When our children were young, we used to get the car ferry from Cork to the French port of Roscoff, for our annual holiday. From there we drove to various camp sies in coastal Brittany.Breton Calvaries are massive cut stone blocks on which scenes from the Childhood and Passion of Christ are represented. I later learned that they were sculpted between 1450 and 1610. Some are stand-alone edifices in small, rural towns while others are part of what was known as a “parish close”. Each Calvary is unique, both in style and content. As well as scenes from the Bible there are representations of local saints and other Biblical events. An air of melancholy pervades many of them.
What I loved about the Calvaries is that they often featured local people in the dress of the day as if these events were happening in their own time. These sturdy little figures seem to draw the viewer into the scene. In the years that followed I sought out Calvaries in other villages – places like Playben, Plougastel, Guimillou and Saint Tregonnec.
In Playben, where the Calvary has 2 distinct levels, there are 30 scenes representing the life of Christ. One scene shows the 2 robbers, Dismas and Gismas, who were crucified with Christ. Their names are at their feet and while an angel hovers to take the good robber to Heaven, a grimacing Devil prepares to take the other robber to hell. Another scene of the Laying of Christ in the Tomb shows a wealth of clothing detail and captures the suffering of the women as tears stream down their faces. There is a scene where a downcast Jesus sits with his hands tied while a guard prepares to blindfold him.
The Plougastel Calvary was badly damaged during World War II but was subsequently repaired. In this Calvary, St Roch and St Sebastian are invoked against the Plague of 1602 that killed a third of the population in this part of Brittany.
Two artists contributed to the Calvary at Guimillou, as can be seen by the realistic and figurative style they adopted. Here there are over 200 figures including the 4 Evangelists, represented by their symbols of eagle, lion, bullock and angel.
Unlike Baroque Churches where every surface glitters with gold and rich colours, a surfeit of beauty, the Calvaries had the attraction of black and white photographs. They were more restful, easier to focus on. These are not the work of well-known artists. Their creators were, for the most part, village artisans working in granite, kersanton and the more fragile, sandstone.
There is a sense of the human drama here. Beyond the Biblical scenes these figures capture the lives of local people at the time – the struggle for survival, the heartaches, the suffering, the drudgery of life, the sadness of human existence. Just as other Churches had scenes from the life of Christ painted on walls or captured in stain glass windows, these sculptures helped illiterate people understand, and relate to, the Gospel story.
Of course, like all material things, the Calvaries have suffered from the vagaries of time. Wind and rain, especially near the coast where wind and sea sand combined, have erased some features as happened to the scenes depicted on High Crosses in Ireland. Periods of social upheaval, especially the French Revolution, were also very destructive in places. Over the years efforts have been made to preserve and enhance these wonderful sculptures so that even those with no religious belief can admire them as works of art, creations of imagination and skill, expressions of what it is to be human.
Words fail to capture the essence of these extraordinary edifices but thanks to modern technology it is easy to find photographs of them on Google or other search engines. Look under “Calvaries of Brittany” and see my favourite kind of art.