Travellers who visited Brittany in the 19th and early 20th centuries were often struck by the marked and widespread Christian piety that was such a feature of daily life here. Writing as late as 1917, the author Lewis Spence noted: “Nowhere else, will one find such great masses of people so completely lost in religious fervour during the usual Church services and the grander and more impressive festivals so solemnly observed.”
I have touched on the development of the Christian faith and religious practices in Brittany before and do not propose delving into it again here. However, the inextricable blend of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices that existed here for centuries saw a quite distinct, if not unorthodox, approach to worship emerge. Aside from the localised nature of the saints venerated, this distinctiveness can be noted in the siting of churches, their architecture and the iconography found therein.
Many of the region’s churches were built near, or even atop, ancient devotional sites such as megaliths or fresh-water springs and it is not unusual to encounter ancient steles that have long been re-sited inside churchyards or against churches. However, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage is the Parish Close, an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany. Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, these Closes usually consist of a walled circular enclosure, a monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch, an impressive discrete ossuary, an ornate calvary and often a separate Sacristy.
While the monumental calvaries usually contain scenes from the life and Passion of Christ, the calvary at Guimiliau is said to portray a local teenager being dragged into the jaws of Hell. Local legend tells that this is Katell Gollet, a 16 year old girl whose beauty was matched only by her depravity; she spent all her days dancing and carousing much to the consternation of her guardian. Uncontrollable, she eventually agreed to marry but only to the man who could dance with her for twelve hours in a row. Many men tried but most fell dead from fatigue until, having invoked the powers of Hell for new musicians able to keep up with her, the Devil himself joined young Katell and danced with her in an infernal jig across the threshold of Hell.
The churches that became the centrepiece of these Closes almost always display a deep, elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum containing statues of the Apostles crafted in painted stone or wood. Outside, the buildings boasted tall granite bell towers with lanterns and soaring spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles; sometimes many being grouped together at varying heights to deliver maximum visual impact. Recesses housed brightly painted statues of saints but nowadays most are missing and, of those that survive, only tantalising traces of their polychrome remain.
The interior of these churches were ornately decorated with highly crafted carved beams, Glory Beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces which were all richly painted and set under vaulted ceilings highlighted in dazzling shades of blue or green. Sadly, the devastation wrought by the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and the Revolution and Counter-Revolution at the end of the 18th century saw the destruction and loss of much of Brittany’s priceless religious heritage. However, a great deal of what has survived to this day is truly remarkable.
Although there were a hundred and ten Rood Screens noted in Brittany in the 17th century, less than a score are now extant and only a dozen in their complete state; wonderful displays of polychrome wood with painted panels, sculptured figures and ornamental carvings on multiple levels. Designed to separate the choir from the nave and thus keep the altar out of sight of the congregation, the screens were gradually removed from churches following the Council of Trent in 1563 as part of a move to demystify the rites of the Eucharist and allow the congregation to more easily follow the service. Although the number of survivors in Brittany is small, they represent the largest concentration in France.
Other interesting survivors from earlier times are the Chime Wheels which were once quite common throughout France during the Middle Ages. Some fifteen bells were noted in Brittany in 1909 but only seven now remain, mostly located in the centre of the region. These small bells, each delivering a different note and ranging in number from six to 24, are attached at regular intervals to the rim of a wall-mounted wooden wheel varying in size between 0.6m and 1.75m and activated by a pull-cord or a crank. Officially, the bells were said to have been used as a sacring bell during mass or rung during periods when bells were prohibited or to celebrate special events such as baptisms and weddings.
However, the wheels seem to have been more popularly known as Rod ar Fortun in Breton: the Wheel of Fortune and it was this reputation that famously caused the rector of Berhet to destroy the church’s wheel in the mid-19th century. One pilgrim having noted that: “we paid two sous each time … depending on where the wheel stopped, the omen was favourable or not,” while the wheel at Quéven was said to indicate that fortune would be favourable if it ran continuously but the opposite was held true if it stopped suddenly. Such irreligious attention saw the wheel removed in 1944; much to the consternation of the local parishioners.
The wheels were also believed to possess therapeutic and healing properties. Children with speech impediments or hearing difficulties were often taken to spin the bells of the Confort-Meilars wheel above their heads, in order to be cured by its sound; a practice still popularly noted in the late-1920s.
Another unusual relic of past times are the Lanterns of the Dead, over half a dozen of which are noted in Brittany; ranging in date from the 12th to 17th centuries and from simple granite columns of about a metre high to more elaborate structures standing some seven metres tall. These edifices were used to house a lamp that was lit to herald the death of a parishioner thus perpetuating the ancient rite of light whose function was to guide the soul of the departed. Unsurprisingly, the lanterns were also traditionally lit on All Saints’ Day.
Representations of the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death were first recorded in Paris in 1424 and slowly spread throughout Europe over the next two hundred years. Three examples were noted in the churches of Brittany, two of which are still extant today; sadly, the fresco that once adorned the wall of the church in Josselin is known to have succumbed to the ravages of time at the end of the 19th century. The fresco in the church of Kernascléden dates from the mid-15th century, while the one found in the chapel of Kermaria, near Plouha, is a little later, having been painted between 1485 and 1500.
In the Kernascléden fresco, the Duke of Brittany precedes the King of France in the procession, which is not the case in Kermaria, painted at a time when French influence in Brittany had markedly increased and just over a generation before its controversial annexation by the French crown. Today, of the seven surviving Danse Macabre frescos in France, two are to be found in Brittany.
Some of the iconography found in the churches of Brittany is surprisingly inconsistent with approved Church dogma. Representations of the personification of death, the Ankou, are found adorning the inside and outside of several churches but he is not the character of death sometimes seen in churches elsewhere. The Ankou was believed to announce death and even forewarn people of it, often long before gathering their souls; an important figure that underlined the role of fear in a religion centred on death and the afterlife that was promoted here for so long. Another reminder of the inevitability of death is found in the church in Magoar which contains a tall long-cased clock whose, single-dial, face warns that: “The last hour is hidden.”
The cult of the Virgin as Mother of God grew significantly in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; being revered as the Queen of Heaven, personification of the Church and Bride of Christ. In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, many towns and villages placed themselves under the Virgin’s protection and churches dedicated to Notre-Dame or Our Lady abound, often bearing quite specific markers, such as Notre-Dame du Bon Voyage (of the good journey), Notre-Dame du Roncier (of the bramble) and Notre-Dame de la Fosse (of the pit). At times, such distinct local identities were noted to have caused a challenge to the local priest when some of his parishioners were convinced that their church alone held the image of the real Virgin; those found in neighbouring towns were regarded as imposters – at best, a sister or cousin of the Virgin.
Representations of the Virgin are commonly found in every Catholic church in Brittany but less common are those portraying the Virgin breast-feeding Christ. That said, there are many examples throughout Brittany particularly in the west of the region. Such statues, carved in wood and stone, seem to mainly date from the 16th and 17th centuries and share certain characteristics; around 1.65m in height, the Virgin’s hair held in place by a wide band, wearing an unfastened top-garment that displays only the right breast although the statue in Tréguron reveals both and is the only one that shows her seated and one of only two (the other is at Kerlaz) that portrays her ample lactation.
The church in Lanrivain contains a rather charming carved wooden statue depicting a reclining Virgin breast-feeding. Images of reclining Virgins are quite rare in Western Europe but there are ten others, dating from between the 15th and 17th centuries, to discover across Brittany.
Unsurprisingly, the sites of these “Virgins of the Milk” were once popularly visited by expectant mothers or those women experiencing difficulties expressing milk. Although skirting the limits of Catholic dogma, it is clear that such images were not retired even after the promulgations of the Council of Trent in December 1563 which expressly forbade any “image which recalls an erroneous dogma and which can lead the simple astray.” Only images that avoided all impurity and did not generate any provocative attractions were then permitted within the church precepts but such proscriptions clearly had little effect on popular devotion. Many troublesome statues were modified or quietly buried, others were put into closed niches and some were draped with a modesty veil; a practice still noted in two locations here in the late 1960s.
Another fairly unusual feature of some of the 16th and 17th century statues of the Virgin carved in Brittany are the depictions of her trampling evil underfoot, such evil commonly being represented as a horned demon, part woman-part serpent or fish, baring her chest and holding an apple while prostrate upon the ground. Over fifty examples have been noted, predominantly in the western half of the region, and such demons are also found in a dozen of the surviving ‘Trees of Jesse’ carved here during the same period.
To ensure his churches were operating consistent to the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Bishop of Quimper relayed a fairly strong message in his synod statutes, instructing his clergy: “Images which have something mutilated, profane and indecent; that represent stories contrary to the truth of Scripture, or ecclesiastical traditions, must be carefully removed, without scandal, and hidden underground in the cemetery.”
Less than 250 years later, in the wake of the Revolution and the rather puritanical inclinations of early 19th century France, many more statues and carvings of questionable morality were disfigured or destroyed. However, many figures rich in sexual symbolism and suggestion seem to have survived these culls and remain in plain view today.
Some of these images could, generously, be said designed to edify the faithful and encourage them to denounce lust and other sins; others less so.
This scene from Notre-Dame de Crénénan near Ploërdut of the lady with the distaff has been interpreted to suggest that the distaff symbolizes sex and fertility. Thus armed, the lady catches the tail of the fox – a once popular epithet applied to those predatory men who chased younger women – that has stolen her sausage.
In the church in Landerneau, the lady seated on the ground holds her distaff in her right hand and the pig’s tail in her left, while a man braces himself behind her pulling the braids out of her hair. This is thought to represent lust and gluttony but is the piercing of the barrel also symbolic?
This, on a beam in the church at Lanvénégen, is possibly a development of the once popular Medieval story of Renart the fox preaching to the chickens?
I can offer no reasonable suggestion as to the reasoning behind this, from the church in Graces, but similar images have been noted in 16th century manuscripts.
Other carved contortions seem to require no comment at all.
What these images lack in artistic refinement, they surely make up for in imaginative power and cause one to wonder; if these were thought appropriate enough to survive the various moral culls of the last five hundred years, what might have been destroyed?