Monday, April 29, 2013


I've been in Tréguier, one of my favourite places in Brittany, for some research on the rationalist philosopher Ernest Renan, and more specifically the clash between the religious establishment and progressive Republicans in 1903 when a statue to the great man, flanked by Athena, goddess of Reason, was provocatively erected opposite the entrance to the cathedral. This building is associated with Tugdual (or more accurately Tudgual), one of the seven founding saints of Brittany from the Dark Ages, and later with Saint Yves, whose tomb and grinning skull lie there. The latter is the patron saint of Brittany and was an historical figure from the 13th century (d1303). His reputation as a priest and ecclesiatical judge was that of one predisposed towards the poor and disadvantaged. Odd that he is now the patron saint of lawyers, who come from all over the world to celebrate the Pardon on May 19th. Yves is also that rare thing - an 'official' Breton saint, canonised by Pope Clement VI in 1347.
Both St Yves and Renan are sons of Tréguier (600 years apart), offering me a profitable juxtaposition for the new book. Renan's great sin was to present Christ as a 'very remarkable man' (and not the divine son of God) in his lectures and book The Life of Jesus, published in 1863. This led to suspension from his teaching post until the Republican govenrment of 1870 reinstated him. The vicious caricatures of Renan with the Devil's horns and pictures of armed soldiers trampling good, honest citizens to the floor during the confrontations of that wet day in 1903 reflect the often violent polarisation of state and church during the later part of the 19th century, resulting in the final separation in 1905.
The immediate response of the Catholic Church to Renan's statue was to commission the last great calvaire in Brittany, erected on the quay of the Jaudy river at the foot of the hill leading up to Renan's family house and his statue. This lavish monument (complete with lists of donors) is called both the Calvaire of Reparation or the Calvaire of Protestation, depending on your religious stance. Renan's earlier spiritual advisors - for he had been intended for the priesthood, only experiencing a crisis of faith at the very last moment - refused to join the outcry about his book in the 1860s, retaining their affection and respect for him to the last.

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