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Art and Culture


Breton Art

Prehistoric Monuments

The megaliths or “great stones” – More than 3 000 “great stones” are still to be found in the Carnac district alone. These monuments were set up between 5000 and 2000 BC by the little-known race that preceded the Gauls.

The menhir, or single stone, was set up at a spring, near a tomb and more often on a slope. The exact use of a menhir is still in debate, but it did have some kind of symbolic meaning. In Brittany there are about twenty menhirs over 7m/23ft high; the biggest is at Locmariaquer.

The alignments or lines of menhirs are probably the remains of religious monuments associated with the worship of the sun or moon. Most are formed by only a few menhirs set in line (many of the menhirs now isolated are the remains of more complicated groups). There are, however, especially in the Carnac area, fields of menhirs arranged in parallel lines running from east to west and ending in a semicircle or cromlech. In the Lagatjar area the lines intersect. The lines of the menhirs also appear to be astronomically set, with an error of a few degrees, either by the cardinal points of the compass, or in line with sunrise and sunset at the solstices, from which it has been concluded that sun worship had something to do with the purpose of the monuments. As for the dolmens (the best-known is the Table des marchands at Locmariaquer), these are considered to have been burial chambers. Some are preceded by an ante-chamber or corridor. Originally all were buried under mounds of earth or dry stones called tumuli, but most of them have been uncovered and now stand in the open air. The round tumuli found in the interior are of more recent date than the tumuli with closed chambers, like the one of St. Michel at Carnac, and the former were probably built up to 1000 BC. Cairns are tumuli composed entirely of stones such as the ones at Barnenez, which dates back to over 5000 BC and at Gavrinis, which is not so old. Some tumuli without burial chambers probably served as boundary markers.

In northern Brittany, gallery graves or covered alleyways are formed of a double row of upright stones with flat slabs laid on top of them, sometimes engraved.

Although tumuli have never been fully excavated, some have been found to contain beautiful artefacts: polished axes made of rare stone (jadeite), or jewellery and marvellous necklaces made of callaïs (a green stone). The museums of Carnac and Vannes contain particularly good collections of these early works of art.

Mystical tradition – For many centuries the menhirs were connected with the mystic life of the people. The Romans adapted some to their rites, carving pictures of their gods upon them. When the Christian religion became established, it acknowledged many raised stones that people still venerated by crowning them with a cross or cutting symbols on them.

Churches and Chapels

Nine cathedrals or former cathedrals, about 20 large churches and thousands of country churches and chapels make up an array of religious buildings altogether worthy of mystical Brittany.

The edifices were built by the people and designed by artists who transmitted to them an inspired faith. This faith appeared in a richness that was sometimes excessive – the exaggeratedly decorated altarpieces are an example – and a realism that was at times almost a caricature – as, for instance, the carvings on certain capitals and many purlins. Only affected in part by outside influences, the artists always preserved their individuality and remained faithful to their own traditions.

Cathedrals – These are inspired by the great buildings in Normandy and Île-de-France, although they do not rival their prototypes either in size or ornamentation. The small towns that built them had limited means. Moreover, their erection was influenced by the use of granite, a hard stone, difficult to work. The builders had to be content with rather low vaulting and simplified decoration. Financial difficulties dragged out the work for three to five centuries. As a result, every phase of Gothic architecture is found in the buildings, from the bare and simple arch of early times to the wild exuberance of the Flamboyant style; the Renaissance often added the finishing touches.

The most interesting cathedrals are those of St-Pol-de-Léon, Tréguier, Quimper, Nantes and Dol-de-Bretagne.

The corresponding Gothic period in England lasted until the end of the 13C and included in whole or in part the cathedrals of Wells (1174), Lincoln (chancel and transept, 1186), Salisbury (1220–58), Westminster Abbey (c. 1250) and Durham (1242).

Country churches and chapels – In the Romanesque period (11C and 12C) Brittany was miserably poor. Buildings were few and small. Most of them were destroyed or transformed in the following centuries.

It was during the Gothic and the Renaissance periods, under the dukes and after the union with France, that the countryside saw the growth of churches and chapels.

Buildings constructed before the 16C are usually rectangular, though one also frequently sees the disconcerting T-plan in which the nave, usually without side aisles, ends in a chancel flanked by often disproportionately large chapels. The chevet is flat; there are no side windows – light comes through openings pierced right at the east end of the church.

Stone vaulting is rare and is nearly always replaced by wooden panelling, often painted, whose crocodile-headed tie-beams (cross-beams dividing the roof timbers), wooden cornices at the base of the vaulting and hammerbeams are frequently carved and painted. When there is no transept, a great stone arch separates the chancel from the nave.

From the 16C onwards there was a complete transformation in architectural design; it became necessary to include a transept which, inevitably, gave rise to the Latin Cross outline. The central arch disappeared; the east end became three-sided; the nave was lit by windows in the aisles.

Belfries – The Bretons take great pride in their belfries. The towers did not serve only to hold bells, they were also symbolic of both religious and civic life. In older times the people prized them greatly, and it was a terrible punishment for them when an angry king demolished them.

The belfries are usually square in outline and their position on the building varies considerably. Small churches and chapels were often given the lighter and less-costly gable tower in preference to a belfry. The tower was placed either on the west front gable or on the roof itself, at the intersection of the chancel and the nave. It is reached by outside steps or by stairs in the turrets that flank it and are linked to it by a gallery. Sometimes these little belfries become so reduced as to be only walls in gable form, pierced by arcades. This form of architecture, while fairly widespread in southwest France, is somewhat rare in Brittany.

Porches – Breton churches have a large porch on the south side. For a long period the porch was used as a meeting place for the parish notables, who were seated on stone benches along the walls.

A double row of Apostles often decorates the porch. They can be recognised by their attributes: St. Peter holds the key of Heaven; St. Paul, a book or a sword; St. John, a chalice; St. Thomas, a set square; St James the Elder, a pilgrim’s staff. Others carry the instruments of their martyrdom; St. Matthew, a hatchet; St. Simon, a saw; St. Andrew, a cross; St. Bartholomew, a knife.

Religious Furnishings

Sculpture – From the 15C to the 18C an army of Breton sculptors working in stone and more particularly in wood supplied the churches with countless examples of religous furnishings: pulpits, organ casings, baptisteries and fonts, choir screens, rood screens, rood beams, altarpieces, triptychs, confessionals, niches with panels, Holy Sepulchres and statues.

These works are, as a general rule, more highly developed than the figures carved on the Calvaries, since it is much easier to work in oak, chestnut or alabaster than in granite.

Visits to the churches and chapels of Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau, St-Thégonnec, St-Fiacre near Le Faouët and Tréguier Cathedral (stalls) will give a good general idea of Breton religious furnishings.

The many rood screens (jubés) to be in the churches of Brittany are often of unparalleled richness. Some are cut in granite, as in the church at Le Folgoët, but most are carved in wood, which which makes them unique to Brittany.

Their decoration is very varied and is different on both sides.

The rood screen serves two purposes: it separates the chancel from the part of the church reserved for worshippers and completes the side enclosures of the chancel; the upper gallery may also be used for preaching and reading prayers (the name derives from the first word of a prayer sung from the gallery). The screen is usually surmounted by a large Crucifix flanked by statues of the Virgin and St John the Divine facing the congregation.

The rood beam, or tref, which supported the main arch of the church, was the origin of the rood screen.

To prevent the beam from bowing it had to be supported by posts which were eventually replaced by a screen carved to a lesser degree. It is to be seen mostly in the small chapels and churches, where it serves as a symbolic boundary for the chancel; it is usually decorated with scenes from the Passion and always carries a group of Jesus Christ, the Virgin and St. John. Renaissance works are numerous and very elaborate. Fonts and pulpits are developed into richly decorated monuments.

Altarpieces, or retables, show an interesting development which can be traced through many stages in Breton churches. Originally the altar was simply a table; as the result of decoration it gradually lost its simplicity and reached a surprising size. In the 12C and 14C altars were furnished with a low step and altarpiece, the same length as the altar. Sculptors took possession of the feature and added groups of figures in scenes drawn from the Passion. From the 15C onwards, the altarpiece became a pretext for twisted columns, pediments, niches containing statues and sculpted panels, which reached their highest expression in the 17C.

Finally the main subject was lost in decoration consisting of angels, garlands, etc. and the altarpiece occupied the whole of the chapel reserved for the altar, and sometimes even, joined to the retables of side altars, decorating the whole wall of the apse as is the case at Ste-Marie-de-Ménez-Hom.

Of lesser importance, but equally numerous, are the niches which, when the two panels are open, reveal a Tree of Jesse. Jesse, who was a member of the tribe of Judah, had a son, David, from whom the Virgin Mary was descended. Jesse is usually depicted lying on his side; from his heart and his body spring the roots of the tree whose branches bear the figures, in chronological order, of the kings and prophets who were Christ’s forebearers. In the centre the Virgin is portrayed representing the branch which bears the flower: Jesus Christ.

Among the many statues ornamenting the churches, such as the Trinity of St Anne and the Virgin and Child, portraits of real people and items of great importance in the study of the history of costume in Brittany are often to be found. Such representation, seen frequently in Central Europe, is rare in France.

Stained-glass windows − Whereas the altarpieces, friezes and statues were often coloured, paintings and frescoes, as such, were rare; almost the only exception are those at Kernascléden. In contrast, there were a great many stained-glass windows, often Italian or Flemish inspired, but always made in Brittany. Some are especially fine, such as the cathedral at Dol, which has a beautiful 13C window.

The workshops at Rennes, Tréguier and Quimper produced stained glass between the 14C and 16C which should be seen: the most remarkable windows from these workshops are in the churches of Notre-Dame-du-Crann, La Roche and St-Fiacre near Le Faouët.

In the 20C the restoration and building of numerous churches and chapels offered the possibility of decorating these edifices with colourful, non-figurative stained-glass windows. The cathedral at St-Malo is a good example.

Gold and silver church plate − In spite of considerable losses, Brittany still possesses many wonderful pieces of gold and silver church plate. This was made by local craftsmen, most of them from Morlaix. Though fine chalices and shrines may be hidden away for security, magnificent reliquaries (shrines), chalices, richly decorated patens and superb processional crosses may be seen at Carantec, St-Jean-du-Doigt, St-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Paimpont and Locarn.

Parish Closes

The parish close (enclos paroissial) is the most typical monumental grouping in Breton communities, and visitors should not leave Brittany without having seen a few examples.

The centre of the close was the cemetery, which was very small with gravestones of uniform size, something now tending to disappear. Around the cemetery, which is often reached through a triumphal arch, are grouped the church with its small square (placître), the Calvary and the charnel house, or ossuary. Thus the spiritual life of the parish is closely linked with the community of the dead. Death, Ankou, was a familiar idea to the Bretons who often depicted it in paintings.

The extraordinary rivalry between neighbouring villages explains the richness of the closes which were built in Lower Brittany at the time of the Renaissance and in the 17C. Competition between Guimiliau and St-Thégonnec went on for two centuries: a Calvary answered a triumphal arch, a charnel house a porch, a tower replied to a belfry, a pulpit to a font, an organ loft to a set of confessionals, an Entombment to chancel woodwork. The two finest closes in Brittany sprang from this rivalry.

Triumphal arch − The entrance to a cemetery is often ornamented with a monumental gateway. This is treated as a triumphal arch to symbolise the accession of the Just to immortality.

Some arches built during the Renaissance, like those of Sizun and Berven, are surprisingly reminiscent of the trimphal arches of antiquity.

Charnel house or ossuary − In the tiny Breton cemeteries of olden days, bodies had to be exhumed to make room for new dead. The bones were piled in small shelters with ventilation openings, built against the church or cemetery wall. The skulls were placed there separately in special “skull caskets”. Then these charnel houses became separate buildings, larger and more carefully built and finally reliquaries, which could be used as funerary chapels.

Calvary − This is the name of the hill, also known as Golgotha, where Christ was crucified; its name was inspired by its skull-like shape (Skull; calvaria in Latin). Breton Calvaries representing scenes from the Passion and Crucifixion are not to be confused with wayside crosses often erected at crossroads or near churches to mark the site of a pilgrimage procession.

The unique Breton monuments illustrate episodes of the Passion, represented around Christ on the Cross. Many of them were built to ward off, as in 1598, a plague epidemic, or to give thanks after it ended. The priest preached from the dais, pointing out with a wand the scenes which he described to his congregation.

The distant forerunners of the Calvaries were the Christianised menhirs, which were still fairly common, and their immediate predecessors were the crosses, plain or ornate. Crosses along roads in this countryside are countless, certainly numbering tens of thousands at one time. In the 16C a Bishop of Léon boasted that he alone had had 5 000 put up. The oldest remaining Calvary is that of Tronoën, which dates from the end of the 15C. They were being erected as late as the end of the 17C. The most famous are those of Guimiliau with 200 figures, Plougastel-Daoulas with 180 and Pleyben.

The sculpture is rough and naïve – the work of a village stonemason – but it shows a great deal of observation and is often strikingly lifelike and expressive. Many figures, notably soldiers, wear the costumes of the 16C and 17C.

Castles and Fortresses

Breton granite is somewhat visually daunting to visitors coming to the region for the first time. Clean-cut and hard, it does not age or weather and it would, therefore, not be possible to give a date to the grey buildings that blend perfectly into the landscape were it not for the architectural design and methods employed in construction. With the exception of the fortresses, most of which stood guard on the eastern border in fear of the kings of France or along the coast to ward off the raids of English invaders, there are few great castles in Brittany. This lack conveys perfectly the Breton character that turned all its artistic endeavour to the service of religion.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine Brittany in the Middle Ages. Few regions, in fact, had such fortresses and though many were destroyed or have fallen into ruin, a number are still standing. Before these walls the problems of war in the Middle Ages can be imagined. Although some fortresses fell at once to a surprise attack, it was not unusual for a siege to go on for several months. The attacker then sapped the ramparts, brought up machines which could hurl stones weighing over 100kg/220.5lb, and tried to smash the gates with battering rams before launching the final assault. In the mid-15C, artillery brought about new methods of attack and changes in military architecture.

At St-Malo and at Guérande, the stone walls that encircled these towns can be seen in their entirety. Remains of ramparts of varying extent can be seen in many other places; Vannes, Concarneau and Port-Louis have ramparts that are almost complete. There are many fortresses; those of Fougères and Vitré are among the finest in France. Dinan and Combourg have fortified castles still standing; Suscinio and Tonquédec have impressive ruins; La Hunaudaye, of lesser importance, the towers of Elven, Oudon and Châteaugiron still stand proudly upright. Fort la Latte, standing like a sentinel, boasts a magnificent site.

Buildings, half fortress and half palace, like Kerjean, Josselin and the Château des Ducs de Bretagne at Nantes, are interesting to see, but there are few of them. The fact is that the Breton nobility, except for the duke and a few great families, were poor. They included many country gentlemen who lived in very simple manors, which nevertheless retained their watchtower defences. They cultivated their own land, like the peasants, but they did not give up their rank and they continued to wear the sword.

Legends and Literature

A Land of Legends

From East to West, North to South, Brittany is a land of marvellous tall tales. Ancient beliefs, rituals and stories have, over the centuries, woven a tapestry of folklore and mysterious legends. Many of the stories told as fables are deep-rooted myths that have endured and continue to influence contemporary writers, just as they held the imagination of those who listened to them in the dark nights of the Middle Ages.

The Breton soul has always been inclined to the dreamy, the fantastic and the supernatural. This explains the astonishing abundance and persistence of legends in the Armor country.

The Round Table

After the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, one of His disciples, left Palestine carrying away a few drops of the divine blood in the cup from which the Redeemer drank during the Last Supper. He landed in Britain according to some legends, in Brittany according to others, where he lived for some time in the Forest of Brocéliande (now the Forêt de Paimpont) before vanishing without trace.

In the 6C King Arthur and 50 knights set out to find this precious cup. For them it was the Holy Grail, which only a warrior whose heart was pure could win. Percival (Wagner’s Parsifal, 1882) was such a man. In the Middle Ages the search for the Grail gave rise to the endless stories of adventure which formed the Cycle of the Round Table. The most famous versions of the tale in English are Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1471) and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859).

Merlin and Viviane

One of King Arthur’s companions, Merlin the Sorcerer (or Merlin the Magician), came to the Forest of Brocéliande to live in seclusion. But he met the fairy Viviane, and love inflamed them both. To ensuure she kept Merlin, Viviane enclosed him in a magic circle. It would have been easy for him to escape, but he joyfully accepted this romantic captivity forever.

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan, Prince of Lyonesse, was sent to Ireland by his Uncle Mark, King of Cornouaille, to bring back the beautiful Isolde, whom Mark wanted to marry. On board their ship, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank a philtre which was intended to bind Isolde to her husband in eternal love. Passion stronger than duty sprang up in both their hearts. There are several versions of the end: sometimes Tristan is slain by Mark, furious at his betrayal; sometimes he marries and dies in his castle in Brittany. But Isolde always follows him to the grave. Richard Wagner’s opera has made the love story famous.

The town of Is

At the time of good King Gradlon, about the 6C, Is was the capital of Cornouaille; finds in Trépassés and Douarnenez Bays and off the Presqu’île de Penmarch are said to have come from Is. The town was protected from the sea by a dyke, opened by locks to which the King always carried the golden key.

The King had a beautiful but dissolute daughter, Dahut, also known as Ahès, who was seduced by the Devil in the form of an attractive young man. To test her love he asked her to open the sea gate. Dahut stole the key while the King was asleep, and soon the sea was rushing into the town.

King Gradlon fled on horseback, with his daughter on the crupper. But the waves pursued him and were about to swallow him up. At this moment a celestial voice ordered him, if he wished to be saved, to throw the demon who was riding behind him into the sea. With an aching heart the King obeyed, and the sea withdrew at once, but Is was destroyed.

For his new capital Gradlon chose Quimper; this is why his statue stands between the two towers of the cathedral. He ended his days in the odour of sanctity, guided and sustained by St. Corentine. As for Dahut, she turned into a mermaid, who is known as Marie-Morgane and whose beauty still lures sailors to the bottom of the sea. This state of affairs will persist until Good Friday, when Mass is celebrated in one of the churches of the drowned city. Then Is will cease to be accursed, and Marie-Morgane will no longer be a siren.

A Land of Literature

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Learning was centred in the monasteries; the language used was Latin; the subjects studied were concerned, for the most part, with the history of the Church or of Brittany, moral philosophy and the lives of the saints. La Vie de Saint Guénolé (A Life of St Guénolé) was written by Gurdisten (Wurdisten), Abbot of Landévennec, in the 9C, and La Vie de Saint-Pol-de-Léon (A Life of St Pol de Léon) by Wrmonoc, a monk from the same abbey.

Authors are rarely known by name, but there are some exceptions from the 12C: the philosopher Pierre Abélard, one of the most brilliant figures of the Middle Ages, who was born at Le Pallet near Nantes and became Abbot of St-Gildas-de-Rhuys; Étienne de Fougères, who was named Bishop of Rennes in 1168, wrote Livre des manières (Book of Manners, 1174–78), which gave him free rein to lecture his contemporaries on moral issues; Guillaume Le Breton was poet and historian at the court of Philippe-Auguste, whose reign he patriotically eulogised.

Students from Brittany first went to Paris University, and then to Nantes when that establishment was founded in the 15C. Schools were established to supplement the teaching provided by the churches and monasteries in out of the way parishes. However, it was not until the 15C and 16C that one began hearing of names such as those of the historians Pierre Le Baud, Alain Bouchard and Bertrand d’Argentré, of the poet Meschinot from Nantes who wrote a series of ballads entitled Les Lunettes des princes (The Princes’ Spectacles), which became well known in his own time, of Noël du Fail, Councillor of the Rennes Parliament, who depicted the world around him so well, and of the Dominican Albert Legrand, who wrote Vie des saints de la Bretagne armoricaine (Life of the Saints of Armorican Brittany).

17C and 18C

The best-known figures of the 17C and 18C are Mme de Sévigné – Breton by marriage – who addressed many of her letters from her residence, the Rochers-Sévigné Château and wrote vivid descriptions of Rennes, Vitré, Vannes and Port-Louis; Lesage, the witty author of Gil Blas who came from Vannes; and Duclos, moralist and historian, who was Mayor of Dinan. There was also Élie Fréron, who became known only through his disputes with Voltaire and who was the director of a literary journal published in Paris and, finally, the Benedictines Dom Lobineau and Dom Morice, historians of Brittany.

The Romantics and Contemporary Writers

Three figures dominated literature in the 19C in Brittany:

François-René de Chateaubriand, who had an immense influence on French literature. The effect he had over his contemporaries arose from his sensitivity, his passionate eloquence, his fertile imagination, all of which were displayed with brilliant and powerful style; in his Mémoires D’Outre-Tombe (Beyond the Tomb), he recounts his childhood at St-Malo and his youth at Combourg Castle;

Lamennais, fervent apologist of theocracy who became a convinced democrat, reflected in his philosophical works the evolution of his thought;

Ernest Renan, philologist, historian and philosopher, was a thinker who maintained that he had faith only in science. He wrote many books in an easy and brilliant prose and in one, Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (Recollections of Childhood and Youth), described his native Brittany.

Henri Queffélec (1910–92) lauded Brittany in Un Recteur de l’île de Sein, Un homme d’Ouessant, Au bout du monde, Franche et secrète Bretagne and Promenades en Bretagne (Walks in Brittany).

Unfortunately, few Breton authors have been translated into English.

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