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Friday, December 4, 2015

Be there with bells shells on

Conques as seen from St. Roch Chapel
Conques is a little village in the Aveyron whose greatest claims to fame are the relics of Sainte Foy and the monastery which grew wealthy around them.  This is a tiny town, yet it boasts a large and magnificent basilica in the Romanesque style, well-maintained and in a context so picturesque you may begin to wonder where the film crew is hiding.  In French -- as in English -- the word conque means shell and is descended from the Latin concha.  I giggle at this because in Argentina the concha refers to the female genitalia. My wife says it all the time when she's pissed off at say, an olive jar she can't open: "¡La concha de la lora!" Which literally means "The (female) parrot's shell!" but really means "Cunt of a whore!"  It's used where an American might say "God fucking damn it!" or some such.  Why not?

The metaphor is more clear when seen
When you see a conch, with its flesh tones and here smooth/there bumpy texture, not to mention the overall form, it's clear from whence the metaphor arrives.  Shell metaphors are not entirely lost in English, either: surely you've heard of the bearded clam?  It's not strictly feminine, for that matter.  A pair of masculine accouterments, depending on the region, can be referred to as "mountain oysters."  Curiously, there actually is a Modiolus barbatus, or "bearded mussel."  It is also known as the "horse mussel" or (getting so clever here) the "bearded horse mussel."  In any event, this isn't some term of modern perversion; the shell's connection with the vajayjay is of ancient provenance.

According to legend, Conques (Concas in Occitan) was named by its founder, a hermit named Dadon, who thought that the hills encircling the village resembled a shell.  Being a hermit, he may have been, uh, lonely.  Whether or not the origin story is true or not is beside the point. Maybe it does resemble a shell, which might partially account for why the area holds a special place in the hearts of pilgrims along the Saint James Way, which passes directly through the village. The symbol of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is the shell. I recall a lecture in which the professor described the shell as a representation of the soul's journey of the human soul; in this interpretation the road to Compostela would also be the journey of one's soul towards a state of plenary forgiveness, perfection and paradise.  It is more than metaphor, because in Roman Catholic doctrine, making this pilgrimage did in fact earn the pilgrim total absolution from his or her sins.

The magnificent reliquary of Sainte Foy
Dadon came to this wild place at the end of the 8th century but apparently didn't stay long.  Perhaps he left after he was joined by a group of Benedictines; it certainly would have messed with his plan to lead the hermit's life.  These monks founded the monastery which still exists today. 

The monastery would have probably drifted into obscurity if not for Sainte Foy. In 866 her relics were brought here from Auch in what has been called a "furtive translation"; stolen, in other words.  Once ensconced in Concas, the relics and the monastery soon came under the protection of the Carolingian monarchs.

St. Roch showin' some leg
At first, Conques was a local attraction, but over time it developed into an important destination for regional pilgrims; in the 11th century Conques became an important stopping point along the Saint James Way as well.  During the same period the village was becoming a monastic center of the highest importance, a status attested to by the quantity and quality of the cult objects in its treasury.  Conques is today a tiny village of less than 300 permanent residents but it still has the single largest collection of goldsmithery in France.  These relics are not just museum pieces; they are still used in religious processions and services.  The reliquary of Saint Foy in majesty is an important example of the style and iconography of the Romanesque and typifies images of the Virgin dating from this period, including contemporary and later "Vierges Noires" or Black Madonnas.

Pilgrims coming to Conques from long distances, even from beyond the Pyrénées, were first recorded in the mid 11th-century; this is an example of the growing popularity of pilgrimages which turned many local shrines into centers of international importance.  It was also in the 11th century that a kind of "cult of femininity" developed in the song and poetry of the the Troubadours and the theology of the Church. (See LoS: Women)  In addition to Pilgrims, the Way was also a major route for the Troubadours, whose voyages did much to spread the notion of courtly love, the cult of the Virgin, and the cults of obscure saints such as Sernin, Liberata, Quitteria, etc.  The patron of the Saint James Way is male -- St. Roch -- but the shell which serves as the Way's "logo" is a female symbol.  As  metaphor for the vagina, the shell it evokes (among other things) maternity, sexual desire and original sin. 

The cult of the Virgin took off in the Romanesque period.  Hitherto a background presence, Mary rather abruptly swung into place as a central figure in the Christian narrative, a place she still occupies in Catholic France today (See LoS: The Virgin and the Cross).  Both in hymns and iconography, she changed from a distant and ethereal figure into something more earthy. Laced with liberal doses of conscious and unconscious sexual desire, worship of the Virgin was also inexorably linked with feminine concerns; evoking her for aid in childbirth was common, and her symbolism at this time -- e.g. her foot crushing the serpent -- was an evocation of her perpetual Virginity, her exception from the pains of childbirth and the expiation of original sin.  The evolution of the Virgin into a more intimate and "earthy" interlocutor was almost certainly due to the influence of St. Bernard, a towering figure in the Medieval Church, both in theology and concrete affairs.  He wrote the Templar Rule and was instrumental in creating what would become Christendom's most powerful order; he whipped up internal pogroms against heretics and preached the Second Crusade against Islam.  He was instrumental in drumming up support for Pope Innocent during the schism beginning in 1130.  One of his disciples became Pope Eugenius III.  He was also one of the founder of the renewed Cistercian order.  A big deal to be sure.

The tympanum of the Basilica of Sainte Foy
The pilgrims' patron, St. Roch, is recognizable by a plague sore or wound on his inner thigh, a kind of gash that never heals, which bleeds but never bleeds out. Roch is often pictured daintily lifting his garment to reveal this wound.

Roch was said to have born to a mother who'd been barren until she prayed to the Virgin. When he caught the plague, he retired to live in a forest, where his dog helped him to heal by licking his wounds.  In the forest he was sustained by a miraculous spring. Miraculous springs are all over Marial legends, a survival perhaps of Celtic traditions:  sacred groves, springs and high places are associated with any local Virgin of note.  LoS has recounted numerous examples of such springs associated with:  the Virgin; many obscure saints such as the aforementioned Quitteria and Liberata, (sisters and Virgin Martyrs of the distant pagan past whose cult stretches from Aquitaine to northern Portugal); and even male saints such as St. Fris, who also exhibits many of the characteristics of the Virgin. Upon his death, St. Fris' body was swallowed up by a rock; when it was later re-discovered, a miraculous spring appeared from within the rock.  The body was incorrupt.

This echoes the story of St. James.  When brought ashore in Iberia, a massive rock closed around his relics; this rock was then taken to Compostela.

One of the seven sisters of Quitteria and Liberata (there were nine in total) was named Euphemia, or Eumelia.  Cornered by pursuing Roman soldiers, she threw herself from a cliff to avoid capture.  Where she fell, the rocks opened and swallowed her whole; a spring immediately appeared on the spot.

Picturesque, you say?
I've had occasion to write about "the Milky Way" before; I'll here reiterate that, like Rome, Compostela held significance way before the Christians adopted it. The pilgrimage to Compostela was a Celtic tradition that symbolized the journey of the soul from birth until death, following the sun until it sank into the sea at the end of the known earth. Unlike today, the Celtic pilgrimage did not end in the city itself, but at the beach and into the very ocean -- following the Sun towards death as it disappeared beyond the horizon at a significant westerly point. Perhaps this ocean terminus is why the shell is the Camino's symbol -- the journey is the destination. As previously stated, the medieval mind, attuned to a more visual language as opposed to the written word, recognized the shell to represent the soul's journey through life. Think of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"; the goddess is being birthed from the waters riding a shell. The goddess of erotic love is here a bit demure, but she surfs a giant shell, a vagina basically; "con" in French is the rather commonplace translation of the English "cunt". The root of course the same as concha. So it's not just the Argentines who make the link between the shell and the female sex. It's found in the Latin roots.

The basilica today
A small tower at the cemetery is marked with this pair of circles inscribed with a star.  I took a compass reading and it's not oriented towards any of the cardinal points. 
Ostensibly, the cult at Conques is centered around Sainte Foy, a.k.a. Santa Fe, a.k.a. Saint Faith. Faith personified. Faith was first associated with the city of Agen, where she was martyred during the reign of Diocletian for refusing to sacrifice to Pagan gods.  This was said to have occurred in the 3rd century. In the 9th century a monk stole her relics and brought them here. Legend has it that where he fell, exhausted, he struck his staff upon the ground and the water broke: a spring sprang up and he survived. Today a small chapel stands at this spot.  The sexual imagery is inescapable. A man wields a phallic staff and, driving it into the ground, causes life-giving waters to erupt from "mother" earth.  Again, St. Fris is said to have created a spring when he planted his standard in the ground.  His cult, which is highly localized in the Gers and almost unknown outside a few scattered places, developed around the same time as that of Saint Faith, that is to say when the nameless monk stole her relics.  Fris, Roch, Sainte Foy, the Virgin, all associated with healing waters.  Even today, the Pyrénées are dotted with towns built around thermal spring; cures effected at these spas are reimbursable by the national health insurance.  No coincidence then that Lourdes, another Pyrénéen town, is the most famous pilgrimage site in Catholicism -- based around its healing waters.  The modern pilgrim still honors these saints by carrying symbols of the masculine and feminine powers and the sexual union behind the miracle of life, as well as the source of the sin he or she is trying to expiate:  the modern pilgrim carries a staff, to which they usually attach a shell.  All in the name of the Holy Faith.

----

And I was going to do more with this when I began months ago but its been sitting around as a draft for so long I'm just gonna ding the bell and hand it off to the runner who takes it straight to the presses.  Then a sniff of cocaine, a Tom Collins, and a few hours of stimulating talk before the fireplace with my manservant Jacky.

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