THE TYMPANUM OF THE LAST JUDGMENT

 

 

night show - Lights and Polychromy on the Tympanum

HIGH SEASON PROGRAM (May-september)

(if the sanitary measures allow it)

  • 21:00: Presentation of the tympanum by friar Jean-Daniel (in French) or at 18:30 during the Music Festival
  • 21:30: Night tour of the upper-gallery of the church in music: Discovery of the Romanesque capitals, the glass windows by Pierre Soulages under the light and pipe-organ show (Fee: 6€, access for public older than 12 years old). Except during major concerts of the Summer Music Festival
  • 22:15: Polychromy of the Tympanum - By night, the progressive revealing of the colours offer a revisited reading of the 12th century tympanum and its 124 sculpted figures. Composing the Last Judgment and depicting the celestial Court, the angels, the elected, the condemned and other devils come to life.

At the western gate, a deep barrel vault shelters the Tympanum of the Last Judgment, one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture from the first half of the 12th century.

It was probably made under the governance of Abbot Boniface, head of the monastery between 1107 and 1125, and by a sculptor who had already worked on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

With dimensions of 6.70m wide on 3.60m high, it shelters at least one hundred and twenty four figures, in a relatively good state of conservation.

THE LAST JUDGMENT

For the visitor reaching the church square, the tympanum set at 3.50m high remains readable, despite the crowding of figures and the diversity of the represented scenes. In fact, all is set around the central figure of Christ out-of proportion with the others, so he attracts all the attention. On his left, "hell seems the image of Paradise in negative (set on his right), an anti-heaven. In this case, all is order, limpidity and peace, contemplation and love, when in the other it is violence, compulsive agitation and fright." (Marcel Durliat)

The general composition

The general composition is simple. The wide half-circle shaped tympanum contains three levels separated with banners holding engraved inscriptions. To fill these levels, the sculptor divided them into a suite of compartments corresponding to each limestone slab, in total close to twenty of them. They were first sculpted on the ground then assembled in position in a somewhat giant puzzle. This division easy to observe was a smart arrangement, using joints that never cut a scene or a figure.

The Weighing of the Souls

Under Christ, the weighing of the souls takes place with the archangel Saint Michael confronted by a mocking devil with defying looks, each one kneeling by the scales. Despite the cheating attitude of the devil pressing his finger on the weighing scale, the favours seem to go to the good deeds. On the left, the resurrection of the bodies takes place, like it would be in a film sequence. With the helping hands of angels lifting the lids, the dead bodies rise up from their sarcophagus one after the other.

Saint-Matthew’s Gospel

The sculptor pointed the dramatic moment when Christ pronounced his final words incised here in the small banners held by two angels, on both sides of his head. To the souls placed on His right, He said: "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world". Turning to His left, He said: "Depart from Me you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" and concluding that the ones on the left " will go away everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life".

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CHRIST-JUDGE AND HIS ANGELS

Christ-Judge

The contrasting gesture of Christ (right hand raised welcoming the elected, left one lowered pointing out Hell to the cursed) gives this figure the appearance of a conductor directing a great show in full progress since more than eight centuries, just above the church square. Christ sits on the throne in an almond-shaped glory sparkled by stars and edged by five rows of festoons representing the clouds.

The elongated face expressing the severity of the King-Judge is even more striking when seen from his profile. His garments, tunic and coat are high-cut to reveal the wound probably painted originally and caused by the spear.

The angels

Christ is surrounded by "all His angels". On his left, one holds a finely embossed incense-burner and the other the Book of Life wide open. Two angels executioners fully armed with a flaming sword and a lance fulfil their given mission of containing, behind the borders of Hell, the tumultuous devilish crowd of the condemned.

At Christ's feet, two angels rising from a cloud carry a candelabrum as an answer to the say that on Judgment Day: "The sun will become dark, and the moon will no longer shine". Among all these figures and with no doubt the most beautiful ones are the angels blowing into the trumpets in the upper corners.

Finally, the huge cross set above Christ and carried by two angels holding the nail and the lance blade emphasizes the recall of the Passion of Christ.

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PARADISe

The elected multitude

The elected multitude is in motion towards Christ, under the guidance of Mary followed by Saint Peter holding the Paradise keys and behind them other figures without halo.

In fact, the "Master of the Tympanum" was bold enough to insert in this triumphant procession figures issued from the history of the local monastery: the hermit Dadon, founder of the abbey followed by an abbot holding his crook (probably Begon) leading by the hand the Emperor Charlemagne, legendary benefactor of the monastery but who also had many things to repent for.

The two monks behind him, one holding a diptych, the other a reliquary resting on a precious cloth are presenting evidences for a defence, proofs of the imperial generosity towards Saint-Foy treasure.

Saint Foy

On the left, on the opposite triangle-shaped frame, small archways show the church with the chains offered by released prisoners hanging from its beams, like a thanksgiving as was custom and as a reminder of Saint Foy's protection. Right of them she is leaning towards the divine hand and interceding in favour of the deceased.

THE CELESTIAL JERUSALEM

In the centre of the Celestial Jerusalem, architectural in appearance with its battlement towers, columns and archways, sits Abraham holding two children in his arms. He is framed by pairs of figures under archways: the Wise Virgins with their lamps, the martyrs with their palm leaves, the prophets with their scrolls of parchment, and the apostles with their books.

The quite monotonous row of the elected seems to give the idea that order and serenity rule Paradise. An angel stands by its door welcoming them.

Opposite, across a partition, a bushy and spiky-haired devil armed with a club is forcing the cursed into Hell's monstrous throat.

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the torments of hell

  • The sculptor knew how to strongly contrast the celestial peace with the violent chaos and confusion of Hell. Set on the centre of the right lintel, mimicking Abraham's position, Satan presides over the extraordinary torturing of Hell.

  • Satan has his feet resting on the belly of a condemned lying in the flames, apparently the sloth. On each side, a hideous crowd of devils obviously enjoys the virulent punishments inflicted on the authors of mortal sins.

  • A devil is dragging out the tongue of a small figure, to show Calumny or Slander.

  • A hunched-back devil grabs the harp of another soul, while tearing off his tongue with a hook. This poor musician and singer probably represent the minstrel, the public entertainer as a symbol of vanity for the pleasures of the world.

  • A man is barbecued above open flames by two devilish creatures, one with a hare like head. Could it be interpreted as the torture of the poacher? Or should we simply see a representation of Hell, the inverted world where the hunter becomes the victim of his own prey?

A DIDACTIC AND POLYCHROME TYMPANUM

In the representation of Hell, all is arranged in order to frighten the illiterate, the big majority of the population in these times, as is revealed by the quotation engraved on the lintel base:

O PECCATORES TRANSMUTETIS NISI MORES

JUDICIUM DURUM VOBIS SCITOTE FUTURUM

"O sinners, change your laws for you might face a cruel judgment"

As if to strike the mind, vivid colours highlighted the sculptures. Some important remains are still visible with a dominating blue for Paradise and red for Hell.

The tympanum applies to all. One can easily imagine the pilgrims standing on the church square trying to decipher the scenes one by one. As a matter of fact, church art was the only art available to be contemplated by the multitude. Conques' tympanum spoke directly to the people's mind.

THE “CURIOUS” LITTLE ONES

the TYMPANUM of conques IN 3D