Vincent Debiais (EPHE)

Date Range
Wed May 31st 2023, 12:00 - 1:15pm
Event Sponsor
Stanford Global Studies research workshop, "Global Approaches to Sacred Spaces."

"Medieval Inscriptions in Conques. The Tympanum as a Versus on Sacred Space"

An "Embodiment" Paper

This event is co-organized with Stanford Global Studies research workshop, "Global Approaches to Sacred Spaces."


Many of the images and artifacts known or preserved for Sainte-Foy in Conques contain one or several epigraphic inscriptions. No photographic reproduction of the tympanum for example ignores the verse inscription engraved between the scenes of the monumental theophany, and its con q qtent is used as evidence of the catechistic purpose of sculpted images. When engraved on the metalwork pieces, inscriptions state abbot Begon’s role in the making of reliquaries and emphasize the liturgical function of the objects. The inscriptions of Conques attest, along with the images and artifacts, to the creative vitality of the abbey during the Middle Ages. Their analysis by the gigantic historiography on the Sainte-Foy monumental complex, has been contributing to the institution of the artistic heritage of Conques. However, this museography-like approach, in which the inscription always appears as the complement to a primary work (an image, a sculpture, a reliquary), can divert the analysis of these objects from the anthropological issues of the act of writing within the context of the artistic production of the Middle Ages. Therefore, this presentation aims at going back to the graphic data themselves, regardless of their “usefulness” for art history, and at considering what the inscription reveals of the status of objects and images in the epigraphic network that unfolds throughout the site of Conques, from the great titulus of the tympanum to the most discrete inscription in the treasure.

Thanks to this primary survey, this paper intended to present some thoughts on the singularity of the epigraphic composition of the tympanum of the abbey church by trying to answer a seemingly simple question: can the text of Conques, the epigraphic superstar of the central Middle Ages, be compared with other Romanesque inscriptions in verse in Western Europe and what does metrics produce in the very images of the tympanum? To do so, the paper proceeds in three steps. First, it places the Conques poem in the context of contemporary epigraphic production, in particular inscriptions engraved or painted at the entrance to Romanesque churches. In a second part, it analyzes what might make Conques unique in this panorama, insisting on the rhetorical and compositional aspects of the poem rather than on its content or prosody, which have been well studied elsewhere. Finally, it proposes some hypotheses as to the function of the Conques text in its relation to architecture and image based on the epigraphic corpus of the abbey church, and approaches in conclusion some research paths to be deepened as to the links between medieval literary culture and the anthropology of architecture. The tympanum of Sainte-Foy de Conques is visually so rich that different readings of the general tone of the sculpture are possible, compatible, and probably overlapping, between vision, catechesis, and projection from the interior of the church. In all cases, epigraphic writing plays a role in extending the visual, manifesting meaning onto the surface of the stone and deepening the path of meanings triggered by the image. The great poem of Conques allows for the articulation between interior and exterior in the interaction of its form, location, and content. The idea of movement implicit in the etymology of versus allows to understand why verse was called upon for these kinetic texts: it opens the way to the image and takes the reader by the hand to show him the path towards spiritual light.