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The Parish Closes of Brittany

Les enclos paroissiaux

Take me to church

One of Finistère’s most original features is its collection of ‘Enclos Paroissiaux’, parish churchyards with flamboyant architectural detail. Particularly common in the north of the region, these monuments stand as evidence of a time when the area was gripped by religious fervour and a taste for ostentation, in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

What is that ?

A ‘Parish Close’ – as it would be called in English – is above all a testament of the strong religious fervour that accompanied the economic growth of sailing in Brittany. Sailboats used a great deal of linen and hemp cloth for the sails, canvas, clothing and ropes, and the regions that produced and sold these materials experienced an extraordinary period of wealth. 

This meant that each cloth-producing town wanted to outshine its neighbours by having the most beautiful parish church. This is how a relatively small area has such a high proportion of magnificent sacred architecture, which can still be enjoyed today. 

But what constitutes a ‘Parish Close’, exactly? In the strictest sense, it is a church, surrounded by an area of land that might or might not be a cemetery, and enclosed by an outer wall. It needs to include at least five of the following elements: the church, an ossuary (or bone house), a chapel for relics, a stone cross monument, a surrounding wall, a triumphal gateway, a cemetery and a fountain. 

Pride's price

The competition between the various towns to create the greatest architectural collection also involved a great number of artists and craftsmen: architects, sculptors, glass specialists, cabinet-makers and painters have all left their mark in the stone and wood that you see today.

The statues, wooden beams and altars will tell you a great deal about those who ordered and made them – you just need to look around…

Some churches would pride themselves on their magnificent altar or monumental stone cross (such as Saint-Thégonnec and Pleyben), while others (like Sizun and La Martyre) would focus on their triumphal gateway, a symbolic threshold separating the land of the living from the land of the deceased, and others again might boast of their monumental ossuaries (La Roche-Maurice).

All, however, are beautifully wrought and sculpted showing, to people who couldn’t read, scenes from the life of Christ or, quite as readily, scenes from local legend. This means that you can see a depiction of when Christ was baptised or laid to rest right alongside images of local saints such as Saint-Thégonnec converting a wolf, Saint-Yves between the rich man and the pauper, or Saint-Roch being prayed to in times of plague.

But many other treasures will reveal themselves to you if you take a moment to look around.

Various clubs and associations are more than happy to help visitors discover these exceptional examples of architectural heritage. Feel free to ask at the nearby Tourist Offices! 

Even more beautiful in colour!

In Brittany, and especially in Finistère, summer 2015 looks set to be truly exceptional for art-lovers, culture-vultures and history buffs. For the first time, a veritable pilgrimage of 7 stone cross monuments in Brittany has been organised in July and August – and 6 of these are in Finistère! At the end of each week, a new stone masterpiece will be brought to life at nightfall, thanks to the talents and magic of ‘Allumeurs d’images’. The first is scheduled for 10th July in Plougonven then Guimiliau, Saint-Thégonnec, Plougastel-Daoulas, Pleyben, Saint-Jean-Trolimon and finally Guéhenno will each get a turn. Nearly 70,000 spectators are expected for this event, which will also include plenty of other free entertainment and activities all of high quality and sure to be popular.

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