It has been said that most 19th century travellers to Brittany were often struck by three key aspects of the distinctive local culture; an ancient language thriving in daily use, widespread Catholic piety and a notable reverence of the dead. Then as now, one of the most striking and original features of Brittany’s religious heritage was the Parish Close (Enclos Paroissial) an ecclesiastical architectural ensemble unique to Brittany, particularly west of the Saint Brieuc – Vannes axis. Typically, such enclosures consist of a church, a monumental gateway, a calvary, an ossuary and an enclosing wall.
Originally, enclosing walls were built in order to create a marked delineation between the secular and the sacred. This demarcation seems to have begun in the early Middle Ages and allowed for control of access to the churchyard, an area that was very much the social hub of a Breton village where people would meet, play and attend to business. Regular markets were often held in churchyards, some housed communal bread ovens and it was not unknown for people to actually live there. The wall separated the sacred precincts; limiting access for villagers and, importantly, preventing entry by the dogs, pigs and cows that often disturbed the churchyard graves.
Entry to the sacred space was through an ornate monumental gateway styled as a triumphal arch. Use of this gateway was usually reserved for special days in the church calendar and for noteworthy local events such as weddings and funerals. Access to the enclosure was otherwise by means of small, stepped openings in the wall. Some of these gateways, such as that at Sizun were massive structures; the gateway at La Martyre is topped with a calvary, while others like the one in Guengat were rather more modest affairs.
Inside the close was an ossuary where the disinterred bones from the graveyard were housed [futher details on the development of ossuaries can be found here]. In time, some ossuaries developed into funerary chapels such as the one in Saint-Thégonnec which has an altar, while the ossuary in Guimiliau also features an external pulpit.
Another key element of the parish close is the calvary or at least a crucifix or cross. These can vary in style from a simple stone cross such as that at Rochefort-en-Terre, to monumental structures like that at Guimiliau which has over 200 figures carved around its base.
Perhaps the earliest example of one of these monumental calvaries is the late 15th century external pulpit outside the church at Pleubian; a large circular granite structure, richly sculpted with scenes from the Passion and resurrection of Christ, the flight of stone steps leading up to the raised pulpit are flanked by holy water fonts. There is another, albeit smaller and less ornative, across the Jaudy Estuary in Plougrescant. Tradition has it that these calvary pulpits were raised to honour the stay of Saint Vincent Ferrier who preached in these parts at the turn of the 15th century but the towns never enjoyed the wealth needed to subsequently develop a parish close.
Some calvaries simply depict the crucifixion of Christ often flanked on another level by the two robbers crucified at the same time. Others also feature carvings or statues of the Virgin Mary with carved scenes depicting episodes from the life of Christ around the base of the monument. The congregation at Guimiliau must have either been extensive or keen on open-air preaching as its calvary has a bespoke platform allowing the priest to better press home the biblical references in his sermons to his mostly un-educated parishioners.
The churches that became the centrepiece of these closes almost always display an elaborately sculpted porch with tympanum, bell towers with lanterns and spires, staircase towers and ornate pinnacles, sometimes many being grouped together at varying levels for maximum visual impact.
The interior of these churches was not overlooked and the rich ornamentation – highly crafted carved beams, cross beams, pulpits, baptismal fonts and altarpieces – were often highlighted with gold paint with dazzling shades of blue and softer shades of red and green set against brilliant white or blue.
The construction of these parish closes seems to be concentrated in the 16th and 17th centuries; an era that coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in linen, canvas and flax. This wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended & embellished and simple crosses replaced by more decorative calvaries.
It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a parish close.
The development of the parish church in Guengat offers a useful illustrative timeline typical of so many parishes in western Brittany at the time. The church itself was rebuilt in the 15th century, with two further chapels added in the following century. A monumental gateway and enclosing walls appeared in the second half of the 16th century, which was further embellished by a calvary and an ossuary towards the end of the century. We see a similar timeline some 22 miles south in Argol; here the church was re-built in the mid-16th century, a calvary raised in 1617, a monumental gateway and walls enclosing the churchyard added in 1659 and a discrete ossuary in 1665.
Such fine (and expensive) building works completed to the glory of God were a source of much local prestige. Unfortunately, pride’s bedfellow is envy and a form of inter-parish rivalry soon developed with parishes vying with each other to build the finest enclosure. This de facto competition for the realisation of the most beautiful architectural ensemble ensured decades of work for architects, builders, sculptors, glassmakers, cabinet makers, artists and craftsmen from across Brittany and further afield.
Alas, the decline in the linen trade in the 18th century effectively ended the development of parish closes and this helps explain why there appears to be a uniformity of appearance in the various closes. Unlike churches that move stylistically from Romanesque to Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic et cetera, the parish closes were frozen in time; maintained but not re-developed.
Today, Brittany’s parish closes attract visitors from across the world and it’s quite feasible to visit as many as five or six in a day. However, today’s travellers do not enjoy the same visual impact as the visitors of yesteryear but a few towns are now offering tantalising glimpses into the past by measured illuminations. For instance, the calvaries at Guimiliau and Plougastel-Daoulas are treated to coloured lighting, pushing aside the dull granite hues with vivid shades of blue, red and ochre; reminding us that these structures were originally polychrome. After all, these were works that served a pedagogical purpose and were designed to inspire awe amongst the parishioners.
The five most well-known parish closes in Brittany are ranged in a relatively small area south of the north coast town of Morlaix, namely at Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau, Saint-Thégonnec, Plougonven and Pleyben.
Each is well worth visiting as each boasts its own unique features. For instance, at Guimiliau, the massive calvary contains 200 figures, many clad in 16th century garb. The glory beam at Lampaul-Guimiliau features a striking procession of gilded & painted carvings enacting scenes from the Passion of Christ. The calvary at Saint-Thegonnec features a caricature of King Henri IV, while the church contains stunning ornamental carvings. However, experts have identified a further hundred parish closes across Brittany ranging from the smallest forgotten sites with a demolished ossuary and just a small wall and simple cross to the highly elaborate and oft visited places.
The parish closes are unique to Brittany and offer a fascinating testament of an artistic tradition at the service of religious fervour in the 16th and 17th centuries. Travellers to Brittany should make a point of exploring the great closes in the Élorn Valley south of Morlaix but there are also many hidden gems to discover.