Abbé Yves-Pascal Castel has made a lifelong study of Brittany’s religious heritage. “Brittany without its calvaries would no longer be Brittany,” he writes. And it is true, for these extraordinary granite sculptures, with their carved figures depicting scenes from the life of Christ, resonate with the Celtic spirit and the Breton’s natural predisposition to melancholy.
Wayside crosses, shrines and calvaries are found right across Europe. But they are especially visible elements of the Brittany landscape, most particularly in the département of Finistère. There are simple granite crosses through this north-west extremity of France. Some stand proud by small country roads and tracks, others are half-hidden by vegetation in stone walls. Some stand on roughhewn altars, often adorned with a plant or small vase of fresh flowers. There are also traditional representations of Christ on the Cross in most churchyards. But in addition, the region boasts a number of monumental calvaries on a much grander scale.
The earliest of these, made in the mid-15th century, stands beside the chapel of Notre-Dame de Tronoën in west Finistère, a striking landmark known locally as ‘la Cathédrale des Dunes’. Drawn there by the beauty of its isolated, windswept setting, we discovered an elaborate calvary on a large, oblong granite base topped by two tiers of weather-worn tableaux of carved granite figures. And above them Jesus nailed to the cross with the two thieves crucified to either side of him. The last of these great calvaries to be completed, in 1610, is that within the imposing parish close of Saint- Thégonnec church in the Elorn Valley.
Essays in stone
In this article, we visit just seven calvaries, all but one of them clustered in the westernmost part of Brittany. The more elaborate calvaries were built in the churchyards of small rural towns, during a period of peace and prosperity for Brittany, while much of France was embroiled in wars of religion. Their funding came from the proceeds of maritime trade, particularly in hemp and flax — the production of which was a mainstay in many communities.
Keen to assure their place in paradise, some towns built substantial parish churches, often in competition with their neighbours. A distinctive element of these churches is their setting within an enclosed area. These enclos paroissiaux (parish closes) are delimited by an exterior wall with a stepped entrance to keep out cattle (see an article on these parish closes in hidden europe 33). Other features include a triumphal arch, a south porch to the church, an ossuary, a cemetery and a calvary — and in a few cases these calvaries are particularly imposing.