The treasures of Conques

Tucked into a hillside in southern France, the town of Conques was a well-established town in the early part of the first century AD. It served as stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, and still does to this day.

The main draw for medieval pilgrims were the remains of Saint Foy, a martyred young woman from the fourth century. The relics of St. Foy arrived in Conques through theft in 866. After unsuccessful attempts to acquire the relics of several other saints, the monks of Conques set their sights on the relics of St. Foy. One of them posed as a loyal monk in Agen for nearly a decade in order to get close enough to the relics to steal them. Guess that’s one form of devotion.

And then there’s the church of St. Foy. The original eighth-century chapel was destroyed in the eleventh century in order to build a much larger church as the arrival of the relics of St. Foy caused the pilgrimage route to shift from Agen to Conques. (That pilgrimage trade was big business, no matter how you got your relics.)  The second phase of construction was completed by the end of the eleventh-century, and the third early in the twelfth-century.

Once they got started with the relics of Saint Foy, the powers-that-were of Conques kept going. There is an astonishing treasury, with some of the most valuable and remarkable religious antiquities in France, and one of the top collections of medieval gold-plated figures in Europe. While it cannot be photographed, it did leave us with quite a sense of awe. Finally we have seen a relic of the True Cross, the relic of the arm of St. George with which he slew the dragon, and the astonishing 9th century reliquary built to house the skull of St. Foy, heavily bejeweled and gold-plated. Now that is religious tourism at its best.

This tiny medieval town is far from undiscovered, but its very remoteness has been a blessing in preserving it, and only a few modern touches mar the effect.

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