At its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries, the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in western Spain attracted thousands of pilgrims each year. There were four main routes across France; churches along the road vied with each other to attract visitors, though few went to the length of the monks of Conques, who actually stole the relics of St Faith (Ste Foy) from Agen. Even today, the hillside site of this little village is striking, centred upon one of the greatest Romanesque churches in Europe.

Follow in the steps of the medieval pilgrim and approach the west doorway, to be confronted by the tympanum of the Last Judgement, centred upon Christ in Majesty as judge of all, with the message of death, hell and judgement. Angels blow horns to signify the Last Judgement. The dead are resurrected; souls are weighed. On one side, the chosen, led by the Virgin Mary, prepare to enter the Heavenly Jerusalem; on the other side, unspeakable torture is wreaked upon the damned (so much more interesting for the medieval artist).

Once inside the elegant but austere church, the pilgrim would have venerated the relics of St Faith; today the awe-inspiring gilded statue-reliquary is in the adjacent museum. But 21st-century Conques is no museum, but a living abbey, run by a small community of Premonstratensian canons. Arrive in Conques early in the day, before the tourists descend, pray in the stillness of the church, and reflect on our salvation, bought at a great price.

Simon Cotton