Enchanted Brittany

 

 

 

 

 

by Anja Weinberger

Enchanted Brittany – churchyards and culinary delights at the end of the world

 

In Brittany, that is, in the extreme northwest of France, there are these wonderful, legendary and usually very picturesque enclos parroissiaux. Such enclosed parishes deliberately separate themselves from the outside world and occur in this particular form only here.

Due to the flourishing cloth trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, the whole area gained a certain prosperity and a real competition for the most beautiful and largest calvaire began.

More than 70 such parsonages still exist.

Roughly speaking, most of them are located near the northern Atlantic coast between Brest and Morlaix.

More precisely, we meet them between the rivers Aulne and Élorn and on the borders with the Pays du Léon and the Cornouaille. These areas belong for the most part to the department of Finistère, that is, to the “end of the world”.

Often such a collection of buildings consists of the church itself, the triumphal gate, the cemetery, the ossuary and the calvaire. This word can be translated only inadequately with Calvary, because by it we understand in the German-speaking area, as we will see soon, something else.

Step at the entrance area, © Anja Weinberger

The Triumphal Gate or Triumphal Arch is the entrance to the parish grounds, and this once again points out its deliberate separation from the outside world. Because behind the steps of this entrance gate, almost everywhere, there is a high stone slab set vertically into the ground, which can only be overcome with a courageous step. It reminds us that we are entering a special place – and the dead behind it are protected in this way from demons and eternal damnation.

The triumphal arch itself is usually elaborately decorated and crowned by a crucifixion group.

The cemetery – is a graveyard, just as we know it. However, so-called budding or rash crosses appear very often in this area. These are stone crosses that resemble wooden crosses with branches left standing. They are often interpreted as trees of life.

Ossuaries, so-called ossuaries, served for a long time only to save space. They were used to store the skulls and bones that were excavated after some time. In this way, the next generations of the respective community could be buried in the space that had been freed up. Soon, however, these ossuaries were transformed into richly decorated chapels, which were used as devotional spaces in addition to the church itself. Their entrance portals are unusually large and lavishly decorated for the usually smaller buildings.

The churches of Brittany’s parishes could not be more picturesque. In Brittany, the stone to be quarried, granite, is very hard. Accordingly, the Renaissance took hold here in its own unique way. Finely chiseled decorative forms were hardly possible, one had to limit oneself to the essentials. However, nature did its part. Wind and rain smoothed the surfaces; and mosses and lichens, which occur here in great variety of colors, make the dark stone glow in many places. The hydrangeas planted everywhere and in all shades of purple and pink emphasize this beauty with great gesture.

The interior of the churches is quite different. Elaborate woodwork can be admired almost everywhere – altarpieces, baptismal fonts, rood screens and pulpits, galleries, choir stalls, organ cases and all kinds of beams show much floral, much capricious, much grotesque.

On the south side of the church there is a porch in some places – one or the other dates back to the Gothic period. This hall was intended for the meeting of the community leaders, which is why there may be benches running along the walls. Above these stone benches, usually in niches, stand the apostles. Often they show us quite clearly who they are. There Peter carries his key, Paul has book or sword with him and John the chalice. Thomas we recognize by the square measure and his neighbor James by the pilgrim’s staff or the shell. The other apostles point us to their respective martyrdoms with axe, saw, cross or knife.

In most cases, the size of the church is in astonishing proportion to the low population of the parish. The rather modest villages trump here with everything that was at their disposal.

Next to the church, the calvaire is the focal point of the district. Above a pedestal rise stone sculptures, with the help of which scenes from the life of Jesus are sculpturally represented. At the top is almost always depicted the crucifixion. The returnees of the Crusades brought these memories of Golgotha with them; and here in their Breton homeland, these stories were to be translated into universally understood images. As a result, countless groups of figures are often housed in a confined space – a stone mystery play.

In other parts of Europe we find these Stations of the Cross usually lined up along a walkway, here in Finistère united in a single monument.

There are very different calvaires. Some are monumental, some are small, simple and quiet. Some are of high artistic quality, some are of rustic, simple, sometimes naive, but always very touching style.

Vorhalle an der Südseite, hier Guimiliau, © Anja Weinberger

Charles Le Goffic (1863 – 1932) writes very aptly: “A vigorous idealism runs through these […] friezes. […] The Breton soul quivers in them and can be captured here in one of its most poignant manifestations.”

If one wishes, one can explore a large part of these parishes in one day by car. The impressions are manifold and probably therefore it is more sensible and also more peaceful to make up two or three smaller rounds. Another advantage of this latter version would also be that there would be more time for the culinary aspect of the round trip.

***

Here are a few personal impressions….

The first calvaire I saw is still the most impressive for me. It is located outside the area described above, a little more to the south, not far from Pont-l’Abbé, the capital of Bigoudenland. It is the oldest Breton calvaire; it was built between 1450 and 1470, much earlier than its northern neighbors from the 16th and 17th centuries. It stands lonely next to the church of Notre-Dame de Tronoën and has withstood the weather there for over 500 years. On stormy days, the wind carries sand and salt from the sea not far away to here. The figures are at the mercy of the elements, and this leads to this unique, heartfelt, somewhat hazy imagery.

The double friezes on the pedestal tell of Jesus’ childhood and passion – everything is there. Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Magi, Presentation in the Temple, Condemnation, Scourging, Last Supper and Carrying of the Cross. Finally, at the top, towering over the monument, the triple crucifixion. At the foot of one of the crosses of the Shechita, there is even Veronica with her granite sweat shroud. At the bottom of the central cross, that is, at the cross of Jesus, on the west side a despairing Mary is depicted under the cross, and on the east side Mary in deep mourning with her dead son on her lap, that is, a Pietà. The whole monument is free standing, one can walk around the outside and let the sequences of images tell their story.

Two scenes are rather rare to find, but here of all places we find them both. Uniquely intimate: Mary, lying in the puerperium with curly hair and bare breasts, stretches out her arms to the Son. And: Christ after his resurrection, with flowing cloak and a spade in his hand disguised as a gardener, approaches the frightened Mary Magdalene. “Noli me tangere” is the name of this scene of two, loosely translated as “Don’t touch me!”.

The chapel dates from the same period, only a few years older than its calvaire. It has a rose window and a graceful bell tower framed by two other turrets. The yellowish-grey lichens and mosses contribute to this enchanted appearance.

***

In Pleyben there are very tasty “galettes”. Here they mean crumbly and tasty, probably not exactly skinny butter cookies. And right next to the local Enclos parroisial, in a very nice crêperie, you can eat those other, more famous galettes, known throughout France by that very name.

In Germany we would possibly say “crêpes” to those pancakes made from buckwheat flour, but the French make a strict distinction.

“Une crêpe” is a pancake made of light wheat flour and served with sweet ingredients. Two classics are “la crêpe Suzette flambée au Grand Manier” or – my favorite – “une crêpe avec caramel au beurre salé”. If you haven’t had that, you don’t know what heaven tastes like. Salted butter is encountered everywhere here, and the caramel made from it is a coveted sweet.

“Une galette”, on the other hand, is only actually served “salty”. You can choose from a wide variety of toppings, from very simple to elaborate and therefore more expensive. The classic is called “une galette complète”, by which one imagines a filling of ham, cheese and fried egg. This egg is placed so that it winks out of the artfully folded galette.

It is accompanied by cider or a Breton beer, perhaps a “Blanche Hermine”.

Our favorite dining sequence then includes a Kir breton as an aperitif and a Lambig to think about after the meal.

Because there is always something to think about here. Presumably a visit to the other side of the street took place before the meal to marvel at the magnificent churchyard of Pleyben. Here everything is spacious and easy to overlook, the square does not really seem enclosed. Rather, it makes an urban impression, which may also be due to the fact that much greenery was removed during the last redesign. The Calvaire lay for many decades between imposing trees and is one of the most beautiful in all of Brittany.

Actually, here the Triumphal Gate and Calvaire is realized in one, the arcades in the almost a little too high base give at least this impression. Here, too, the story is told for all it’s worth. More than two hundred figures populate the monument, are here more clearly drawn and clearly recognizable. The scenes before us were created between 1550 and 1650 – a long time – and yet no break in style is noticeable. Again we are shown amazing things: the Christmas scene with a quite adult Jesus boy, the Flight into Egypt with a drapery on Mary’s veil that makes us forget the so hard granite; the well sorted Last Supper with a John sleeping, as it should be, and most exciting: the thief cursing Christ, to be recognized by the demon sitting on the crossbeam of the thief’s cross. Under the budding cross is depicted the Descent from the Cross, Jesus already lying on a bier, and Mary, Mary Magdalene, John and three other figures have tears of granite on their cheeks.

The church is particularly beautiful. It’s thrown together from many styles – patchwork, so to speak – and that has charm. The original building dates from 1564, a bell tower is Gothic, as is the very nice ossuary, provided with a somewhat awkward balustrade, large window openings and a slender spire set with crabs.

Szene aus La Martyre (Verkündigung an die Hirten, golfspielender Hirte), © Anja Weinberger

The other, much higher and dominant, dates from the Renaissance. With its dome and lantern, it is almost reminiscent of the Renaissance castles of the Loire. It was the model for many church towers that were subsequently built in the surrounding area. Between the two so different tower siblings, a third turret rises timidly, which serves as a staircase and is connected to its Gothic brother by an openwork gallery.

And then there is the sacristy, built in 1719 as a central building. One could think it is a foreign body, but no, it completes the picture.

***

A day trip could be made, for example, through the valley of the river Élorn. The Élorn rises in the legendary Mont d’Arrée and flows through the Rade du Brest near Landerneau into the Atlantic. On this route, many parishes are gathered in a small area.

Depending on the direction in which you are traveling, you will arrive at La Roche-Maurice rather at the beginning or at the end of the journey.

This enclos holds some peculiarities and a suggestive, almost fairy-tale church interior. You have to be lucky and visit the church when the sun is shining, then the colorful play of lights is our host.

So now you have the drive through the idyllic valley behind you, which at this point is very picturesquely dominated by the ruins of a former castle from the 12th century. You might park the car some distance away and take a leisurely stroll towards the church tower, which towers over everything. It is hilly and quiet here. The entrance to the parish is guarded by three crosses, and just to the left is the 17th-century ossuary with its wonderful Renaissance façade, which here at the end of the world seems as if it belonged to a stage set – unreal and yet so clearly drawn. Above an exterior holy water font is depicted an ankou, according to Breton tradition, death personified. He greets us with his usual phrase, “Je vous tue tous,” meaning “I get you all.” This underlines the same message as in the death dances found, for example, in northern Italy. Whether rich or poor, man or child, bishop or peasant, death makes everyone equal.

It is only a few steps to the church. You enter through the door on the lowest floor of the west tower, which rises to the sky with a double gallery and a pierced stone spire. In French, there is a beautiful word for this tower shape, “flèche,” which also means arrow.

Then you’re inside and amazed. Everything is colorful! Because here the color has a double source. Once the only preserved rood screen of this area dominates the room and it is colorfully painted, more colorful than you can imagine. And: until now we have not discovered a stone calvaire on the site. Because in fact, it does not exist here.

In La Roche-Maurice, it is instead glass and colorful in the shape of the great choir window. This marvel was created in 1539 and is still preserved in its original form. If one reads up, one learns that the window was made in nearby Quimper. Influences of many famous names of the time, from Dürer to Bosch and Van der Weyden, have been incorporated. As on a stone calvaire, we find the familiar scenes. However, the usual first part with scenes around the birth of Jesus is missing, because this window is a passion window. Fifteen images, some lancet-shaped, shine out at us. Mary Magdalene is depicted once under the cross like an Italian princess, soft in expression and with a questioning look, her arms open. Another time, at the embalming, she wears a Flemish hood. In the upper left, Jesus is shouldering his cross; in the upper right, he has already been resurrected.

The other source of this exuberant colorfulness is now in our back. So we have to step back to be able to look at it. The best thing to do is to stop right in the middle passage of the colorful rood screen and look up. The complete Renaissance pictorial vocabulary unfolds before our eyes here – in modern parlance one would say “polychrome oak”. Grimaces and grotesques of all kinds, arabesques, ribbons, florals, chimeras, putti, unicorns – everything that the Breton fantasy of the Middle Ages offered is gathered here.

Above this colorful jumble, 12 statues are lined up on both the chancel and nave sides, also colorfully and lovingly decorated. With the vast majority of them it is possible to recognize who they are. Here, too, a who’s who of biblical studies, i.e. Peter, Magdalene, James, Barbara and many more.

On the southern pillar, there is Anna teaching Mary to read, from the Bible of course; and on the northern counterpart is a very pretty Margaret praying. At the very top, as expected, the Crucifixion with Mary and John on either side.

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The other, much higher and dominant, dates from the Renaissance. With its dome and lantern, it is almost reminiscent of the Renaissance castles of the Loire. It was the model for many church towers that were subsequently built in the surrounding area. Between the two so different tower siblings, a third turret rises timidly, which serves as a staircase and is connected to its Gothic brother by an openwork gallery.

And then there is the sacristy, built in 1719 as a central building. One could think it is a foreign body, but no, it completes the picture.

***

A day trip could be made, for example, through the valley of the river Élorn. The Élorn rises in the legendary Mont d’Arrée and flows through the Rade du Brest near Landerneau into the Atlantic. On this route, many parishes are gathered in a small area.

Depending on the direction in which you are traveling, you will arrive at La Roche-Maurice rather at the beginning or at the end of the journey.

This enclos holds some peculiarities and a suggestive, almost fairy-tale church interior. You have to be lucky and visit the church when the sun is shining, then the colorful play of lights is our host.

So now you have the drive through the idyllic valley behind you, which at this point is very picturesquely dominated by the ruins of a former castle from the 12th century. You might park the car some distance away and take a leisurely stroll towards the church tower, which towers over everything. It is hilly and quiet here. The entrance to the parish is guarded by three crosses, and just to the left is the 17th-century ossuary with its wonderful Renaissance façade, which here at the end of the world seems as if it belonged to a stage set – unreal and yet so clearly drawn. Above an exterior holy water font is depicted an ankou, according to Breton tradition, death personified. He greets us with his usual phrase, “Je vous tue tous,” meaning “I get you all.” This underlines the same message as in the death dances found, for example, in northern Italy. Whether rich or poor, man or child, bishop or peasant, death makes everyone equal.

It is only a few steps to the church. You enter through the door on the lowest floor of the west tower, which rises to the sky with a double gallery and a pierced stone spire. In French, there is a beautiful word for this tower shape, “flèche,” which also means arrow.

Then you’re inside and amazed. Everything is colorful! Because here the color has a double source. Once the only preserved rood screen of this area dominates the room and it is colorfully painted, more colorful than you can imagine. And: until now we have not discovered a stone calvaire on the site. Because in fact, it does not exist here.

In La Roche-Maurice, it is instead glass and colorful in the shape of the great choir window. This marvel was created in 1539 and is still preserved in its original form. If one reads up, one learns that the window was made in nearby Quimper. Influences of many famous names of the time, from Dürer to Bosch and Van der Weyden, have been incorporated. As on a stone calvaire, we find the familiar scenes. However, the usual first part with scenes around the birth of Jesus is missing, because this window is a passion window. Fifteen images, some lancet-shaped, shine out at us. Mary Magdalene is depicted once under the cross like an Italian princess, soft in expression and with a questioning look, her arms open. Another time, at the embalming, she wears a Flemish hood. In the upper left, Jesus is shouldering his cross; in the upper right, he has already been resurrected.

The other source of this exuberant colorfulness is now in our back. So we have to step back to be able to look at it. The best thing to do is to stop right in the middle passage of the colorful rood screen and look up. The complete Renaissance pictorial vocabulary unfolds before our eyes here – in modern parlance one would say “polychrome oak”. Grimaces and grotesques of all kinds, arabesques, ribbons, florals, chimeras, putti, unicorns – everything that the Breton fantasy of the Middle Ages offered is gathered here.

Above this colorful jumble, 12 statues are lined up on both the chancel and nave sides, also colorfully and lovingly decorated. With the vast majority of them it is possible to recognize who they are. Here, too, a who’s who of biblical studies, i.e. Peter, Magdalene, James, Barbara and many more.

On the southern pillar, there is Anna teaching Mary to read, from the Bible of course; and on the northern counterpart is a very pretty Margaret praying. At the very top, as expected, the Crucifixion with Mary and John on either side.

Fenster in La Roche-Maurice, © Anja Weinberger

Above all this a blue painted sky arches, which is limited by the typical Sablières downward. On these wooden, narrow stages, the sablières, a small people playing music or doing typical work cavorts in such a small space, yet so detailed worked out of the wood that one can only marvel.

La Roche-Maurice has recently been extensively restored and probably shines even brighter than I remember.

***

One could continue to La Martyre, where important fairs were held between the 14th and 18th centuries. The layout of the parish is suitably substantial and exceptionally entertaining.

If one wishes, one can walk on the top of the Triumphal Gate, decorated from the outside with a pretty Annunciation, directly at the level of the Crucifixion Group. Or you can look at the portal of the church vestibule and exchange glances with the ox and donkey that mischievously look down from the Christmas story of the tympanum. On the right side of the lintel, a shepherd plays golf (this was a sport just becoming popular among the common people in the 15th century) and is surprised by an oversized Annunciation angel.

The church has a beautiful “flèche” and adorns itself with lots of pediments, doors and pinnacles. An ankou also reminds us here; the stained glass windows are particularly beautiful and the ossuary is supported by caryatids. I think there is no wish left unfulfilled.

***

What is missing?

Maybe a trip to Daoulas? There is a very romantic cloister next to the very old church, its serrated frieze tells us that it dates from the Romanesque period. Few only can be found in Brittany from this period and cloisters in themselves are also rare. The many hydrangea bushes obviously know where it is beautiful.

Or this:

From Pont l’Abbé, one not only quickly reaches the Calvaire of Notre-Dame de Tronoën, as described above, but also, after a nice drive, perhaps along the coast, the little town of Pont-Croix. There is no enclos parroisial here, but pretty alleys and nice corners. One then goes in search of Notre-Dame de Roscudon and in particular the southern porch. Whoever is not enraptured by the naive and artistic stonemasonry of the Wimperges at this sight, has no heart in his body.

Or you want to see the most monumental and best-preserved parsonage in Brittany and are a baroque junkie at the same time. Then you go to Saint-Thégonnec. You already know what stories await you there.

And if you want to experience the full splendor of the Breton Renaissance once again, then you visit Commana, the highest enclos at the foot of the Mont d’Arrée. It is not the triumphal gate with the three lanterns, not the ossuary with its fabulous mythical creatures or the magnificent porch with all four types of columns. No, it is the exuberant interior of the 17th century church that brings us here. Everything is made of colorfully painted wood – the wide Annen altar, the Five Wounds altar, the wooden baptistery set into the nave – all lavishly decorated with flowers, fruits, medallions and figures – the rural Renaissance in all its glory.

***

If you still haven’t had enough, you will find interesting things everywhere.

In Morlaix an unusual townscape, in Concarneau a Ville close, in Brest the harbor and the Océanopolis, on the coast imposing lighthouses and inland beautiful castles.

Northern Brittany is an extraordinarily diverse piece of land.

If you get there, send a longing greeting from me.

Literature used

Beaulieu, François de: Enclos paroissiaux de Bretagne, Rennes 2016

Chapalain, Claude: La Roche-Maurice, Les enclos paroissiaux de la Vallée de l’Élorn, Apeve 2016

Pelletier, Yannick: Les enclos bretons, Luçon 1989

Rother, Almut und Frank: Die Bretagne, Köln 1978

Schröder, Dirk u.a.: Bretagne Normandie, Wörthsee 2014

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