For years, I didn’t like Medieval art. I had the idea of a dark and poor art when, actually, it is quite cheerful, rich and enjoyable. Fortunately, I came to like it and appreciate it. Now, I would like to start showing you some amazing artwork which, I hope, will strike you as they did me.
The tympanum of the Saint-Foy abbey church from Conques was made around 1130-1140. Here, you have to start reading the image from the middle, where there is Christ in majesty. He is bearded and has a cruciform nimbus. His right hand is up toward the sky, while his left hand shows the way to hell. On his right, humans are aligned and straight, this represents paradise. On the Christ’s left, humans are in all kind of position and being tortured, and this represents hell. In paradise, there is Mary, then Saint Peter with his keys followed by all the believers.
Under this scene, we can observe the representation of a church. Details tell us it is the Conques’ church. Some handcuffs are present because Saint Foy was praised by prisoners. The Saint is prostrate in front of God’s hand. Next to this scene, there is a resurrection scene. The dead are waking up, but their eyes are still semi-closed. Angels help them to remove their gravestones. They are awaken by angels playing trumpets on the top level of the tympanum. Next to them, and right under the Christ, we can see Saint Michael, a demon, and a scale in between them. They are sharing the judged souls after the Last Judgement. The demon waves at Michael to disturb him and steal more souls. However, Michael stays focused on his work. This image shows the faithful that there is no reason to fear since Michael is there and stands guard. On our left, humans are entering fully clothed and standing by an angel. They arrive in a Romanesque church, which refers to God’s kingdom. The chosen ones are organized around Abraham, who is in the middle.
On the other side, humans arrive naked and kneel before being eaten by Leviathan. This is the entrance of hell. After this scene, the tympanum depicts hell. Satan sits in majesty in his kingdom. His feet are on a man with a snake going up Satan’s leg. This man represents idleness. A man is hanged, and he symbolizes miserliness. Indeed, he is hanged with his grant cord. At the bottom, a demon makes a hole in a man’s tongue to put a stick. This was actually a real punishment at that time for recidivist blasphemers. On Satan’s right, there is an adulterous couple. They are tied by the neck and the hands. Once again this was a real punishment. All the way to the left, a knight falls off his horse and is caught by a demon. He is skewered by a second demon. He represents pride because during this period there was nothing more arrogant than a knight.
As you can see, the images have a didactic role. They were created for the people to understand them, people who didn’t know how to read but who knew the scriptures. And with a little explanation, we too can understand what the images mean and appreciate them for what they are and not what they represent: Art.