Tuesday, March 22, 2011

St Pol de Léon, the cathedral, the dead and their heads.

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,

and inside.

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.) 


Dale said...

This odd (to us) ease with the remains of the dead crops up in Tibetan culture sometimes. I'm sure the custom of sitting with the new corpse three days, while the soul supposedly gets used to the idea that it doesn't live there any more, has a lot to do with it.

Such wonderful photos, & such a wonderful essay!

Dale said...

(I love, love the pigs!)

Lucy said...

Thanks Dale.

One of the things that disgusted Merimee was that the remains which were dug up from the graveyards, which, he said, were not always properly decomposed, were allowed to be gnawed by dogs.

Though this is fairly horrid, and, if it happened, which it may have done since space in the burial grounds was at a premium and turnover may have been a bit quick, was probably more by luck than judgement or any formal ritual policy, this does remind me a little of the Tibetan sky burials, and the idea of allowing scavenging creatures to feed on bodies.

Also, if I remember rightly, the Zoroastrians who allowed dogs, whom they valued, to eat human remains, which perhaps accounts, in part,`for the Abramic faiths' aversion to dogs as unclean animals.

Glad you like the pigs, I reckon they let the apprentice wood carver do St Antony's! Not sure why he gets a pig, I dare say I culd find out...

marja-leena said...

Wonderful post and photos, Lucy! The little painted chapels are actaully rather charming, and they remind me of the somewhat larger ones found in graveyards in northern BC and Yukon. Being out in the open they have been disintegrating. Anyway, how I wish my French was better...

Catalyst said...

The displaying of skulls takes me back to a visit to Guanajuato where a sizeable number of mummies are on display in the Museo de las momias. They have become a huge tourist attraction. We were in Guanajuato once but declined to go view the mummies.

Catalyst said...

I should have mentioned that Guanajuato is in Mexico.

Zhoen said...

As a child, I was terrified of the dead. Since then, I've washed the dead, and they are no longer fearsome. Odd how what is sacred in one religion is sacrilege in another.

christopher said...

Pig Roast

If I had a sow
I would name her Zelda Mae
and she would eat corn
and root the fresh earth
and roll in her own mud patch
spouting deep wisdom
with the twitch and sweep
of her tiny curled up tail.

Then would come feast day
eve and I would weep
as I let her blood flow out,
then spit and roast her
for the gathering
of all my friends old and new
invited to eat
lovely Zelda Mae.

christopher said...

That's actually in its way a true story though it should be told by Ramberg, not me. I ate a hunk of Zelda for sure.

Anne said...

Fabulous pictures and elegant commentary. I really enjoyed this.

So much of religion is about death. I guess the same could be said of art.

I like the pigs a lot, but I specially admire the bishop's ringlet.

who said...

Seeing the Cathedral, it looks as if the architects who designed the Mormon temple in Salt Lake may have once viewed, or were told of this one you have pictured.

And the coincidental resemblance of a bulls head and horns to the feminine ovaries and fallopian systems.

You know, if those reliquaries and relics kept within, were outside, one would be hard pressed to stop birds from taking up residence.

Had skulls not tried to school a scholar by slander by means of ventriloquism, which in essence is bearing false witness through denial upon being questioned, they would (possibly) have vision with depth perception by sight lines with crossed paths because eyes would willed not be poked out from skocked faced ones poking finger.

tales told again will continue to be told again and again. The Times, Tithes and Tides will return, Love is the only continuum which has not required it's reconation by wrecking it's word.

some fish will always take the bait, no matter how barbed the hooks are that hold it

zephyr said...

Such a fascinating post! Would love to visit that cathedral one day.

the calligraphy, or "font" used on those little chapel boxes (they look like miniature, simple chapels that are often found in small towns here) intrigues me.

Nimble said...

The eye socket peeking out of the heart shaped hole is quite an odd juxtaposition to me. You've taught me something -- I had no idea that the 'chefs' were sometimes retained this way.

Unknown said...

The collection of faces is almost hypnotic. Many are recognisable as types or seem to be real people, who you know. That plump bishop, and St Anthony on the edge of exasperation. But none more so than the very last of your photographs which has an expression which you sometimes see on Prince Charles' face - a sort of embarrassed smile when he not sure whether he is being condescending, and wishes he were somewhere altogether different.

Roderick Robinson said...

Another solid contender in support of my campaign to get you your ribbon. In between times I'm practising a form of written French that can only be described as orotund as befits the application. I haven't yet checked out the body that vets the suggestions but I'm pretty sure extreme formality is, at it were, the lingua franca.

The bull is splendid but lacking in fierceness; probably returned to the forest at the command "Boo!" St Anthony is so persuasive I feel sure he must be a true-life likeness. But it's the bishop who teeters on the brink of too much realism; he exists now as then; the self-satisfied almost-smile, the patronising pose ("And what can I do for you, you miserable creature?"),his negligent grip on the liturgy (?), eyes that reflect the idea of auto da fé but on our behalf, not his. Very handsome in his youth and given to reflecting on what that brought in the way of presents.

I wonder if the lettering on the boxes is available as a computer font. Ideal for a blackmail note.

By the way my chiropodist shares your family name. Try as I might I cannot see this as an augury.

Sabine said...

This is really wonderful and enticing. And to think that I have missed this on my to the ferry. I know better now for another time.

J Cosmo Newbery said...

An enchanting travelogue! Thank you!

Jean said...

Beautiful and fascinating. I think I would have wanted to do what Tom did.

marly youmans said...

I really loved this vicarious wandering-about with you, Lucy. So many interesting pictures in my head. I thought not of other dead I have seen in other places but quite sharply of Donne--

When my grave is broken up again
Some second guest to entertain
(For graves have learned that woman-head
To be to more than one a bed.
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let'us alone


Setu said...

Really good pictures and witty post about the Kreisker (“in the middle of the town” in Breton, that’s the usual name of St Pol cathedral), Lucy.

About the piggy: « Anthony the Great », the hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert has never had a pig in his whole life I think (the story stating he was a swineherd is apocryphal). The Devil who fought him took the appearance of wild desert animals, scorpions, snakes, lions… not of pigs. I read that the tradition depicting him with a pig companion has nothing to do with his life, but is related to the Hospitaller Order of St Anthony (the “Antonines”, created at the end of the 11th century). Antonines reared herds of pigs all over Europe –they even had the privilege to keep their pigs within towns-, pigs that allowed them to feed thousands of sick and infirm. In the village where I live, the small area where a pig market used to be held is called “Place St-Antoine”.

About the strange forms looking like some kind of tadpoles -or spermatozoids ;-): they represent mourning tears… You can still find such white silver tears embroidered on the black cloth that used to cover a catafalque in some Breton churches. Better with white cloth and wild flowers, and no embroidered tears, don’t you think?
Such stylised tears are called “gouttes” (French for “droplets”) in the jargon of heraldry.
An odd modern English avatar of this heraldic symbol is found on the crest of the Humberside County Council…. There, the golden spermatozoid-like gouttes refer to… North Sea oil. Same thing in Wales for the South Pembrokeshire crest, due to oil refineries around Milford Haven, I think. Mr Reid, a prominent atmospheric scientist and former President of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society has silver “gouttes” on his shield: raindrops of course in this case. I suppose they could be suited to Gene Kelly’s blazon as well.

Lucy said...

Setu, you are wonderful, your presence here makes me feel that I've made it beyond the sphere of trite and facile expatriate blogging! And if I ever want any tips on heraldry I know where to come.

I read a review a while back of a book about the history of pigs and people, it sounded fascinating. I love the old Brittany photos of people taking their pigs to market. It seemed suvch an amicable relationship.

White cloth and wild flowers sounds lovely.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

Oh this is a wondrous post, full of treasures and inspirations. You are the most wonderful guide Lucy. I think that next time we come to France, I shall have to make a guide based on the things you write about here. I read what you have to say and never fail but to want to get on the next ferry over to see for myself.

Alas, no holidays for us for the foreseeable future, but I think I'd better get down to compiling a file with all the places found here at Box Elder that have caught my imagination.

The Bryant Bunch said...

We visited this church a few years ago, my first time in France. I still remember the smell. It smelled OLD. This was the prettiest little village and yes we were taking a ferry to DUblin.