Passion is a word associated with France: be it love, cooking, art or sometimes even religion, France does it with passion.
One place where Our Lord's Passion is passionately depicted is Brittany, that peninsula in western France jutting into the Atlantic.
A spirituality devoted to Christ's Passion and focused on human mortality dominated western Brittany from the 15th to 18th centuries. That spirituality gave birth to a local form of Church art and architecture: parish closes (les enclos paroissiaux).
A parish “close” is a group of religious buildings made up of a church, ossuary, calvary, churchyard and triumphal arch. A wall demarcating this consecrated ground encloses the whole. Cemeteries often surrounded churches. Once upon a time it was not unusual for Catholics to pass by the remains of friends and loved ones every Sunday on the way to church. But space in a churchyard is limited and family plots fill up. Brittany's parish closes resolved that dilemma.
When somebody died, he was buried in the family plot. After several decades, all that remained would usually be bones. These were removed to the graveyard's ossuary, a mausoleum-type building. There they would rest for perhaps another century until, when only dust and ashes remained, they might be laid in a common grave.
A sculpted scene of the Crucifixion — a “calvary” — towers over all these churchyards. More than a simple cross, Breton calvaries are works of art that at a minimum usually depict Christ crucified alongside two thieves as Mary, John and often Mary Magdalene keep vigil.
Sometimes one side shows the crucifixion while the reverse depicts the laying in the tomb. Depending on a given village's resources, calvaries could be elaborate: The granite calvary in Guimiliau depicts 25 scenes from the life of Christ, the Passion dominating.
A triumphal arch usually marked the entrance to the churchyard (and, therefore, the church). The gate symbolically separated profane and sacred, time and eternity, here and hereafter. Passers-by were thus reminded of their mortality. The adjacent ossuary reinforced the message, often with an inscription on its front wall like Memento Mori (remember you have to die) or a plea for prayers. In Ploudiry, a skeleton, reminding viewers nobody bows out of the dance of death accompanies four sculpted faces depicting various states of life.
But it's the Third Sunday of Advent, you say. Just a week away from the feast of the birth of Our Lord. Why visit, even if only vicariously, a place that seems dedicated to death?
Because, far from being morbid, these masterpieces of religious art are, like the great works inspired by the Nativity, sophisticated declarations of faith.
Death was hardly a stranger in rural Brittany when these closes began appearing. Disease and infant mortality were high. The Black Death had haunted Europe. Warfare was common. Breton seafarers faced the perils of the deep.
Parish closes did not dramatize death, but neither did they share in today's conspiracy of silence about it. People die because of sin. My sins bring death upon me and the cross upon Jesus. The calvary in St.-Thegonnec symbolically makes this point: The men arresting Jesus wear clothes of their times, the 16th rather than first centuries.
Brittany's parish closes also reminded Christians that death does not wholly sever bonds of family and community. As one went to church, his ancestors’ presence reminded him that “It is a good and holy thought to pray for the faithful departed” (inscribed on the ossuary at St-Thegonnec). The dead also remind the living to act while there is still time: “Sinners repent while you live because for us dead there is no more time.” The ossuary at La Roche-Maurice puts it simply: “mihi hodie, tibi cras” (me today, you tomorrow).
Cross the threshold of the church door and new wonders greet you. Eastern ecclesiology says a church should be “heaven on earth.” Something of the same idea hits you upon entering these small Breton churches. If the churchyard has a certain somber, monochromatic austerity, the interiors of the churches are flamboyant riots of beautifully colored polychrome woods. Neighboring towns rivaled each other to embellish their churches.
Side altars were particular beneficiaries of such efforts. The 1682 Grand Retable in Commana successfully melds profound spiritual theology with art.
Consider the central line of the altar, starting at the ceiling. At the very top is a human face borne up by a dove (the Holy Spirit). Just below, a statue of God the Father lovingly clasps the crucified body of his Son. Jesus has one hand on his heart, the other extended to us. He stands on a blue globe.
Continuing downwards, the Father reappears, beard billowing, holding the same globe now surmounted by a cross. Just below is the Child Jesus, same globe in hand, crowned with a cross. Just below him is the tabernacle. The altar profoundly combines Trinitarian theology, Christology, soteriology and sacramentology, all conveyed through images to the largely illiterate 17th-century peasants of this little farming village.
Lampaul-Guimiliau also has a striking side altar dedicated to the Passion of Christ. Eight incredibly detailed polychrome carvings take us from the Last Supper through Jesus’ Passion to the entombment. The crowded crucifixion scene looks as if everybody in Jerusalem that first Good Friday turned out.
Where the Wise Roamed
About 50 parish closes are scattered throughout western Brittany. The three most visited (going west from Morlaix) are St.-Thegonnec, Guimiliau and Lampaul-Guimiliau. Mass is celebrated Sundays at 10 a.m. (11 a.m. in Lampaul-Guimiliau).
St.-Thegonnec is the biggest tragedy because a 1998 fire damaged much of the church's interior. Although reconstruction is underway, the church is worth a visit. An exhibition set up inside the church explains what closes are and displays some treasures rescued from the fire (like the pulpit and presidential chair).
Five miles down the road is Guimiliau. Its calvary is the most intricate, with 200 figures depicting the life of Christ. The last of the three most visited closes, LampaulGuimiliau, is about four miles further down the road. Its ossuary and calvary are simple but the church makes up for it. Apart from the altar of the Passion mentioned above, two other items merit special attention. The cross above the nave, with Mary and John at Jesus’ sides, is supported by a beam with richly colored depictions of Christ's Passion. The church also possesses a life-size set of statutes of Jesus being laid in the tomb, the ashen body of the Savior in sharp contrast to the palpably emotional party (look carefully at Mary and John).
Although these three closes are most accessible, do go off the beaten track. A 70-mile circuit would take you to these three and seven more, including Commana, La Martyre (the oldest), Saint-Servais, Ploudiry, La Roche-Maurice, Locmelar, and Sizun (with its 15-yard long triumphal arch). Rent a car; there is no other way to get between these points if you are not part of a tour. A U.S. driver's license with international driving permit can be used in France and, on many a Breton country road, yours will be the only vehicle around.
Enjoy Brittany's rural vistas and note the wayside calvaries along its roads.
On the ossuary in La Martyre there is a band proclaiming, in old Breton, Fol eo na preder e esperet guelet ez eo ret deceda (“He is a fool who does not meditate on the fact that we all must die”). A trip to Brittany can make one wise.
John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw.