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Report 1982: Megaliths, Parish Closes and Cider - Part 3 Northern Finistère
By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2011
Page 5 of 32: The Parish Closes - One of the Glories of Brittany
St-Thégonnec calvary and ossuary
Les Eclos Paroissiaux are one of the highlights of a trip to Brittany. The largest and most impressive are concentrated in the area around St-Thégonnec, but they are found throughout western Brittany.
Brittany grew rich from the linen trade. Constant warfare meant there was great demand for hemp to rig ships and linen for sails. Parishes rivaled one another to build the biggest and finest Close. Most of the Parish Closes were built during the 16thC. During the 17thC, money was used to embellish the insides with splendid altars and statues.
Visit the churches on bright sunny days when there is plenty of light to enjoy the detail.
The Close has a wall surrounding the churchyard. Originally this would have contained the cemetery but many have now been moved to a separate site away from the church. Entry was through a triumphal archway giving access to the church and churchyard. Some of these like that at Sizun were huge. The arch at Le Martyre has a small calvary on top. Others like Guengat were on a much smaller scale.
The archway was only used for funerals and weddings and the rest of the time was closed off. There were smaller stepped openings beside it which were used by the parishioners. Flat slabs of stone across these kept animals out of the close.
Inside the close was an ossuary where bones exhumed from the graveyard were kept. Later as in St-Thégonnec, this became a Funerary chapel with crypt and altar where prayers could be said for the dead. The one at Guimiliau has an outdoor pulpit.
The calvary varies from a simple cross like Rochefort-en-Terre to massive structures like that at Guimiliau which has over 200 carved figures round the base, all in 16thC dress. Some just have Christ crucified. Others have the two robbers on either side. There is usually a carving of Mary with the body of the crucified Christ. Round the base are carvings displaying different scenes from the life of Christ.
Guimiliau had a platform so the preacher could point out the biblical references. Others had a table so the faithful could leave offerings for the upkeep of the church.
The churches may have massive towers topped with a tall narrow spire above. Many of these are copies of the beautiful Kreisker Chapel spire in St-Pol-de-Leon. They stand out for miles as landmarks in the surrounding landscape. Some have an open belfry so the bells are visible. Others have openwork carvings on the spire. Some have a smaller circular tower next to the main tower which contains the stairs.
Side aisles have massive dormer windows with a pointed roof which gives the church the appearance of being multi-aisled. There is usually an ornate south porch which is the main entrance to the church. Many still have their carvings of the twelve apostles, often with remnants of the original paint. Others lost their statues when they were destroyed during the French Revolution. There are usually two doors into the church, painted red.
Some churches are plain inside with few statues or decoration and no pulpit. Most have plain stone or whitewashed walls, although the remains of frescoes can be seen in some churches (e.g., Le Martyre and Kernascleden). Very often the roof of the chancel is painted blue and may also have stars.
Those in the wealthy linen areas are dominated by lavish Baroque decoration and statues. St-Herbot has a massive carved rood screen with a calvary on top.
Many churches have a massive organ above the west doorway which often has a highly decorative front. The font is usually in a back corner. Most are simple but others like Locmélar and Lampaul-Guimiliau have highly decorated canopies.
Many churches have a carved wooden frieze running round the top of the walls. These have human heads, green men, mythical beasts, oxen pulling a plough, a woman pulling a pint of beer from a barrel ... Some were plain wood, others painted.
All the churches had confessionals although in many these were tucked away in corners and looked as if they were no longer used.
The thing that really struck us were the altars. These are splendid and many are backed by a huge retable that stretches from floor to ceiling. Lampaul-Guimilau and Commana are some of the best. These are painted with lavish applications of gilt and have carved pillars with leaves and grapes as well as paintings or statues. All had a story to tell - if you knew your Bible stories.
In Lampaul-Guimiliau there is a glorious carving of the birth of the Virgin Mary with Anne in bed being congratulated by the proud father and the midwives washing the baby. In the porch at Guimiliau there is a lovely carving of God pulling Eve out of Adam’s rib.
Many churches have a holy fountain close by. In some, like Chapelle St-Thégonnec near Plogonnec, it is actually inside the building.
Each church celebrates the feast of its patron saint with a Pardon. These are only found in Brittany and involve the whole community with everyone dressing in traditional costume or their best clothes. The night before, everyone goes to confession. The day begins with prayer and mass and then the statue of the patron saint is taken from the church and paraded around the streets along with the processional banners, some of which date back to the 16thC. This is seen as an act of faith when the community asks for forgiveness and celebrates the joy of redemption.
My knowledge of Saints, especially Breton Saints has improved rapidly. There is St Sebastian pierced by arrows, St Roch showing the wound in his leg, St Hervé with the wolf who had eaten his ox and was so repentant he pulled the plough for St Hervé. St Margaret got swallowed by a dragon but the cross she was carrying irritated the dragon so much, it changed its mind. She is shown stamping on a dragon. So is St Pol de Leon who subdued the dragon terrorising and island. Then there was St Hubert, not to be confused by St Herbot... Oh and don’t forget St Lawrence who was roasted on a grid and now carries a grid iron.
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