Monday, March 05, 2018

Parish closes - Part Three

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.
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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Parish Closes - Part Two

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.