Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Reliquary of Sainte Foy
  • Creator:
  • Description: This splendid and famous reliquary in the shape of Sainte Foy seated on a throne once formed the focus of intense cultic devotion in the southern French town of Conques. The legend of Sainte Foy alleges that Foy was a young victim of Diocletian’s persecutions and died in the nearby city of Agen at the end of the third century. Foy’s relics resided in Agen until 866, at which point a monastic community in Conques executed a deceptive coup and successfully stole the relics for themselves. Veneration of Sainte Foy blossomed at the abbey of Conques and attracted significant numbers of pilgrims. By the tenth century, the Conques community divided Foy’s body in two and placed her skull in the reliquary statue. The statue itself is made of wood fitted with sheets of gold, with four large rock crystal spheres topping the corners of the saint’s throne. Foy wears magnificent dangling earrings, a huge crown, and a golden robe that covers her from neck to ankle. Even her shoes feature gold and jeweled trim. Restorations revealed that the head and face of the reliquary were fabricated from parts of a Roman-era helmet or funerary mask, accounting for the disturbing masculinity of the girl-saint’s face (Taralon, 1997). The many variegated jewels and cameos that adorn the statue mostly date from the Roman period as well.

    Pilgrims themselves provided much of the reliquary’s luxury materials as gifts to the saint in exchange for miracles. Sainte Foy was an especially active saint who often channeled her activity through her reliquary. She performed the standard miracles and healings associated with sainthood, yet she also played practical jokes, demanded offerings, and even meted out punishment to skeptics and detractors. For example, the saint demanded that a pilgrim with a ruptured scrotum smash his injury with a hammer in order to be healed and even went so far as to kill several unlucky naysayers. Bernard of Angers began recording Foy’s actions in the eleventh century, and several anonymous authors continued to document the saint’s deeds in Conques and the surrounding area. Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn have observed that the reliquary’s actions correspond to the statue’s role as an extension of the desires and aspirations of people, both lay and monastic, who interacted with it. Monks from Conques took the statue on processions in order to assert their authority and order within the town, or to lay claim to disputed property. Townspeople and peasants, however, relied on extra-monastic miracles during procession to enhance their own prestige and reputations without clerical validation. Not only does the reliquary of Sainte Foy provide an example of the height of medieval artistic grandeur, but also of the agency of relics and reliquaries in medieval society.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Foy, Martyr, Saint Hagiography Miracles Reliquaries
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 10
  • Date: ca. 980
  • Related Work: Alternate view: http://klimtlover.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/sainte-foy.jpg; Side view: http://www.tourisme-conques.fr/fr/histoire-patrimoine/tresor/images/tresor-diap/majeste-sainte-foy.jpg; View of the crown of Ste. Foy: http://www.tourisme-conques.fr/fr/histoire-patrimoine/tresor/images/tresor-diap/majeste-2.jpg;
  • Current Location: Conques, Trésor de l'abbatiale Sainte-Foy de Conques
  • Original Location: France, S., Conques
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood; Gold; Silver; Precious Stones; Rock Crystal
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 85//
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Ashley, Kathleen and Pamela Sheingorn. "Sainte Foy on the Loose, Or, The Possibilities of Procession," in Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ed. Kathleen Ashley and Wim N. M. Hüsken. Rodopi, 2001. pp. 53-67;
    Ashley, Kathleen and Pamela Sheingorn. "An Unsentimental View of Ritual in the Middle Ages, Or, Sainte Foy was No Snow White." Journal of Ritual Studies 6:1 (1992), pp. 63-85;
    Hahn, Cynthia. Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-c.1204. pp. 120-26, 163-64;
    Remensnyder, Amy G. "Legendary Treasure at Conques: Reliquaries and Imaginative Memory." Speculum 71:4 (1996), pp. 884-906;
    Taralon, Jean. "La Majesté d'or de Sainte Foy de Conques." Bulletin Monumental 155:1 (1997), pp. 11-58;