The Church of Saint-Thégonnec in Brittany

posted in: Brittany, Europe, France | 0

The Church of Saint-Thégonnec in Brittany is one of the most famous of the parish closes, or enclos parroissiaux. It is built on the site of an earlier church, like many of these closes, and enlarged and developed as the prosperity of the parish increased in the 16C – 18C. The local farmers and merchants became wealthy on the profits of agriculture and the export of leather and particularly the production of flax, linen, cloth, and canvas. They lavished their wealth on enlarging their church in accord with their rise in status, making this one of the most opulent of all the enclos.

St Thégonnec

There are conflicting stories about the saint. One story says his original name was Conech, or Konog, and he was a monk and a follower of St Pol Aurelian. In 512 St Thégonnec went to Brittany where St Pol put him in charge of the Monastery on the Île de Batz. Other stories associate the saint with St Guénolé and a mission to establish a parish in the place now called Saint-Thégonnec.

The Roman Catholic Church does not officially recognise St Thégonnec, but he is widely accepted in Brittany. Like many other saints he is associated with animals or mythical figures. St Thégonnec tamed a deer to pull his cart of stones so that he could build his church. One day a wolf killed the deer. St Thégonnec lectured the wolf on its wickedness and it repented and agreed to pull the cart in place of the deer. A figure of the saint with his cart stands on the east side of the Calvary. The saint is invoked for the preservation of harvests, the healing of fevers and viper bites.

The original church

The Gothic Tower of 1563 and part of the north wall of the church are all that remain of the original church.

Bell Tower of St Thegonnec
Gothic Tower (L) and second, later, tower (R)

Encircling walls and Triumphal Arch

Walls surround the site and there are three entrances into the cemetery around the church. The monumental Triumphal Arch is the main entrance into the churchyard. The workshop at the Château of Kerjean built the Arch in 1587-89 with granite quarried from near Plounéour-Ménez. It has four square pillars, a central gateway, but no gate, and low stone stiles on either side of the central arch. Ornate lanterns and carvings decorate the top of the Arch. On the north side of the church there is a double stair at the Calvary, and an opening on the west wall.

triumphal arch of St Thegonnec
Triumphal Arch of St Thégonnec

The Ossuary

The original ossuary was a small building which has been demolished. Today’s ‘Ossuary’ is a Chapel. In the crypt life-size figures are carved from oak and painted, and depict the entombment of Christ. Jacques Lespaignol created the statues in 1699-1702 and the group is very similar to the piece at Lampaul-Guimiliau. Antoine Chavagnac created an ‘entombment’ in 1676 at Lampaul-Guimiliau while working in the Navy shipyards in Brest.

Entombment by Jacques Espaignol

The Calvary

  • There are two calvaries: the Calvary of 1610 opposite the Ossuary is the last of the great calvaries in the Élorn valley. It was all carved by the Master of Saint-Thégonnec, apart from a group of three, the mocking of Christ, which is by Roland Doré. The groups of figures depict scenes from the life and Passion of Christ, but are not in chronological order. During the French Revolution people were ordered to destroy religious icons, including the statues on the calvary. However, the citizens of Satin-Thégonnec hid the statues instead. The statues were reinstated on the Calvary many years later, but their sequence had been forgotten. Yann Larhantec created a second, simpler calvary of 1864 on the wall on the north side of the church. A double stair leads from the street to the calvary, and into the churchyard.
Top of the Calvary at Saint-Thegonnec
Grotesque figures around Christ carrying the cross at Saint-Thégonnec
Grotesque figures around Christ carrying the cross
Calvary by Yann Larhantec, 1864, on the north wall at Saint-Thégonnec
Calvary by Yann Larhantec, 1864, on the north wall

Second Bell Tower & South Porch

The second Bell Tower of 1599 in the Church of Saint-Thégonnec in Brittany stands over the South Porch. Parishioners had seen the new Bell Tower (1588) at Pleyben and wanted something more impressive! Roland Doré created a fascinating statue of St John alongside the outer arch, and four apostles inside the porch.

South Porch at Saint-Thegonnec
The South Porch

Inside the Church of Saint-Thégonnec

François Lerrel and his son Guillaume, from Landivisiau, made the pulpit in 1683. Exuberant maidens who represent the virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude – sit around the pulpit. Elaborate carving abound of scenes from the Bible. Jacques Mascard built the organ of 1670. The Dallam family came from England to Brittany and built several organs in Brittany, including the organ in the Church of St Suliau in Sizun. Thomas Dallam had students, including Mascard.

Looking towards the high altar
Organ by Jacques Mascard in Saint-Thegonnec
Organ by Jacques Mascard
Rosary altarpiece of 17C in Saint-Thegonnec
Rosary altarpiece of 17C
Stained glass, 17C, in Saint-Thegonnec
Stained glass of 1862-66

The Church of Saint-Thégonnec in Brittany is an impressive monument and a must-visit near Morlaix. I have wondered, however, if the disastrous fire in 1998 affected the soul and spirit of the building as it feels rather more detached than some of the other enclos.

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