Monday, March 05, 2018

Parish closes - Part Three

The parish closes vary enormously in size, style and embellishment and each presents a unique personality to the visitor. They range from small and simple to big and brash. The amount of local revenues, the artistic taste of decision-makers and geographical factors all came into play. One feature like the calvary or the triumphal entrance may have been singled out for high expenditure and more complex decoration than the other elements. A stern and solid tower profile may have been deliberately chosen in the 'mountain' parishes like Commana and Plouneour-Menez, fitting the surrounding landscape (and weather). The richest village of all, St-Thégonnec, just went for out and out ostentation, with money no object in the cause of aggrandisement.
Miliau v St Joseph
One notable form of individualisation came through the honouring of local saints. The traditional founder of the village, such as Thegonnec at St-Thegonnec, Miliau at Guimiliau and Edern at Lannédern, would be represented by statues with distinctive attributes, such as Thegonnec's cart or Edern's stag. Miliau's altarpiece with painted panels tells the tragic story of his murder at the hands of his own brother. These Breton saints, with no official Vatican sanction, were often later displaced by traditional worthies of the Roman Catholic church, leading to greater uniformity and less locally specific detail. The cult of Joseph was fostered in the second half of the 17th century and his altarpiece now overshadows that of Miliau.
La Martyre
Decoration of the closes was by no means limited to traditional religious subjects like scenes from the Passion on the calvaries. Craftsmen had a lot of fun with amusing and often profane images, carved on string-beams high above eye level. Scenes from everyday life are common, often showing rural working practices. At Pleyben there is even a representation of Prometheus having his liver pecked out by the eagle, a classic of Greek mythology. The porch at Guimiliau contains a whole series of images of unclear significance, like the 'cock king' and men in hairy tights, probably reference to a traditional shepherd's dance, but strikingly un-Christian in its context. The exterior of this porch has many comic scenes, like a paralytically drunken Noah. The famous caryatid at La Martyre is of mysterious provenance.
Just as contemporary dress and hair-styles are often clearly shown in the detail of the decoration, it is also thought that local characters may have been represented in the faces of some sculpted figures. An ostentatious example is at Plougonven, where the large, ugly statue of the Devil on the calvary is said to have been modelled on the rector who had fallen out with the workmen - how I hope that is a rare example of a true story.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Parish Closes - Part Two

These extraordinary building projects often took decades (and more) to complete, with craftsmen and general workers billeted on the spot for the duration. The small close at Berven was a real exception, being constructed in one seven year fell swoop. The English organ-maker Thomas Dallam, whose father Robert had fled from Catholic persecution in Cromwell's Britain, was not only in constant employ in Brittany, but managed to produce several children whilst based in Pleyben (1688-1692) working on his masterpiece there. Another of his fine pieces can be seen at Guimilau, perhaps the most beautiful and well-set of all the parish closes.
Many of the craftsmen who had come from outside Brittany to work on the Chateau de Kerjean, north of Landivisiau, at the end of the 16th century, found themselves in demand to transfer their skills in new Renaissance styles to the religious context of the parish closes. It was a highly competitive field, with villages vying with their neighbours to have bigger and better examples to boost their local pride and proclaim their prosperity by a public show of wealth. This sort of communal devotional ostentation was highly acceptable to the Bretons, even though they tended to shun excessive display as individuals.
La Martyre
The closes were largely funded by the wealth that poured into western Brittany from the cloth trade, until Colbert's protectionist measures dealt a hammer blow in 1687, and business almost ceased overnight, as figures from goods passing through the port of Morlaix show. There were other important sources of local revenue such as large fairs - that of La Martyre, which has the most beguiling and unusual of all parish closes, is a good example, with merchants coming from as far afield as England and Flanders. Local legend says that Shakespeare's father came here as a glove-seller, possibly with the young Will in tow. At Lampaul-Guimilau, one of the 'big three' parish closes just west of Morlaix, the tanning industry generated considerable profits to be poured into the magnificent bell-tower (which sadly lost its top to lightning in 1809) and the sumptuous church interior, which remains its principal glory today.
It is quite extraordinary to imagine these tiny rural villages full of life, purpose, excitement, religious emotion, movement, noise and colour for long periods of construction work on the parish closes from the 15th to 17th centuries, achievements which remain symbols not only of exquisite art and architecture from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque, but also of an economic and social vibrancy now long since vanished.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Parish Closes - Part One

St Thegonnec

This architectural and important historical phenomenon is very much on my mind at the moment as I work on translations for a new exhibition centre opening at Guimiliau later this year. I have also been booked to give a talk on the subject in April and have several guided tours of various enclos to prepare for groups.
The parish closes are mainly, but not entirely, a product of northern Finistere, springing out of the affluence brought to even small villages by cloth production and the dynamic trade in that commodity across the Channel. Morlaix and Landerneau were important ports for the marketing and export of the various fabrics, and many of these fine churches can be found scattered around Léon between the two.
The sacred precinct was defined by an encircling wall and a combination of various standard elements were added within to the church enclosure. Whilst burials were still within the church, the enclosed outdoor open space could be used for fairs and markets. Later churchyards took over, a few of which remain. Most are now grassed and gravelled, setting the emphasis on the architectural elements.
The entrance gate was often a magnificent affair, modelled on Roman triumphal arches; big on grandiose classical motifs. The main gate was often for the dead to enter on the way to funerary rites: everyone else climbed the steps and scrambled over the stone barriers designed to keep animals out.
La Roche Maurice
The ossuary or charnel house, for storing bones, was often decorated with symbols of death (skulls, crossbones, etc.) and inscriptions reminding the living what was in store for all of them: Me today, you tomorrow (hodie mihi, cras tibi). Many ossuaries were later consecrated as chapels and in modern times turned into little museums selling souvenirs.
The calvary or calvaire, topped by a huge cross, usually tells the story of the Passion, beautifully carved on its upper panels, and offers various scenes from the earlier life of Christ on the lower level. The quality of the carving, especially when kersanton stone is used, is often exceptional. Detail of contemporary costume and hair-styles are especially interesting. These monuments were once brightly painted and could be used to teach the most important Christian story to the congregation. It was a reminder of the ultimate triumph of the Resurrection.
Many sacristies were added later, in Renaissance style, as a safe place for the church's valuables was needed and also a less public meeting place than the south porch, where once the fabrique or church council sat beneath the statues of the Apostles to make decisions and allocate funds for the grand building projects that echoed around these tiny villages year after year.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy New Year

I wish all readers of my books and all followers of this blog and my Twitter feed a very Happy New Year and many good things in 2018. I thank you for the support and the exchanges that make writing and all that goes into it worthwhile. Spirit of Place, my 2017 book, has been a success in both English and French editions, clearly from the reactions an articulation of perceptions and feelings about the landscape, and the Breton landscape in particular, precious to a remarkable range of people.
It's been a very tough year for me, dominated by illness and incapacity, so I hope for better energies and a stronger heart in the months to come. And I hope that Wayfaring in Little Britain will finally complete its troubled path into the real world in 2018... or 2019...., although as I try to remind myself regularly these days, its the journey that counts.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


I walked on the high heath at dusk on solstice day. It was damp and misty,but numinous winter light glowed bright across the land. One of moor's beauties is that secrecy need not be silent. My ritual is aloud: talk, laughter, even a bit of yelling. Feelings flow in this state of pure expansive freedom. And I feel the response all around, as the elements stir, and somewhere beyond the clouds the great sun sets, poised for renewal. I wander back to the car in darkness, comforted and connected.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Rennes - the city experience

Rennes is a city I find more and more alluring with each visit. It's been two years since I last spent regular time there and my short stay in the metropolis last week was a real tonic, full of stimulation and heady intake of luscious architecture. I had forgotten how essentially rural I have become.
It's not possible to understand a city from a guidebook: knowledge of history and architecture or even the best places to eat and visit can only take you so far. Any urban development is about shape and fluidity, the relationship between horizontal and vertical, space and structure. Walking without purpose is a fine way to start, taking the good with the bad, observing without judging. I wandered from the centre up to the Prefecture a few kilometres away without a map, moving slowly along residential streets and increasingly busy arterial roads. This was new territory for me as in the past I would take the metro or a bus out to the university area, but I felt a sudden sharp pang of recognition outside a perfectly ordinary chemist shop. This was unsettling until I later remembered a week in an appartment near the hospital with a sick friend many years ago. That was where I went to get her medicines. Cities store up emotional coinage in this way over a long period of time, perhaps more so than the countryside because urban experiences are more transactional.
Other ways of exploring towns can be based on fundamental units: a river, a cathedral, a high point. Anything with function has influenced its environment, and observation can be a satisfying way of coming to know the underlying harmonies and compromises of consciously developed space. Of course, history helps. In Rennes the abrupt change from the cathedral district, medieval finery in the form of narrow streets of glorious half-timbered houses with colourful carved decorative detail, to grandiose neo-classical public buildings and noble residences is unmissable. It is on too large a scale to envisage deliberate clearance and the disaster of a great fire (actually in 1720) is not hard to deduce.
But there is also a powerful punch of 20th century magic and post-war vivacity in Brittany's capital. The vibrant mosaics of Isidore Odorico (1893-1945) adorn St Georges swimming pool and a stunning appartment block in Avenue Janvier amongst other locations. Circling the centre like signposts to the future are beautiful high-rises, the work of architect Georges Maillols who arrived in 1947 to help rejuvenate the city. I have never felt a stronger emotional pull from a building than Les Horizons. It was love at first sight a long time ago, but our relationship has endured and matured.
That's the thing about Rennes - it's a city to observe and feel, a place to make the heart beat faster. Never mind the guidebook.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Seven Sacred Hills of Brittany

Menez Hom
The magical number of seven embraces sacred summits as it does founding saints in Brittany, but whilst the saints have their own cathedrals, the hill-tops, scattered throughout the region, are shared by mixed religious associations, pagan and Christian, ancient and more recent.
The westernmost is Menez Hom, end of the Montagnes noires chain, an elongated open hill offering views of the Atlantic and the Aulne basin. It is particularly popular with radio-activated aircraft buffs and hang-gliderists today, but early morning visits can still give a memorable solitary experience above the mist. A statue of a Gallo-Roman goddess, identified as Minerva/Brigit was discovered here by a farmer in 1913.
Mont St-Michel de Brasparts, topped by a tiny chapel, is an iconic image of inland Brittany, one of the high points of the Monts d’Arrée. This area of wild moorland landscape and rocky crags above marshes and the modern reservoir has ancient connections with worship of a pagan Sun god and in more modern times, Druid ceremonies during solstice celebrations. The legendary entrance to the Celtic underworld was said to be nearby in the peat-bogs.
Mene Bré, another summit with a chapel visible from afar, this time dedicated to the blind St Hervé, is in Côtes d’Armor, near Guingamp. It offers exceptional views, especially north and west across the Trégor. Here the famous council of powerful secular and religious figures is said to have gathered to excommunicate the tyrannical 6th century lord Conomor. The earliest chapel on the spot may have dated back to that time.
Menez Bré
Not far away lies Menez Bel-air (336m), one of the Monts du Mené, where any sense of atmosphere is marred by a large rather ugly mid 19th century chapel and an intrusive communications antenna. There are, however, great views from certain points of the rolling landscape of central Brittany. It was once a site of worship of Belenos, the Sun god, with Druid rituals of purification of cattle at the Beltane festival in May.
In Morbihan, the wooded hill-top of Mane Guen – of modest height at 155m - also has a small chapel of St Michel. The name means the White Mountain, thanks to a miracle in 1300 when it was lit by an intense white light for several days, and various other legends have added to its notoriety. One claims that the body of a dragon lies under the contours and the chapel was founded on its head. A granite boulder is rumoured to have been a pagan ritual sacrifice altar.
Mont Dol
In the Marches of Brittany, east of St Malo, lies Mont Dol, a small table-shaped protuberance rising from flat marshland. An exceptionally rich historical evolution has seen pagan Mithraic rites, evidenced by the discovery of two taurobolia, altars for the sacrifice of bulls with gratings to allow the blood to shower initiates waiting below. Today a tiny chapel to St Michel, who fought the Devil for sway here, stands on the highest point, and, rather too near it, a tower topped by a huge statue of the Virgin.
Visible in the distance from Mont Dol is the familiar World Heritage and pilgrimage site of Mont St Michel, once in Brittany but now by the vagaries of river Couesnon, fractionally over the border into Normandy. It has an imposing position just off-shore in a vast bay with one of furthest tide recoils in the world. Recent works have seen the causeway destroyed and a replacement bridge allowing tidal flow all around the island. Neolithic megaliths on this conical hill have disappeared to leave the stage for the spectacular abbey perched on the summit.