One of the things we like in Brittany is the ancient, massive and elaborately embellished parish closes (Catholic parish churches), dating back from the 16th and 17th century.
A parish close is a distinctive feature of Breton culture, a completely enclosed area around the parish church, religious architecture particular to Brittany in north western France. I have learned that there are about 70 magnificently decorated Catholic Parishes which are predominantly found in Finistere.
The parish close is surrounded by a wall which contains a parish church and other religious buildings and structures such as:
- A monumental archway or gate giving access to the parish close.
- A calvary which represents Jesus on the cross and some includes elaborate scenes from the bible.
- An ossuary which a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed.
- A porch often decorated with statues of the apostles and local saints.
- A cemetery.
1. Saint Thegonnec Church
Saint Thegonnec church is located in the village of Saint Thegonnec which has a total population of about 3,000. It is famous for its superb calvary or crucifix at the church yard, funerary chapel, triumphal arch and church. It has a large ceremonial entrance which emphasizes the significance of the close as a focus for pilgrimage and pardons.
Outside the church, there is a charnel house where you can see the ossuary with a life-sized tableau of the Entombment of Christ and the souvenir sections, prayer books, guides and other religious materials.I noticed that the interior of the church is exemplary of the local version of Baroque style with a large quantity of polychrome and sculpture and spectacular decoration such as a pulpit which was built in 1683 and is considered as one of the masterpieces of Breton sculpture.
2. Guimiliau Church
Guimiliau church is located in the village of Gumiliau which is named after St Miliau and has a population of about 1,000. Guimiliau is popularly known by its impressive parish close dating back from the 16th century.
I have learned that Saint Miliau was a good Breton prince who was invoked for healing ulcers and rheumatism. He was put to death on the orders of his brother because of a dynastic quarrel in the 6th or 9th century. It is also known as the birthplace of Saint Herve who was an ascetic in the 6th century and one of the most famous Breton saints.
The magnificent Calvary or crucifix is the center piece in the church yard. I have learned that it is one of the largest calvaries in the region which is sculpted with about 200 figures.Upon entering the church, it was hard to miss the polychrome statues of the twelve apostles.The church contains many fine examples of polychrome sculpture from the sixteenth century onwards such as octagonal baptistery, several large stables, a carved pulpit, and collection of banners used in religious processions at pardons.
3. Notre Dame de Croaz Batz in Roscoff
The 16th century Church of Notre Dame de Croaz-Batz (Our Lady of Croaz Batz), in the centre of the town, is considered as the most important monument in Roscoff. It is a Renaissance and Gothic church which was built by the sea in 1520. The church was named after a cross on quay, the “Croaz-Batz” in Breton. It is known because of its unique elegant Renaissance style bell tower in Brittany that dominates the skyline and has several interesting features.
In the churchyard, we saw two ossuaries which can only be accessed through a strangely arched door on the outside of the enclosure wall. When you enter the parish close, the ossuary on your left, which is wonderfully decorated by an elaborate double row of balusters, was built in the 17th century while the ossuary on the right was built in the 16th century.
While we were exploring inside the church, I noticed that the main altar has two side doors which both lead to the sacristy and above the doors are semi-circular panels with carved dolphins, I also saw high spirited putti or cherubic children along with Saint Peter and Saint Paul at both sides.I noticed that all churches in Brittany have a statue of a cockerel at the very top of their tower. It turns with the wind just to point the direction of the wind to everybody especially to fishermen. At 7pm, the bells ring 12 times twice to announce the end of the day of work, a custom dating back to the 19th century and before.
These parish churches captured my senses because each village in Brittany may it be a small or a big village has a huge and well decorated parish close when compared to its population. It is just amazing. I have learned that the locals financed the construction and procured all the stunning decoration of each church. It seemed that on the 16th and 17th century, one way to show off that their village was powerful and wealthy was by building a bigger church than the rest of the villages in Brittany, as during this time Breton people were enthusiastic Catholics.
I love the atmosphere that always seems to surround the parish closes in Brittany. To me, I find it well worth seeking out as all of them have a different character. I look forward to seeing a few more next time we go back to France.
Have you visited any churches in Bretagne, France? Which church would you recommend to visit next time?