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.
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.
Writer living in Finistere, French citizen, blogging about Breton history and landscape. Published work includes many books and articles on Brittany's complex past, real and legendary, walking guides and fiction. I have also exhibited creative texts on those themes. Latest book: Introduction to the Breton Saints. In preparation: Wayfaring in Brittany. I also teach Breton history and give talks about Brittany. See my website wendymewes.com