Saturday, December 16, 2006

Little saints

I don't much like French churches, at least not the big ones. I'll make some exception for Quimper cathedral, and they tell me the reconstruction at Nantes is impressive. I've never been to Chartres, and Notre Dame can't fail to impress if you can see anything beyond the crowds of Da Vinci Code believers whose coaches outside pump out corrosive gases which eat up the facade and turn the sky of Paris mucky brown by mid-morning. We once found a small, very old, Roman church in the middle of Lyon which was beautiful as a goldfinch's nest inside, but so many are, well, just soulless. I miss an English parish church, though I've never been a churchgoer.

Moncontour church, near us, was built by Spanish settlers who came here following the Wars of Religion, about 400 years ago. People here have names like Helio, Caro, Carlo, Phillipo. It has an interesting Hispanic-style bell tower which adds much to the distinctive skyline of the town.

But within it's mostly tawdry, shabby, mawkish old baroque tat, of the kind that it seems the Catholic church has felt it ought to foist on the people in a desperate Counter-Reformation attempt to titillate an overwrought response to revive their faith. Mostly in France it seems there was neither the will nor the means to maintain the stuff, and the result is a sorry sight.

What I do like though, are the earthy, heartfelt little country chapels and small churches hereabouts, and my favourite is the chapel of Notre Dame du Hault, at Tredaniel. It's not the oldest or the most rare and beautiful, but it's the one that has most endeared itself to me. It's chief raison d'être is, or perhaps rather was, the Seven Healing Saints. The history of both chapel and saints is obscure; it was part of a priory with a hospital, la Madeleine, before the Revolution, but it has an allée couverte next to it...

... and there is sacred healing well in the woods close by. I haven't a picture of that as I am uneasy about venturing there, since encountering a very small but very feisty adder in the middle of the path leading to it, where my dog had just passed in her usual large-pawed, nose down, oblivious, lollopping manner. My wariness is irrational, the snakes will be sleeping now. Adders, it seems, have strong druidical significance for healing and transformation; they can slide deep down through cracks and crevices into the dark places, rubbing off their skins on the way, their venom is salutary. Many non-Judaeo-Christian cultures venerate snakes. But I'm nervous of them nevertheless, if only on Molly's behalf.

There is a suggestion that the cult of these Saints is strongly Celtic, if not pre-Christian then stemming from the hermit evangelists who paddled across the Channel in their coracles from Cornwall and Wales, and whose identities became merged with local folk spirits, legends and sacred places.

The little saints as they are represented are of polychrome wood, I think from perhaps the 17th or 18th century. They are unarguably quaint, in danger of appearing like folk-religious garden gnomes. This primitive quality led to an uneasy attitude to them on the part of both the established church, and of the secular authorities on what constituted good art and worthy cultural treasures. But religious officialdom's discomfort about them stemmed also from the fact that they were more popular, more prayed to and venerated, than the officially sanctioned icons: the Virgin whose name the chapel bears, and of course Jesus. The votive plaques thanking the saints for their healing intervention include some quite recent ones, even a couple in English. The picture below for some reason features only six of the seven, the seventh, the only female, St Eugenie, is not shown.

The ills that they healed were the commonplace ones of simple country people living hard lives without much access to medical care: stomach pains, headaches, eye problems, but with a strong emphasis on mental, psychological and emotional problems too, ' fear and folly '. St Eugenie, I've been told, was often appealed to by women who were sexually unhappy. The dog accompanying one (not shown) may be a guide dog for a blind man, or may be a wolf, symbolising rage subdued, or may be a wolf who killed and ate the guide dog and was, by the grace of God, rendered subdued and contrite by the saint and obliged to take the dog's place. It looks like a fairly innocuous pooch to me, but is almost certainly not the original.

Everything about the chapel and the saints, their origins, history and identity, even their names, is uncertain, fluid, susceptible to morphing and contradiction, full of story and hearsay. The story of its foundation goes that a Breton was travelling the roads in the area, which long had the reputation of being the haunt of brigands, outlaws, robbers, Chouans, and those generally outside of the law and society. He was set upon, beaten, robbed, hanged and left for dead, even his fine red coat taken. On the point of death an angel cut him down, and the Virgin appeared to him with instructions to found a chapel at the site, which he did with the help of the local people. The fairly modern stained glass window tells the tale.

Aesthetically the window is nothing special, but I have found it a rewarding focus of meditation. It speaks to me of re-integration of the self, of last-ditch hope of rescue, salvation, renewal, grace. The Little Breton is lost and vulnerable, alone and alienated The murderous brigands can be a perception of a hostile world, the ill-will and cruelty of others, or they can be inner demons seeking to destroy you. Yet in the final resolution, others, outsiders to the self, are shown as a source of support, solidarity, devotion. The red coat is pride, joy, self-esteem, self-protection, a sense of warmth; it is stripped and taken, but then finally restored.

The other characters who people the place are also polychrome wood, again, I believe, 17th or 18th century, of the extended Holy Family at different points in their lives: Virgin and child, in foremost position, with a small figure of the Little Breton kneeling before them, St Anne with the child Mary, and Joseph with the child Jesus.

The Virgin has a rather stolid face, but lovely wavy brown carved hair down below her waist. She has a fine blue cloak with gold stars. The baby Jesus has a dear little white flannel nightgown.

St Anne, whose name graces many a French Catholic primary school, has something of Baroque womanhood about her, large, long thighs, a bland oval face, but she is solid, kind and dignified. The child Mary is a delight; a fierce, skinny, hyperactive little tomboy, challenging and eager with her scroll, hungry for literacy. This model, seen frequently, of the woman teaching the girl, not housewifely duties but reading and writing, is one I like. It was perhaps a reflection of the grass-roots movement of orders of sisters, such as La Retraite of Breton origin (who run Emmaus House in Bristol, in the UK ) who made it their mission to educate and improve the lot of the girls and women of the countryside.

Joseph and the boy Jesus are less interesting, except perhaps for the showy rendering of Joseph's draperies. The child has something of the ruddy-cheeked, square-set, laughing Jesus of the early church, but to me he looks spoiled, chubby and petulant. I like his little basket of woodworking tools, mind.

The obligatory grisly, pallid, standard issue crucified Christ is leaning against a wall at the back of the church, looking rather redundant.

There is also a curious rugged relief carving in granite of an indistinct and somewhat infantile looking angel carrying an enormous book, which feels very old and very mysterious. It didn't photograph successfully.

I found a post on Brother Bartleby's blog which seems to me to describe the role of the chapel and its genii loci. He says: "... theologians come up with tidy religions, yet the everyday folk are simply trying to survive in their constantly changing material and spiritual environment, and more often than not this includes a theology that is in flux."( All is flux, nothing stays still.)

Despite the popularity of the little saints, and their inclusion in many guides and other books on the region, little effort was made to safeguard them. The originals were stolen some twenty years ago, but fortunately a local antiquarian and woodcarver had made faithful copies, which were installed in their place. These too were stolen two or three years ago ( with the exeption of St Eugenie, who must have been better secured). Only recently has the local commune seen fit to even explain their absence with a notice to the numbers of visitors in cars and camper vans from all over Europe who stop at the chapel. The powers that be, sacred or secular, may not have valued them; they were too pagan, too maverick for the theological correctness of the established church, too crude and odd for the artistic arbiters, and too irrational and superstitious for the secular, intellectual spirit of modern France. But obviously someone somewhere did. Their absence poses interesting questions on the nature of objects and focus of prayer, meditation, worship and spirit. Can they still be petitioned and prayed to if their images are not there? Will they still heal? Will they work willingly for the person who obtained them dishonestly?

As well as St Eugenie, the Holy Family, the Little Breton, and St Houarniaule 's dog, remain. For the moment.


Bro. Bartleby said...

A wonderful tour of the past, haunting in a way, when the meaningful become artifacts, when the peopled spaces become but memories or imaginations of those who came before. But I would reserve the term church for a gathering of the living and the caring, and rename the once churches museums or ruins.

Lucy said...

Good to see you here! Hope it was OK to quote.
Perhaps the confounding of the Church with church buildings, artefacts and history, taking comfort in oldness and continuity in contact with physical things is more an Old World thing?
But some of us are better able to contemplate in a museum...

Anonymous said...

in danger of appearing like folk-religion's answer to garden gnomes

Heh. Would they not be the question rather than the answer?

I love your writing. (And pictures, but the writing is pre-eminent in this instance.)

Zhoen said...

Maybe they found a better home, rescued when plans to discard them were discovered.