AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART XI: Sainte-Foi de Conques

The reliquary statue of Ste Foi, preserved at the saint’s pilgrimage church in Conques, assumed its present form in the 10th century. The relic of the saint, who was martyred in the 3rd century—the back piece of her skull—had been placed in a the head of a gilded, late-antique imperial portrait bust at an earlier date. Housing the relics of a Christian, female saint martyred by an emperor in a portrait bust of a pagan, male emperor posed no problems for the custodians of the shrine—the gold leaf and the represented body part made it an appropriate vessel for the spiritually-radiant skull relic. In the 10th century a body made of hollow wood covered with gold leaf was added to the head, and the figure was set in a throne. The value and reflectivity of gold, along with the throne is meant to give the viewer an idea of glory emanating from the saint, who now resides in heaven.

The reliquary is also encrusted with uncut gems, pearls and antique cameos. Many of these were “gifts” to the saint from pilgrims who had been assisted or protected by her. According to The Book of Sainte-Foy, a collection of accounts of miracles performed by the saint, she regularly made appearances in dreams, giving instructions about the kinds of gifts and honorifics she wanted in an exchange for her assistance. And being a saint, she had then powers to get what she wanted: when one noblewoman ignored the saint’s request for a ring she had worn to the shrine,it went missing, and was later discovered on the finger of the reliquary statue. The precious stones not only record pious donations made by pilgrims in thanks for the saint’s intervention, the are symbolic representations of the light and colors of the Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Book of Revelation, where the saint’s soul resides, awaiting for the Last Judgment, when the soul will be reunited with his or her bodily remains left on earth.

Not only did Sainte-Foy leave the church at Conques to visit people at night, her reliquary statue was carried to the sites of conflict involving the church, as was the case when the statue was placed in a field of contested ownership for left there to several days to mark the land, not as church property but as her’s and anyone who challenged that would have to face her displeasure. Such disputes always went in the saint’s favor.

The cult of Sainte-Foy, which was focused on the reliquary statue, rapidly became a pilgrimage site, one many on one of the three pilgrimage roads that traversed France aabd ended at Santiago de Compostela. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was always anxious about popular shrines and cults, and in 1002, the Bishop of Chartres sent a representative, Bernard of Chartres, to investigate the rumors of idolatry—the worshipping of false images—taking place at the saint’s shrine. When he arrived at Conques. Bernard was at first horrified to see crowds of pilgrims praying to a golden statue, but after spending several weeks at the shrine, he came to see the acts of the pilgrims the saint as sincerely directed to the saint, and not to an inanimate object. After all, she was physically present inside the reliquary, so addressing it was perfectly orthodox.

Given the their relationship to the cult of the saints, “popular” religion, and pilgrimage, reliquaries, be they statues, busts or body parts, are often discussed more in historical and anthropological, rather than in art historical terms. To do so, however, would be to overlook a development of real significance. Statues like Ste Foi and the Golden Virgin of Essen, also a 10th-century reliquary are the first examples of free-standing sculpture in the round to be produced in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Empire 500 years earlier. If figural, three-dimensional sculpture disappeared due to a decline in skill in the Dark Ages, and a Christian abhorrence of paganism and/or asceticism towards the body in general, then the fact that it resurfaces in the particular context of relics—body parts of the holy dead—suggests that the cult of relics legitimated or recuperated the representation of the body enough to allow for the creation of stylized, anti-naturalistic but nevertheless three-dimensional works that interact, so the documents tell us, with humans in embodied ways. One will have to wait until the late Gothic period for the invention of the individual and the self to bring sculptural portraiture of real persons back to life.

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