St Pol de Léon (famous for artichokes, and cauliflowers too) is a place that might easily be overlooked by British ,or Irish, ferry passengers, disembarking at Roscoff (famous for onions) and heading straight on down to wherever they're going, bypassing it completely. But we like it, including its 13th century cathedral, which is imposing, outside,
It's quiet and twilighty, a bit dusty-feeling and melancholy as so many French churches seem to be, but there are many interesting and lovely details.
St Pol, Paul Aurelian, was one of those Celtic saints that came bobbing over to Brittany in the dark ages at the time of the Franks and Merovingians, and got all mixed up with various pre-Christian ideas. He had to see off or subdue a number of creatures who didn't want any saintly hermits setting up on their patch, such as this fine wild bull, who he sent off back into the forest,
a pesky dragon, which he led off, no sweat, occasionally belabouring it with his crook, to the water's edge whence it swam off,
and a grumpy wild sow and her young whom he persuaded to become tame and stay around (they''re running along the bottom of the picture in the window below).
I have been known to deplore the heavily pig-oriented nature of the agrarian economy in this part of the world, but things porcine have clearly been a preoccupation for a long time. Here is St Antony, in good old wood polychrome. His face is soulful, wise and world-weary, expressive and well rendered,
but someone clearly had some fun with his emblem - a pig.
Many people have been buried here, this stone set into the flagstone floor looks very ancient,
and this 18th century bishop had his well-fed, country face, as well as his gorgeous robes and trimmings, very exquisitely sculpted in marble for his tomb,
but below him the reminder of what all these things would come to.
But oddest of all these rather lugubrious artefacts were these.
Reliquaries, containing the skulls (le chef originally meant the physical head, still used in the informal expression remuer le chef, to nod the head) of people disinterred from under the church floor, and later from the cemetery. They are called, it seems, les étagères de la nuit, which, directly transalted as 'the night shelves' doesn't make a lot of sense, but according to this Breton expert on Flickr, it implies the levelling ( an obsolete meaning of étage is connected with rank) of all in death - nevertheless, the bishop's is the fanciest by far, the big gilded one in the top middle...
Little boxes - in poplar wood apparently, the same as is still used to make the crates for the artichokes and cauliflowers - in the form of little chapels. They are simply painted in monochrome, often with a cross on top and sometimes a bit of other decoration, an aperture in the front in the shape of a heart or a trefoil, and the name of the person whose skull it contains.
The wiggly forms painted on the one below, and on several others, puzzled me, looking as they do like tadpoles or, indeed, spermatozoa, so that perhaps the very beginnings of life and the very end of it seemed to be coming together! They are though, it seems, a representation of teardrops.
These collections of chefs used to be, apparently, quite commonplace in many Breton churches, and were part of the furniture of the ossuaires, the charnel houses, which are a notable part of the famous enclos paroissiaux of the region.
This has strong echoes to the cults of the dead and the head of the pre-Christian Celtic past, but the relative intimacy with mortal remains is nevertheless unsettling, of course. Prosper Mérimée was horrified and repulsed by what he saw as the casual and disrespectful attitude of the Bretons to their, often not-long-enough, dead. In recent times, just back in the 1980s, one reliquary and its contents, and one skull were stolen from here. There are local folk tales, however, of people, mostly the young and curious, daring or naughty, who pushed their luck too far getting over-familiar with skulls and bones. Generally they died of fright. And hang around in or near bone houses too long, they say, and you might hear more than you want to...
Tom put his hand through the bars and gently ran a finger along an exposed eye-socket. I was quite surprised, but it was not done in a spirit of bravado or of wishing to shock.
" Jacquette," he said, reading the skull's name "I'm sure she won't mind."
( A good site for information is to be found at Ossuaires et Reliquaires en Basse Bretagne. In French and rather small font, but some fascinating stories, extracts and astonishing photos. As I have been known to lament before, as one brought up with English parish churches and the obligatory leaflets on their history, architecture and features that one picks up as one enters, it is rare to have any information on the individual French church buildings and what they contain, only standard issue Catholic pamphlets about the benefits of the Catechism and of making the pilgrimage to Lourdes. So one has to do one's researches before and/or after visiting them.)