with a height three times the width) gives a feeling of harmony and stillness. The massiveness is balanced by the soft shading of columns, breaking from the solid pilasters and their sharp edges and with fine cut stones from three different quarries, the yellow limestone, the pink sandstone and the grey-blue schist.

The importance of the light

Despite the short length of the church (56m), the number of openings is impressive (95 windows and 9 loop-holes). Pierre Soulages noted here "the importance in the arrangement of light in this building". From 1987 to 1994, Pierre Soulages' works and research were guided by the quality of light adapted to this specific space.

Creation of glass and modulation of light

“The created space is such that we don't want our sight to be distracted by the outside surroundings. That's the reason why I had to find a glass which was not transparent, one that allowed the light through without bringing the exterior view in (...). This is what brought me to create a specific glass, a glass that diffuses and modulates the light."

Pierre Soulages.

A patient research work

Pierre Soulages did extensive researches, more than 400 tests at the international research centre on glass or CIRVA (Centre International de Recherches sur le Verre et les Arts plastiques) in Marseilles in 1988, then 300 tests at Saint-Gobin Vitrage research centre in Aubervilliers. He finally obtained a new glass material made from a colourless glass.

The result is a translucent glass, not transparent, allowing the light through it but staying opaque to the view. It is a glass which diffuses the light.It is not the result of a surface effect but rather the way its mass is made of. This translucent modulation comes from the natural effect produced by unevenly distributed tiny glass fragments of different sizes, and from their partial vitrifying during the fusing process.

"What guided me was the will to bring the light to life, while modulating it, and to create a surface appearing like the source of light while respecting the architectural identity and its own artistic or sacred emotional power."

Inventing a process

“The shapes and their arrangement should come from the light itself and from the material this light goes through".

Usually, the work of an artist in charge of creating stained-glass windows starts with colourful sketches given to a stained-glass worker, who in turn interprets and translates them from the original thoughts. For Pierre Soulages, "the stained-glass windows could not be the reproduction in glass of a model coming from any pictorial sketch". In Conques, he doesn't use this approach. After analysing all the existing industrial type of glass and not finding what he was looking for, he decided to create his own material.

Using a new approach, he imagined a unique type of glass adapted to the location and created it before the conception of the project.

Pierre Soulages and Jean-Dominique Fleury

With this new approach to stained-glass technique, the work was deeply challenging for Jean-Dominique Fleury, the stained-glass master who collaborated with Pierre Soulages in the creation of Conques windows. "My hand had become foreseeable. Through his own vision, Soulages turned it upside down. What happened during these three years: at each creative level, there was a new unforeseeable challenge arising with the same powerful degree as in the beginning. The result was overwhelming us. We had to rethink our habits. The material through its own strength would constrain us to it".

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The “luminous White”

“It's obvious that the reds, blues and all the vivid colours found in the Gothic stained-glass windows of the northern Loire region would only harm the delicate stone colours and the inside space of this monument. I truly wanted to respect its identity and not to disturb the quality of the space by any means. This quality is generated by the dimensions of the bays and their unique distribution. Only the natural light seemed to agree to it."

In Conques, as a paradox, Pierre Soulages chose for his project in replacement of the figurative and polychromatic stained-glass windows, created and installed after WWII, a colourless glass called "water white or achromatic" that respects the natural light waves.


Here, no polychromatic elements: What guided his work was the will to bring the natural light inside. While installing a first test-window with the glass-master Jean-Dominique Fleury, Pierre Soulages tells of their surprise, when discovering that the modulations of the light would give birth to a chromatic scale.

"When a section of the glass-window is viewed from the inside, it is very luminous. It turns bluer than in its next section of lesser intensity that has a warmer tint. Some blue might be missing from it, since it's mirrored on the outside. From now on and knowing this cause-effect relationship, I created stained-glasses according to their view  points, from the inside and from the outside. From there, they are not the usual dark surfaces anymore. Seen either from the inside or the outside, they are brought to life by the light they receive. They are fully in line with the monument receiving the similar light."


The lines

On the start of the project, the created material, the produced light and its modulation, as well as the architecture, were all equally important. "I needed to differentiate the world of light from the world of opacity. The one of the bays from the one of the walls [...]. Without being even aware of it, I avoided instinctively the formal repetition in the lead and glass drawings. I preferred oblique lines, rather flowing, slightly curved, stretched more or less, with the tension driven generally upwards. There are no orthogonal lines, only soft ones visualizing life energy rather than gravity. They follow the modulation of the light, through all the surface of the bay where unity is not broken by any contrasts."

Based on the same principle, Pierre Soulages removed the usual stained-glass border that underlines the windows' edge. Through this omission, he wanted to keep the purity and the power of the bay architecture, unknowingly making his masterpieces similar to the first alabaster panels found in churches before the use of glass.

The preparation work or Cartons

The work started with Jean-Dominique Fleury and Eric Savalli, at the artist's workshop in Paris and Sète. It went on at the glass-master's workshop in Toulouse. An unusual method was used. The leads were drawn with black masking tape of similar width, set upon a smooth white surface of the same dimension as the bay. The masking tape, able to be moved many times, allowed them to achieve little by little and after many distant controls, the right lines. Jean-Dominique Fleury remembers: "Soulages' eye drawing in the distance, placing the lines, the tape stripes coming into tension, space and alignment on the carton, giving the black, the thickness and the rhythm".

The saddle bars

In addition, the specifications required the resetting of the saddle bars and lead fittings. Pierre Soulages wanted these steel bars, essential in the rigidity and bearing of the stained-glasses, to "strongly participate in the artistic arrangement, motivated as much by the chosen rhythm of the leads and shapes as by their bearing purpose". They were chosen to be horizontal and even in number, to avoid dividing the surface by the middle. During the installation of a test-window, Pierre Soulages and Jean-Dominique Fleury were surprised to see that these bars fitted exactly into the places of the original saddle bars: a meeting of minds between the modern artist and the builders of the monument...


Pierre Soulages' stained-glass windows are nowadays an integral element of Conques abbey-church architecture, its history and its collective memory.

If worldwide visitors rush to Conques, it is to discover with the same drive its monumental architecture, its treasure and its stained-glass windows that bring light to life, a "somehow transmuted" light, a light "in accordance with the function of this architecture and the emotion felt in this space, agreeing with its purpose of contemplation, meditation and prayer".

A light in the centre of Pierre Soulages' work, a work he has been pursuing for more than sixty years.

Documentary on Pierre Soulages’ windows