Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Magical places - some reflections


What do we mean when we say a place is magical?
Magical is something different from beautiful or majestic. It may include awesome, in the proper sense, stimulating respectful wonder of greater powers and new dimensions of time and space. A place that speaks to us of elemental forces, of presence, manifested in the luminous fabric of air, in effects on tree, rock and water especially, because magic is a transformative power and a skill of nature.
A magical place reflects back to us a sense of this potential, of the latent energy in the earth and the atmosphere. It is dynamic. Here speaks the long past, an age when nature was not only enough, it was all. Old energies die hard and in our world so often swift and superficial, we crave connection with those fundamentals of existence, the essence of life, things frequently obscured from us by heavy material and emotional trappings of modern life. They are zoetic and thrumming in magical places.
In these places, layers of being can merge and intermingle: spirits from all strata of existence, above, below and on the surface of the earth. Time is a circular continuity, drawing us into its aeonic embrace. We deeply long for this replenishment.
Magical places can also be a reflection of human endeavour: the site of megaliths, medieval ruins or modern structures can stir the power, through their harmony with the landscape, the shape of their expression, the open welcome they extend to otherness. They are aspirational symbols of connection.
The acknowledgement of a magical place is beyond Romanticism. It reaches out for a limpid simplicity buried deep beneath cultural layers that can enrich but also obscure. In a magical place we feel purer, inspired and elevated by a thrill of attachment.
A magical place is so intrinsically, and regardless of the personal baggage we bring along. Sad or happy, cynical or curious, we do not effect the magic. It comes not from us. But at last we look not from outside, but standing within, drawn through an invisible portal into space shared. We are ourselves in a new way. Alive.





Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Parish closes - a few final thoughts...


Working on talks about and visits to the Parish Closes, as well as contributing to the new permanent exhibition project in Guimiliau has made me focus my thoughts on why these structures are so important. Often the answer is limited to the artistic and architectural heritage value. Of course, there's more: the closes have much to tell us about social and economic history, and everyday life in small rural communities in the 16th and 17th centuries, as I've said in earlier posts. But I think the true significance lies in their essential Bretonness.
They reflect a traditional Brittany open to widespread cultural influences (largely through its well-known maritime prowess), with even tiny country villages wanting the latest style and best craftsmanship to enhance their communities. This also shows the intensity of local pride that is still characteristic of Breton society, and a readiness to create public show and spectacle on a grand scale whilst maintaining distinctly unostentatious private lives. The money, time and effort dedicated to collective causes then is a tendency still apparent today. The closes are testament of intensity of Catholic faith in the years after the Council of Trent, but it is religion combined with vibrant devotion to traditional Breton saints not sanctioned by the Vatican, shot through with decorative detail from a decidedly profane perception of humans and animals (and their many foibles) and an almost tender preoccupation with Death
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Monday, March 05, 2018

Parish closes - Part Three

Commana
The parish closes vary enormously in size, style and embellishment and each presents a unique personality to the visitor. They range from small and simple to big and brash. The amount of local revenues, the artistic taste of decision-makers and geographical factors all came into play. One feature like the calvary or the triumphal entrance may have been singled out for high expenditure and more complex decoration than the other elements. A stern and solid tower profile may have been deliberately chosen in the 'mountain' parishes like Commana and Plouneour-Menez, fitting the surrounding landscape (and weather). The richest village of all, St-Thégonnec, just went for out and out ostentation, with money no object in the cause of aggrandisement.
Miliau v St Joseph
One notable form of individualisation came through the honouring of local saints. The traditional founder of the village, such as Thegonnec at St-Thegonnec, Miliau at Guimiliau and Edern at Lannédern, would be represented by statues with distinctive attributes, such as Thegonnec's cart or Edern's stag. Miliau's altarpiece with painted panels tells the tragic story of his murder at the hands of his own brother. These Breton saints, with no official Vatican sanction, were often later displaced by traditional worthies of the Roman Catholic church, leading to greater uniformity and less locally specific detail. The cult of Joseph was fostered in the second half of the 17th century and his altarpiece now overshadows that of Miliau.
La Martyre
Decoration of the closes was by no means limited to traditional religious subjects like scenes from the Passion on the calvaries. Craftsmen had a lot of fun with amusing and often profane images, carved on string-beams high above eye level. Scenes from everyday life are common, often showing rural working practices. At Pleyben there is even a representation of Prometheus having his liver pecked out by the eagle, a classic of Greek mythology. The porch at Guimiliau contains a whole series of images of unclear significance, like the 'cock king' and men in hairy tights, probably reference to a traditional shepherd's dance, but strikingly un-Christian in its context. The exterior of this porch has many comic scenes, like a paralytically drunken Noah. The famous caryatid at La Martyre is of mysterious provenance.
Guimiliau
Just as contemporary dress and hair-styles are often clearly shown in the detail of the decoration, it is also thought that local characters may have been represented in the faces of some sculpted figures. An ostentatious example is at Plougonven, where the large, ugly statue of the Devil on the calvary is said to have been modelled on the rector who had fallen out with the workmen - how I hope that is a rare example of a true story.
Plougonven

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Parish Closes - Part Two

Pleyben
These extraordinary building projects often took decades (and more) to complete, with craftsmen and general workers billeted on the spot for the duration. The small close at Berven was a real exception, being constructed in one seven year fell swoop. The English organ-maker Thomas Dallam, whose father Robert had fled from Catholic persecution in Cromwell's Britain, was not only in constant employ in Brittany, but managed to produce several children whilst based in Pleyben (1688-1692) working on his masterpiece there. Another of his fine pieces can be seen at Guimilau, perhaps the most beautiful and well-set of all the parish closes.
Pleyben
Many of the craftsmen who had come from outside Brittany to work on the Chateau de Kerjean, north of Landivisiau, at the end of the 16th century, found themselves in demand to transfer their skills in new Renaissance styles to the religious context of the parish closes. It was a highly competitive field, with villages vying with their neighbours to have bigger and better examples to boost their local pride and proclaim their prosperity by a public show of wealth. This sort of communal devotional ostentation was highly acceptable to the Bretons, even though they tended to shun excessive display as individuals.
La Martyre
The closes were largely funded by the wealth that poured into western Brittany from the cloth trade, until Colbert's protectionist measures dealt a hammer blow in 1687, and business almost ceased overnight, as figures from goods passing through the port of Morlaix show. There were other important sources of local revenue such as large fairs - that of La Martyre, which has the most beguiling and unusual of all parish closes, is a good example, with merchants coming from as far afield as England and Flanders. Local legend says that Shakespeare's father came here as a glove-seller, possibly with the young Will in tow. At Lampaul-Guimilau, one of the 'big three' parish closes just west of Morlaix, the tanning industry generated considerable profits to be poured into the magnificent bell-tower (which sadly lost its top to lightning in 1809) and the sumptuous church interior, which remains its principal glory today.
Lampaul-Guimiliau
It is quite extraordinary to imagine these tiny rural villages full of life, purpose, excitement, religious emotion, movement, noise and colour for long periods of construction work on the parish closes from the 15th to 17th centuries, achievements which remain symbols not only of exquisite art and architecture from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque, but also of an economic and social vibrancy now long since vanished.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Parish Closes - Part One


St Thegonnec

This architectural and important historical phenomenon is very much on my mind at the moment as I work on translations for a new exhibition centre opening at Guimiliau later this year. I have also been booked to give a talk on the subject in April and have several guided tours of various enclos to prepare for groups.
The parish closes are mainly, but not entirely, a product of northern Finistere, springing out of the affluence brought to even small villages by cloth production and the dynamic trade in that commodity across the Channel. Morlaix and Landerneau were important ports for the marketing and export of the various fabrics, and many of these fine churches can be found scattered around Léon between the two.
The sacred precinct was defined by an encircling wall and a combination of various standard elements were added within to the church enclosure. Whilst burials were still within the church, the enclosed outdoor open space could be used for fairs and markets. Later churchyards took over, a few of which remain. Most are now grassed and gravelled, setting the emphasis on the architectural elements.
Sizun
The entrance gate was often a magnificent affair, modelled on Roman triumphal arches; big on grandiose classical motifs. The main gate was often for the dead to enter on the way to funerary rites: everyone else climbed the steps and scrambled over the stone barriers designed to keep animals out.
La Roche Maurice
The ossuary or charnel house, for storing bones, was often decorated with symbols of death (skulls, crossbones, etc.) and inscriptions reminding the living what was in store for all of them: Me today, you tomorrow (hodie mihi, cras tibi). Many ossuaries were later consecrated as chapels and in modern times turned into little museums selling souvenirs.
Guimiliau
The calvary or calvaire, topped by a huge cross, usually tells the story of the Passion, beautifully carved on its upper panels, and offers various scenes from the earlier life of Christ on the lower level. The quality of the carving, especially when kersanton stone is used, is often exceptional. Detail of contemporary costume and hair-styles are especially interesting. These monuments were once brightly painted and could be used to teach the most important Christian story to the congregation. It was a reminder of the ultimate triumph of the Resurrection.
Pleyben
Many sacristies were added later, in Renaissance style, as a safe place for the church's valuables was needed and also a less public meeting place than the south porch, where once the fabrique or church council sat beneath the statues of the Apostles to make decisions and allocate funds for the grand building projects that echoed around these tiny villages year after year.
Lannédern

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy New Year

I wish all readers of my books and all followers of this blog and my Twitter feed a very Happy New Year and many good things in 2018. I thank you for the support and the exchanges that make writing and all that goes into it worthwhile. Spirit of Place, my 2017 book, has been a success in both English and French editions, clearly from the reactions an articulation of perceptions and feelings about the landscape, and the Breton landscape in particular, precious to a remarkable range of people.
It's been a very tough year for me, dominated by illness and incapacity, so I hope for better energies and a stronger heart in the months to come. And I hope that Wayfaring in Little Britain will finally complete its troubled path into the real world in 2018... or 2019...., although as I try to remind myself regularly these days, its the journey that counts.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Solstice

I walked on the high heath at dusk on solstice day. It was damp and misty,but numinous winter light glowed bright across the land. One of moor's beauties is that secrecy need not be silent. My ritual is aloud: talk, laughter, even a bit of yelling. Feelings flow in this state of pure expansive freedom. And I feel the response all around, as the elements stir, and somewhere beyond the clouds the great sun sets, poised for renewal. I wander back to the car in darkness, comforted and connected.