Conques (Aveyron) Église Sainte-Foy: Tympanum

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Conques (Aveyron) Église Sainte-Foy: Tympanum

Charles F. Altman

Interpreting Romanesque Narrative: Conques and the Roland

Little attention has been paid to the interpenetration of media in

romanesque narrative.1 Yet the typical early medieval narrative is a composite
text, combining different narrative modes: manuscripts are illustrated,
pictorial narratives are accompanied by explanatory legends, music is
dramatized, sermons refer to frescos or stained-glass exempla. Often this
interdependence of modes affords unexpected insight into contemporary
understanding of narrative structure. Romanesque narrative has a tendency to
utilize two media which are as far removed as possible: monumental sculpture
and the human voice, the one wholly spatial in its presentation, the other
entirely temporal. Into the one, the spectator must introduce order and
sequence; into the other, the auditor must introduce space. Each medium is
thus characterized by what the other lacks. This natural formal relationship
between monumental sculpture and oral narrative, along with their common
tendency to treat apocalyptic, epic subjects, makes them a privileged area for
the study of the interpenetration of narrative modes.

The church of Sainte Foy (Sancta Fides) at Conques plays a special rôle

in the interrelationship between monumental sculpture and linguistic narrative.
As the scallop shell motif on the tympanum recalls, Conques was an important
stop on the pilgrimage route which led from Le Puy to Santiago by way of
Moissac and Roncevaux. Built during the second half of the eleventh century,
the church follows the basic pilgrimage church arrangement, with ambulatory
and radial chapels. The tympanum was not sculpted until some time after the
turn of the century and was certainly complete before 1150. The planning and
execution of the abbey church and its tympanum are thus contemporaneous
with the rise of vernacular epic in France, while the location of the church on
the most important pilgrimage route suggests a geographical relationship with
the Roland legend. In fact, throughout the period of its construction, Conques
maintained numerous ties with Spain, where Sainte Foy was particularly
revered. During the twelfth century, the abbey added to its many Spanish
possessions the church and the hospital at Roncevaux. In historical terms at
the very least, a comparison between Conques and the contemporary Song of
Roland seems appropriate.


6 Olifant /Vol. 5. No. 1 /October 1977

Far more important than these historical considerations, however, stands

the fact that the Conques tympanum represents a very special mixed-media
document. Its sculpted version of the Last Judgment is well known: some one
hundred and eighty figures, varying from tiny caricatures to life-size statues,
dominate the west portal main entrance to the church. The tympanum is in
such a good state of conservation that the original polychrome covering is,
after eight and a half centuries, still visible in many places. Less well known,
however, is the fact that a linguistic text, a twelve-line poem in leonine verse,
occupies the horizontal registers of the tympanum. Clearly written to order for
this particular location, the poem affords us a rare opportunity to witness the
spatialization of a sequential linguistic text. It provides, as it were, a bridge
between the monumental sculpture which it accompanies and the oral epic
which it suggests. Accordingly, I will begin my inquiry by a rapid overview of
the pictorial aspects of the tympanum, then analyze the interrelationships
between pictorial and printed texts, and finally apply the insight thus gained to
The Song of Roland (Oxford Manuscript).


The Conques tympanum2 tells a story familiar to every pilgrim: the dead

rise from their tombs, are weighed on the scales by the archangel Michael,
then are directed according to their merits toward the right or the left, where
their eternal resting place holds in store either heavenly bliss or infernal agony.
At first glance, however, it is not this well-known narrative which confronts
the viewer. A tympanum constitutes a rather special form of architectural
sculpture, different from a sculpted capital or a figured gargoyle. Covering a
large, flat surface and deeply recessed, it cannot be approached from just any
direction, but must be seen from the front. In most cases, as at Conques, the
tympanum is first glimpsed by the pilgrim as he enters the parvis in front of
the church. His first vision is a distant one, not unlike that which we get by
holding a book illustration at arm's length. At this distance detail is not
perceived; our attention is drawn instead to the tympanum's heavy dividing

Altman / Conques and the Roland 7

To this purely formal sense of symmetry we soon add a phenomenologically

derived distinction. Certain areas stand out, imposing themselves largely by
the size and saliency of their figures, but among those areas some are clearly
characterized by their orderly disposition, while others are entirely chaotic:

But we already know this story and instantaneously recognize its participants,

so we immediately fit our sense data into a narrative framework:





At this point the viewer has identified no single action or character (with the

exception of the central Christ), yet he has achieved an initial Gestalt which
must necessarily inform his perception.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of this "preview" on

subsequent viewings. If subsequent sensory perceptions are like data fed into a
computer, then the preview is the programming of that computer; it preselects,
limits, and arranges the categories and relationships in terms of which all data

8 Olifant / Vol. 5. No. 1 / October 1977

must be interpreted. By identifying the text with well-known archetypes (both

formal and substantive), the preview sets patterns as well as priorities for our
interpretation. The dualism inherent in the symmetry of the tympanum
induces us to relate all dualistic patterns to the general opposition of elect to
damned (or orderly to chaotic, for the formal Gestalt operates even when the
viewer is unfamiliar with Last Judgment narratives). Thus the position of
Christ's hands (right up, left down) is interpreted as corresponding to the basic
elect/damned opposition, an operation which subordinates the up/down
parameter to the right/left parameter implicit in the preview (in this section I
follow the conventional practice of referring to Christ's right and left). The
wings of the various figures in the tympanum reinforce this right:up::left:down
relationship; the angels have birds' wings, while the devils have the wings of
crawling insects (right:sky::left:earth). Yet even the angels themselves can be
reinterpreted in terms of a dominant dualistic Gestalt: the four angels at
Christ's left divide neatly into the church militant (the two who exclude the
damned) and the church ministrant (the two who serve the elect). When we see
the fallen bishop and the beleaguered bearded man right next to the militant
angels, we fit them into the overall pattern by relating them to their
mirror-image figures among the elect: the fallen bishop's horizontal crozier is
matched by a vertical one exactly opposite, while the naked bearded man led
by a devil is exactly matched by a clothed bearded king led by a bishop. The
parameters of horizontal/vertical and clothed/unclothed, like those of
up/down and militant/ministrant, are all subordinated to the fundamental
right/left (elect/damned) opposition. In the same way, every line or area,
attitude or action, figure or instrument is viewed through the dualistic grid
provided by the preview. In general, we may say that the preview sets each
seme into a dialectical semiotic relationship with its mirror-image seme across
the tympanum. The meaning of any given seme, and thus of all the parameters
which constitute it, can be derived only by an analysis of the relationship
between that seme and its implied counterpart. To discover meaning, we must
first fit the seme into the preview Gestalt by locating its counterpart.

The overall symmetry of the tympanum and the static balance which it

suggests has thus far masked specifically narrative considerations. We have
already noted that a preview of the tympanum depends largely on perception
of strong vertical and horizontal bands and the areas which they delimit. It is

Altman/Conques and the Roland 9

striking to find that the narrative aspects of the tympanum depend on entirely

opposite considerations: 1) the narrative drive of the sculpture is born in and
depends largely on the interstices between the major areas defined by
previewing; 2) the impetus provided by the narrative is constantly hindered by
the balanced areas defined in previewing, and by the heavy dividing lines which
delimit them. Long after our preview of the text is complete, we discover a
story hidden in the narrow band between the two gables on the lower register.
Four coffins succeed each other like frames in a film, progressing from tightly
closed to fully open, with the dead man now rising from his tomb. In the lower
center, tucked beneath Christ's feet, the souls of the risen are weighed on St.
Michael's scale. From there the damned are thrust down and to the left into
Leviathan's hungry maw, while the elect are led off to their right and
welcomed into Heaven. At this point the narrative runs into the two strongest
areas defined in the process of previewing: on our left the heavenly mansion, a
calm and orderly kingdom presided over by Abraham; on our right a veritable
devil's kitchen where, amid the infernal chaos, an oversized Satan reigns.
Surprisingly, the narrative seems to continue again above, as the legion of the
elect, led by the Virgin, St. Peter, and Abbot Dado (founder of the church),
proceed like pilgrims toward the heavenly throne. We are thus left with a
fragmented and paradoxical configuration:

How are we to interpret the areas which have no clear narrative function?

Is the heavenly mansion (lower left gable) an antechamber to Paradise through
which one accedes to the heavenly pilgrimage (upper left procession) only
through the intercession of Sancta Fides, who removes the shackles of the few
who are chosen (lower left corner above gable)? This explanation is
unacceptable for many reasons, internal (how can Sancta Fides remove
shackles at this point when there are none in the "previous" scene?) as well as

10 Olifant / Vol. 5. No. 1 / October 1977

external (in hundreds of other cases the bosom of Abraham represents a final,

not a temporary resting place), but none is so strong as the evidence suggested
by the previewing. When the narrative line representing the weighing of the
souls arrives at the heavenly mansion on one side, it is simultaneously reaching
the Satanic manse on the other. These two large and balanced areas serve not
to further the narrative, but to arrest it, to reinscribe it in the fundamental
dualism imposed by initial viewing. Even the heavenly pilgrimage carefully
alternates figures seen in the characteristically romanesque static frontal view
with figures turned slightly toward Christ, thus permitting a narrative
progression to share the central register with a symmetrical balance opposing
the elect in glory to their tortured counterparts. In other words, the narrative
line, hidden in nooks and crannies and fabricated out of miniature figures, at
every juncture points back to the dualism implicit in the preview Gestalt. By
branching at the very point of psychostasis (weighing of the souls), the plot
loses its linearity and recalls the stasis of the initial symmetry.

We can now see how this narrative reviewing of the tympanum ultimately

leads back to and reinforces our preview. Far from permitting us to assimilate
the large areas defined by the preview, the story line bucks up against them,
returning the viewer to a principle of opposition. This subservience of
narrative as such to previously established dualistic patterns bears a lesson of
prime importance, to which we shall later return in discussing the Roland. We
tend to consider narrative as primarily linear in nature, but that linearity is
challenged by branching. We cannot restrict our reading to a single branch,
nor can we simply read one and then the other and still respect the spirit of the
text. The configuration of the bottom register of the Conques tympanum
suggests another alternative: the two narrative branches must be considered
simultaneously and balanced one against the other. At the service of and
leading to the large symmetrical areas, the bifurcated narrative line takes on
the function of those balanced areas. Branching is thus a technique which
permits the narrative to abandon its traditional linear status and to become
reformulated in terms of spatial oppositions, in such a way that the familiar
change-over-time notion of narrative is replaced by difference-over-space. We
thus read Conques not left to right or even bottom to top (as we might expect
in the case of elevated architectural sculpture), but left against right.
Differentiation, not change, is fundamental to this text.3

Altman/Conques and the Roland 11

We may thus formulate a few general principles which can subsequently

be tested on the Roland.

1) A special characteristic of early medieval texts is their ability to be

reread, precisely because they are always preread—their story and its basic
structure are always known in advance. A shared tradition, combined with a
rapidly visible set of textual signs, provides every prospective reader with a
prereading which reveals the deep structure of the text from the start, thus
turning every actual experience of the text into a rereading, which simply
unveils a largely predictable surface structure.

2) The deep structure of the tympanum is dualistic, static, and

symmetrical, modeled on the equal-arm balance, the basic instrument of
psychostasis. In fact the large areas of the tympanum recreate on the
macro-level the tiny scale held by St. Michael (the gabled areas resembling
pans of a scale held by Christ). Narrative elements are largely restricted to the
surface structure and tend to be subtracted out through branching and

  1. A strong analogy relates the static deep structure to the moment of
    Apocalypse, that moment when time stands still and all things fit a
    prearranged pattern, while the narrative aspects of the surface structure
    correspond to the temporality of earthly life, where things are not yet as they
    are meant to be. We may say then that narrative is generated by imperfection
    (in its etymological as well as its common meaning), only to be arrested by an
    apocalyptic moment of balance, differentiation, and stasis.

  2. Two basic relationships preside over the structure of the tympanum.
    The left/right axis defines a relationship of opposition, while the up/down axis
    represents replacement of one equivalent figure by another. By convention we
    compare those figures related by opposition (e.g. Abraham and Satan),
    stressing their differences while treating their similarities as parametric; we
    equate those figures related by replacement (e.g. Abraham and the Virgin),
    stressing their similarity as elements of the same paradigm while desregarding
    their accidental differences.4

5) In order to understand the Conques tympanum we must leave
traditional narrative methodology behind. As it has been defined by a tradition
stretching from Aristotle to Todorov,5 the methodology of narrative analysis

12 Olifant / Vol. 5. No. 1 / October 1977

depends on single segmentation (division of the text into single segments),
sequence, change-over-time, and the centrality of the hermeneutic code6 (the
detective aspect which keeps us wondering how certain questions will be
answered in the text). The method required by the Conques tympanum
includes dual segmentation (division of the text into paired segments),
simultaneity, difference-over-space, and the symbolic code (interpretation of
each seme in terms of its symbolic relationship to an overriding paradigm, to a
transcendental signified).7


It has not been generally remarked that a twelve-line poem in leonine

verse occupies the horizontal registers of the Conques tympanum, describing
as well as delimiting various areas of the pictorial text. By itself the poem is
without interest, representative of the scores of pious apocalyptic poems
composed throughout the Middle Ages. As an analytical tool, however, the
poem has great interest for students of literary narrative, for its disposition
within the tympanum constitutes an interpretation of the poem, and an
indication of the type of critical act required by early medieval epic narrative.
Following are the text and my translation of the poem, line by line as they
might be copied on vellum or printed in a book:













(The assembly of saints stands rejoicing before Christ the judge.

Perverse men are thus plunged into Hell.
Thus it is given to the elect bound together for the joys of Heaven
Glory, peace, rest, and eternal light.

Altman/Conques and the Roland 13

The unjust are tormented by hardships, burned in the flames,

Tremble at demons, and eternally groan.

The chaste, the peacemakers, the meek, the friends of piety:

Thus they stand rejoicing, secure and fearing nothing.

The thieves, the liars, the falsifiers, the avaricious, and the plunderers:

Thus they are damned together with all the wicked.

Oh sinners, if you do not change your ways

Know that a hard judgment will be yours in the future.)

The poem is clearly composed to accompany a pictorial text, as the often

repeated sic suggests. Nevertheless, we must recognize significant differences
between the linguistic discourse of this poem and the pictorial text to which it
refers. Whereas the pictorial text exists primarily in space, the poem must be
read in time. A prescribed order forces us to read one word after the other, left
to right, as well as one line after the other, top to bottom. In arranging the
poem on the tympanum a problem must therefore be solved: how to
accommodate the linear, sequential, and dynamic nature of language to the
areal, simultaneous, and static configuration of the sculpture. The solution is a
simple one indeed, and extraordinarily suggestive of the type of operation
which we too must perform in analyzing early medieval narrative.

The lines of the poem are arranged in the following manner:

Instead of reading sequentially, the lines are now juxtaposed in pairs, with the

exception of the last two lines which are handled differently by virtue of their
status of discours (the preceding ten lines constituting histoire).8 This careful
balancing highlights certain relationships which were hidden by the linear
disposition of the poem. The passive verbs are placed in corresponding
positions on the middle register (datur/cruciantur); similar constructions
are balanced (perpetuusque dies/perpetuoque gemunt); analogous lists are
positioned symmetrically (the rising gables in the lower register); even the
formulaic nature of the language is underscored (sic stant/sic sunt at the

14 Olifant / Vol. 5. No. 1 / October 1977

top of the descending gables). Just as the narrative branching beneath the

weighing of the souls transforms a linear sequence into a balanced configura-
tion, so the pairing of the poetic lines in a sculpted arrangement forces us to
reinterpret the conventional linearity of the poem in simultaneous spatial
terms. Line two no longer follows line one, it is juxtaposed to it, balanced
against it, and meant to be compared to it. Likewise, lines five and six form a
pendant to lines three and four, inverting the meaning but retaining the syntax.
Lines seven-eight and nine-ten continue this pattern, reinforcing the visual
relationships established in the previewing. The axis of symmetry of the
tympanum serves as a mystical mirror for the poem, just as it does for the
sculpted figures: formal (syntactic) elements are carefully reproduced in the
mirror-images of each side, while thematic (semantic) elements are reversed.

In the previous section, I suggested that two axes are operative in the

tympanum: opposition and replacement. This notion is clarified by the
arrangement of the poem. We have already seen how the balanced juxtaposi-
tion of the first ten lines sets up a series of oppositions meant to be read simul-
taneously: 1 vs. 2; 3-4 vs. 5-6; 7-8 vs. 9-10. At the same time, however, this dis-
tribution divides the poem into two separate realms which now can also be
read separately, without intervention of the unrelated line . On the left-hand
side of the tympanum are grouped all the lines treating the elect and Paradise
(1-3-4-7-8), while on the right a separate section comments on the damned and
the infernal regions (2-5-6-9-10). Either side reads like an independent poem,
with its own unity, and with each line replacing and expanding the one above.
Each separate poem may be read either up or down, since the relationship be-
tween the lines is one of replacement, not of sequence. This replacement is
possible because all three registers on each side correspond to a single para-
digm whereby a name is joined to the appropriate reward. On the heavenly
side, the first half of the first verse is developed in the lines found directly
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