hidden europe 55

The Tender Touch of an Angel

by Patricia Stoughton

Picture above: The ‘ange de la tendresse’ holds back Jesus’ hair on the great calvary at Tronoën (photo © Patricia Stoughton).


Tucked away in the country lanes of Brittany (in the north-west corner of France) are a number of shrines and sculptures which feature an angel tenderly holding back Christ's hair on the crucifix. Patricia Stoughton goes in search of a peculiarly Breton touch in religious art.

Over a typical Breton lunch of cider and crêpes, l’abbé Yves-Pascal Castel, who has spent a lifetime studying and writing on Brittany’s religious art, and who at the age of nearly ninety is still broadcasting on Christian station Radio Rivages, remarks on a trail worth following. “You might look at les anges de la tendresse,” he suggests.

Christ nailed to the cross is one of the western world’s most powerful and enduring images. It is represented across the arts in illuminated manuscripts, painting, sculpture and stained glass. This stark image of pain and abandonment is at the heart of Christian iconography. Although Christ is often depicted with chalice-bearing angels collecting his blood, there is in Finistère a rare representation of another angel known as an ange de la tendresse , who steadies the crown of thorns with one hand while tenderly lifting Christ’s hair back with the other to reveal his face. A fine example of these angels, one of only five known, can be seen on the great calvary at Tronoën (which was featured in “ The Gospel in Stone” in hidden europe 51).

That calvary was built and sculpted in the mid-fifteenth century as an aid to teach the Gospel to the faithful; it is the most famous of the dozen or so great calvaries of Brittany. Captivated by the complexity of its carved scenes of the life of Christ, visitors are mostly drawn to these well-known episodes, and few look up to see the unusual sight of an angel above Jesus’ head, holding his hair away from his face.

L’abbé Castel says that this feature of the crucifixion is unique to Finistère and that the angel at Tronoën was the inspiration for four more calvaries tucked away in the valleys of the region. As part of his long-term study of the representation of angels in Breton religious art he has found, recorded and sketched them all. But as it is some time since he has been able to return, he proposes a new expedition on his behalf: a trip to photograph the five anges de la tendresse.

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