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The Conques Abbey-Church: Legends (as a marketing tool) and History of Two Treasures


The A of Charlemagne

The A of Charlemagne, a quite poetic naming given to this odd artefact, one of the multiple treasures to be found and admired at the Abbey-Church Sainte-Foy at Conques.

According to the legend, the A of Charlemagne would have represented the first letter of the alphabet. Hence, the Emperor would have given his utmost preference to Conques.

The exotic object, dated back to the end of the 11th century, is still nowadays quite intriguing. What could have been its primary function?

According to the Monastery Chronicles, tradition indicates the relic with an A shape as being part of a series of twenty four objects, each one representing a letter. Back then, the letters “u” and “v” as well as “i” and “j” were not differentiated. Sainte-Foy would have received the first one, the A, which symbolically would have been the most appreciated of all.


Does the legend hold?

However, it appears to be quite a legend. Charlemagne's son, Louis le Pieux, founded the abbey, but the Emperor himself never came to Conques.

The Last Judgment (Tympanum of the Church of Sainte-Foy, painted limestone relief, dated early 12th century, shortly after 1107) In the centre of the middle register a mandorla encloses the enthroned Christ. Compare Revelation 4:3, "there was a rainbow round about the throne." Two angels with candles stand guard at the base of the throne. On the left the elect process to the throne: the Virgin Mary first, followed by St. Peter, then Dadon, the hermit who established the first oratory in Conques, a few meters away from this tympanum.


As Charlemagne's figure is represented on the tympanum, the prestige of having the Emperor as the abbey's founder could have well been the reason here.

An abbot, whose right hand holds the left hand of Charlemagne, who donated the land for the church and is accompanied by acolytes who carry his gifts to the church.

A more prominent evidence of the legend is that the object is dated from the Abbot Bégon's time. The Abbot was the head of the Conques Monastery from 1087 to 1107 so, more than 250 years after Charlemagne's reign.

The engraved Latin words are to be found on the object:

“The Abbot Bégon ordered this object to be manufactured and placed relics in it”.


Further evidence is brought to light, the legend does not hold...really

Bégon had set-up a goldsmithing workshop at Conques, active from the end of the 11th Century to the beginning of the 12th century. Goldsmithing techniques did not really evolved since the Carolingian period so, for more than 250 years.

The technique mostly used was to build a wooden frame of the object designed to hold the relic. Then, some fine gold leaves would be applied and chiseled on. Once done with the goldsmithing art, the wooden frame would be carved out in small pieces. Finally, relics would be inserted, usually hidden or protected at the top of the object.

The religious relic can be found at the top of the A, inside a rock crystal shaped as half of a globe.


Bégon's Lantern

At the top of the lantern, in an hexagonal cage made of glass are set the Saint Vincent's relics. The rest of the object is made of silver.

The shape of the object is quite unusual. One can wonder whether it could represent a mausoleum such as the antique ones or a lantern for dead people. In the past, some cemeteries constructions were adorned by lanterns to honour the deads.

Some historians think goldsmithing would have then been influenced by architecture, hence the shape.

The columns of the upper part of the reliquary as well as the conical lid—imitating a roof—along with the strips, successively gilt and silver—representing tiles—give the ensemble an architectural aspect. Somehow, it reminds of a small house or a reduced sepulcher.


Middle Ages marketing?

As we position ourselves back then, the Middle Ages, we do have to acknowledge the financial and popularity abbeys had to convey to keep on existing. One of their “marketing” strategies was: only the abbeys with the most interesting religious relics—sometimes built around legends—would survive as they would attract more pilgrims and as such attention from the entire population, clergy alike and could ask for more funding, donations or grants. As gifts and funding got received more precious stones and various ornaments were to be added to the objects. Hence, the composite appearance of such treasures.


Is it far-fetched to compare this approach to our modern DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) and their willingness to promote local specialties?


In any case, the Bégon's Lantern and the A of Charlemagne are part of the treasures found at the Abbey-Church of Conques and still nowadays attracting lots of visitors and pilgrims on the Way to Santiago de Compostella.


To close this marketing parallel, if we think about exposure of a major sponsor, Charlemagne has been exposed on the tympanum for over 900 years! What a superb ROI.