On a visit to Bretagne (Brittanny), in France, my daughter Clara and I saw two of the best-known Parish Closes of Lower Bretagne: Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. They were stunning monuments to the religious fervor of the 16th and 17th centuries, and a reminder of the enormous wealth brought to the region by the linen trade.
To be precise, the name parish closes doesn’t mean much in English, as we don’t have anything like that in the English-speaking world. But it’s the best name to give to the elaborate religious complexes that were built out of the competition between linen traders (called julodes) of different towns in Bretagne, for two centuries. Each town wanted to outdo the other, and the results were lavish works of art that we can still admire today.
The most elaborate Enclos Paroissiaux are located in the Élorn Valley, in the towns of Guimiliau, St-Thégonnec and Lampaul-Guimiliau. But there are about 70 enclos in the region, and they all follow the same structure: the church in the middle, next to it a cemetery where members of the parish would be buried; an ossuary, where the bones of the deceased would be exhumed and stored; a calvary, built for the elevation of the souls towards God; and a triumphal entrance, the gateway through which people entered the enclos.
Carved in amazing details in Baroque style, the altarpieces were the high point of the complexes, and renowned artists of the time were called to decorate them.
The details, colors and shapes of the altarpiece in St-Thégonnec took my breath away; it was a work of the finest craftsmanship. I can’t imagine something like that being built today, in our fast-paced, virtual reality world.