Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art

By William J. Diebold | Go to book overview

Conclusion
"Brother, What Do You Think of This Idol?"

The reliquary statue of St. Faith (Latin Fides; French Foy) is still preserved in the southwestern French abbey church at Conques for which it was made, probably at the end of the ninth century or in the first part of the tenth ([Plate IV, [63]). This work is exemplary of early medieval art, both retrospective and prospective, but it is also unique.

In the late ninth century the Conques monks stole Faith's relics from the nearby town of Agen. Although such thefts may seem incredible for their impiety, they were common in the Middle Ages; they even had their own name: furtum sacrum, holy robbery. Conques needed a prestigious relic to rival successfully the neighboring monastery at Figeac. Relics were valuable and expensive commodities; without a good way to obtain them legitimately, the monks from Conques stole Agen's. Such thefts were typically self-fulfilling prophecies; if successful, it was claimed that the saint must have wanted the relics to be stolen or else she would not have allowed the theft. 1

We may not approve of the theft, but we can hardly help approving what the Conques monks did with their relics. The statue of St. Faith is a remarkable object. The head is not early medieval at all; rather, it is a late antique ceremonial helmet, probably depicting the Roman emperor, into which have been set distinctive staring enameled eyes. The rest of the statue is an amalgam of gold and jewels, many of them gifts to the saint from pilgrims and other visitors to the abbey. Faced

-139-

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Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction - The Character of Early Medieval Art 1
  • 1 - Books for the Illiterate? Art in an Oral Culture 9
  • 2 - Art in the Service of the Word 45
  • 3 - Books for the Illiterate? 71
  • 4 - The Crisis of Word and Image 99
  • 5 - Inscriptions and Images: 127
  • Conclusion - "Brother, What Do You Think of This Idol?" 139
  • Notes 149
  • Further Reading in English 153
  • Index 157
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