Brittany’s Parish Closes
Fine local architecture and sculpture
A uniquely Breton phenomenon dating from the 16th-17thC, the Parish Closes (enclos paroissiaux) contain some of the finest, and certainly most ornate, examples of local architecture and sculpture. Calvaries, the stone crosses decorated with carved figures representing scenes from the Crucifixion and Passion of Christ, are found in many Breton churchyards, but those of the Close complexes are immeasurably grander and form just one element of a group which may include a triumphal arch (representing the victorious ascent to heaven), and an ossuary, or charnel house, where the bones of exhumed bodies were placed to make room in the cramped graveyards for further burials.
Morlaix is the closest town to the three most interesting of the parish closes and buses from there serve all three villages. The Parish Close of Saint-Thégonnec (off NI2,13 km south-west of Morlaix) exhibits all three of the traditional elements, starting with a triumphal arch festooned with pinnacles, orbs and carved niches. To the left, the 17thC ossuary sits on top of a small crypt containing a carved and painted rendering of the Holy Sepulchre; the superb calvary across the yard dates from 1610. Behind the severe granite exterior of the church, the east end of the building is cloaked from floor to ceiling with lavishly painted and gilded wood carvings of well-fed cherubs, flocks of angels and legions of saints; and the pulpit is a work of art.
The richness of Saint-Thégonnec’s decoration was in no small measure due to intense rivalry with the neighbouring village of Guimiliau (7 km south-west). Guimiliau’s calvary is the acknowledged grand fromage of Breton calvaries with more than 200 figures carved between 1581-88.
Last but not least of this trinity of neighbouring closes, Lampaul-Guimiliau (3.5 km north-west) has perhaps the simplest close complex, but its church has a marvellous baldaquin canopy over the font, carved altar pieces and a Crucifixion balanced on a beam over the nave. Other Parish Closes in the region include La Roche, La Martyre, Ploudiry and Pleyben.