From the hill above, Conques is either like a dream from the brothers Grimm, or like a town from an early Cubist painting by Picasso or Braque: soft brown slopes and cones of roves, rippling with tiles, their supporting walls built over impossible precipices.
Close to, the church of Ste Foy undulates with radiating chapels, each one a tribute to eternal-life-promising Mass.
The approach to the Western portals from the comforts of Mediaeval domestic architecture is daunting:
You could be forgiven for thinking there was no hope. The devils on the jambs of the portal are worryingly life size, the mouth of hell itself yawns over the door, and there is no doubt we would be among the sensuous damned, being bitten apart by dragon-like devils before being thrown to the flames, rather than the blessed, whose heavy gravestones are lifted by the raising of an angelic finger.
The Romanesque sculpture of Languedoc is a revelation of realism. In detail, it may not partake of the dizzying perspectival depths of the Renaissance, but that is because so much of it takes place in our space, with heads jutting towards us, eyes arresting us with their stare, every gesture imbued with meaning, not a grain of wasted stone.
Some of the greatest treasures, not just of Romanseque art, but of art anywhere, are to be found in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, taken from the great basilica of St Sernin:
These early 12c twin figures give a new twist to the phrase ‘the lion lying down with the lamb’, although the lamb, or ram, doesn’t look as if it would last long. But what projection, what scooping folds of drapery, what expressive hands and crossed legs! So proud was the sculptor, or later owners, that the work is inscribed : Signe du lion. Signe du bélier. Ceci fut fait au temps de Jules César.
And 19c critics (and some more recently) saw these works as ‘primitive’!
Nicholas Friend, September 2012
INSCAPE’s residential trip Art, Wine and Heretics in Languedoc: Albi took place from 8th to 13th September 2012, with tutors Dr. Cathy Oakes and INSCAPE Director Nicholas Friend