Imagine my delight – after June’s post Of Mermaids and Mandalas, with all its talk of apophenia, fish-scales, mermaid’s tails, translated relics and the exotic bedazzlement of medieval Christian art – at finding myself quite by coincidence in Conques, a tiny village in the depths of the French department of Aveyron, noted for its fish-scale rooftiles and the bejewelled splendours of its medieval treasury, brought there by what the local church authorities are pleased to call ‘furtive translation’ (the smuggling of sainted relics from one place to another).
Apophenian heaven! (As explained in my last post, apophenia is defined in Wikipedia as the ‘ “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but […] has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general.’ I am an enthusiastic sufferer.)
Conques today is a place of miraculously preserved, Harry Potter-ish, Diagon Alley-esque quaintness, a gem on the pilgrim path through France to Compostela, surrounded by wild woods, far from the madding world, its most obvious modern intrusion being the understated, monochrome windows by Pierre Soulages adorning the great basilica of Sainte Foy (St Faith).
Foy (pronounced fwah) was a 4th-century Christian convert and martyr, and the object of an important cult in her native city of Agen, until five hundred years later, when a monk from Conques removed her relics, ostensibly to save them from the sack of the region by Norman invaders (but with the collateral benefit of transforming his isolated hermitage into a popular and lucrative pilgrim attraction). Whether stolen or ‘furtively translated’, the relics brought visitors, wealth, art and renown to the tiny hamlet: a soaring twin-towered basilica, fabulous carvings and the extraordinary gold reliquary containing Faith’s remains.
Enthroned as the centrepiece of the basilica’s astonishing treasury, this is as rich and strange an object as anything that has come down to us from the Christian church of the early Middle Ages – as if a piece of the Pala d’Oro in Venice had broken away and morphed, CGI-wise, into human form. Apparently constructed (in part) using the gold bust of a late Roman emperor, studded all over with multicoloured gems, enamels and Antique cameos, the dazzling gold case encloses a wooden base known rather wonderfully in French as the âme or soul. Analysis of the object during restoration work revealed successive stages of elaboration, before the piece was again smuggled away for safe-keeping, probably from zealous Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century. The idol (it looks for all the world like some exotic pre-Columbian artefact) was hidden in the masonry of the choir, at the heart of the basilica, and Conques sank once again into neglect and oubli.
The village’s second renaissance came in the 19th century, thanks to Prosper Mérimée in his capacity as France’s national Inspector of Historical Monuments. Arriving in Conques, and wondering at the basilica’s extraordinary carvings, especially the Judgement lintel over the west door, he declared that he ‘had been unprepared for the discovery such riches in such a desert.’ Restoration work began, and Ste Foy was exhumed from her hiding place. Today, that 9th-century act of ‘furtive translation’ draws fascinated pilgrims and tourist crowds to Conques. The tiny village is a site of unexpected marvels and inspiration, presenting treasures from another place to a delighted public.
Literary translators (furtive or otherwise) and their readers will of course appreciate the analogy.