Sunday, September 05, 2010

Valley of the Saints

The Valley of the Saints project is to place up to 1000 statues of Breton saints, carved by contemporary sculptors, in a rural location of Cotes d'Armor. The more I thought about this, the more bizarre an idea it seemed, and after finally managing a visit last month, I still came away wondering what on earth it's all about. The concept may not immediately scream 'theme park', but in essence that's what it seems to be. How sticking a bunch of stylised lumps of granite all over a beautiful natural landscape contributes to Breton heritage is hard to envisage. Is it even art? Where is the authenticity of experience that is the essence of cultural tradition?
Work is very much in progress, with only about half-a-dozen statues in place, and a workshop area for honing further examples. I was told I couldn't go up to the site (the title Valley of the Saints had not prepared me for their current location on the top of a hill) because tractors were working, putting a statue in place. When I pointed out that the world and his wife and all his dogs were processing ahead of me up the track, I got a resigned shrug. It's clearly difficult to keep control over the instincts of man even in this place of holy figures.
Except it isn't, of course, a holy place and never will have the atmosphere and context that understanding of the particularities of Breton saints requires. The placing seems random and the selection includes historical figures like St Yves and mythical founders. The language of faith that is religious iconography should help in identification as they are not (yet) all named - only if you happen to know all those symbols in the first place.
What sort of literature will be produced to explain a mass demonstration of religious figures from 15 centuries, originating from different countries and holding distinctively different places in the complex tapestry of Breton religious development? How will visitors be able to distinguish between history and legend? Will the final presentation rate story-telling above significance? Will this become a substitute for visiting Brittany's unparalleled variety and richesse of churches, chapels and cathedrals? Like a mini Tro Breizh pilgrimage around the tomb of a 20th century bishop in Quimper cathedral, instead of the 600km walk of the real thing?
It will presumably answer the basic question who, but what about where and why and how? How can context be created for this glum parade? In the end this could be dumbing down on a colossal scale. I sincerely hope it will develop into something more. I'm sure the coach parties will roll in regardless.