In early May I took myself and my camera to Brittany for two weeks to photograph the Parish Enclosures which are particular to western Finistère. I was quite nervous about the trip – driving on the right, and coping with only very basic French – but it was a wonderful fortnight.
These church enclosures developed mainly in the 16C and 17C when Brittany was making a lot of money from flax and its by-products. The flax was woven into canvas for ships, as well as fine cloth and both were traded in France but with England, Holland, Belgium and Germany, as well as within Europe. The wealthy merchants in the different parishes competed with each other to build ever more lavish and ornate church enclosures which nevertheless maintained a local character, far away from the control of centres of religious power and accepted religious iconography.
A Parish Enclosure (Enclos Paroissial) consists of a Church with a South Porch and a later (usually) Sacristy situated in a graveyard which is walled. One correctly enters the enclosure through the side openings in the Triumphal Arch – the main gateway is for the dead. And once the graveyard is filled the bones are removed to the Ossuary, also inside the walls. All the enclosures have a Calvary, sometimes very ornate, and sometimes there is more than one.
Locmelar, or ‘the place – loc – dedicated to St Mélar’ – is a small village between Landivisiau and Sizun and set in peaceful farming country. The Church of St Mélar dates from the mid-16C/17C. The churchyard is still walled, with a gateway, but sadly the Ossuary was demolished in 1920. Nearby is the Fountain of St Mélar, with water which is good for rheumatism.
The Calvary dates to the 1600s and was restored in 1925.
The outside of the building is decorated with dragons and a ‘wildman’? with sword, as well as a sundial. There are other carvings and decorations too and you can spend quite a long time looking upwards!
The South Porch was once painted and has the full complement of Apostles.
Push the door open and find an explosion of colour, decoration, and carving in the dim interior.
This wonderful pièta hangs on a side wall of the church.
If you plan a visit to Brittany do visit some of these surprising churches – and linger. I saw so many tour groups whizz in and out and wondered what they actually saw in ten minutes. Sit down, and let the atmosphere sink in – you won’t regret it.