Parish close

Parish close is a translation of the French term enclos paroissial. It refers to a number of locations in Brittany, mainly though not exclusively in the historic diocese of Léon, corresponding roughly to the northern half of the department of Finistère. These feature an elaborately decorated parish church surrounded by an entirely walled churchyard, and date from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The term
The term enclos paroissial seems self-explanatory, but can seem a false friend to the English, especially British English, reader. Cathedral closes are an important feature of urban architecture in Britain and it is easy to assume that a parish close is simply smaller but analogous. Cathedral closes include many residential and administrative buildings, as well as the church. Parish closes are entirely cultic in character. The walled churchyard surrounds only buildings and structures designed for worship – the church, the calvary, and sometimes an ossuary or charnel house.

Origins and history
There is a tradition of sacred enclosures with marked boundaries (fanum) in Celtic polytheism. This reflected a pre-occupation with well-defined sacred features, particularly springs and groves. After the arrival of Christianity, many older traditions and cultural traits persisted within the new religion. The place-name element lan or llan, now taken to signify a church, originally signified an enclosure. In all Brythonic Celtic areas, there was a strong association between church enclosures and specific saints, often of a very particular local character. Whatever the persistence of older themes and styles, the parish closes of Brittany took their present form in the early modern period, over a millennium after the region was thoroughly Christianized.

A major factor in permitting the elaboration of parish closes was the relative prosperity of Finistère in the 16th century. This was built on the maritime competition and constant warfare that plagued much of Western Europe in this period. A group of parishes, just inland, benefited hugely from supplying the ports with the hemp and linen needed to rig ships, as well as food, clothing, and other supplies. This allowed them to engage in friendly civic competition with each other, constructing and embellishing closes that were displayed most effectively during the periodic pardons, which attracted pilgrims from all over Brittany and beyond.

The majority of the churches were substantially built in the 16th century and most of the calvaries are of the same period. Throughout the 17th century, the already-impressive churches were embellished with sculpture and decoration, much of it polychrome, turning them into rich and complex exhibitions of Catholic iconography, mostly Baroque in style.

Parish closes are defined by a continuous containing wall, completely surrounding the churchyard, of which the greater area is the parish cemetery. There are often stiles but the only easy entrance is through a ceremonial arch, often elaborately detailed with pinnacles and carving. Within the gateway, an open, paved assembly area surrounds the calvary or crucifix.

The calvaries of the close churches are significant works of popular art. Usually they display three crucified figures: Christ and the two thieves. At the base, they may feature relief panels, free-standing sculptural groups or both. These onlookers of the crucifixion nearly always include the Virgin Mary and St John the Apostle, but also many other heroes and villains – sometimes including local or national magnates.

The ossuary or charnel house, where present, may be substantial, and several were intended to contain large sculptures or paintings, frequently of the Deposition or Entombment of Christ. Generally the ossuaries have been emptied of their bones.

Some of the church buildings exemplify late Gothic architecture, while others are Baroque in style, and a number feature large belfries. The interiors are dominated by sumptuous Baroque decoration and statuary, much of it polychrome. Both the main altar and each of the many side and chapel altars are backed by a large retable, generally focusing on the Passion of Christ or the life and death of a saint. Typically a large, sometimes free-standing, central figure is surrounded by tableaux and reliefs in rich detail, which expound and expand the central theme. So, for example, a Passion, may be illustrated by scenes of martyrdom or sacrifice. The baptisteries are often octagonal, surmounted by large canopies on pillars, often highly embellished, with vines, birds, snakes and narrative reliefs. The pulpit is usually a dominant feature within the nave, reflecting a revival of preaching during the 17th century, and often decorated with relevant scenes or symbols, like the Four Evangelists.

A parochial enclosure is strictly speaking a church surrounded by a surrounding space (placître in French) consecrated or not as a cemetery, delimited by a wall. The enclosure must meet at least five of the following eight elements:

the church
the ossuary
the shrine-reliquary
the cruise
the enclosure wall
the triumphal door
the cemetery in the placître
the fountain.
Thus, the buildings that can respond to the appeal of the parish enclosure are scarce.

The triumphal gate or “Arch of triumph”. In Breton it is called Porz ar maro, “Door of death” because it marks the entrance of the cemetery.
Ossuary. He received the bones exhumed due to the lack of space for the new inhumations, either inside the church or in the cemeteries. It is about small spaces next to the church. The skulls, on the other hand, were kept in boxes-reliquaries inside larger buildings, either next to the church or forming a separate building, which was more and more frequent. The shrine-reliquary is sometimes a well-worked space with windows.
Cruise. It represents all the holy history around the Passion of Christ. The one of Guimiliau, with two hundred personages, could serve for the religious instruction of the faithfuls. The themes represented in the cruises are generally those of the life of Christ (birth, childhood, Passion, Resurrection), death (a frequent theme in Brittany that finds its roots in the Celtic tradition), as well as issues related to the Counter-Reformation (Rosario, Holy Family, Guardian Angels…) as well as the saints venerated locally (San Roque, San Sebastian, San Isidro, etc…)
Generally, the various entrances to the enclosure were partly obstructed by a vertical stone slab that had to be crossed and that actually served for cattle to penetrate the sacred site, especially in the cemetery. This precaution means that the entrance porch, always open, includes a step to climb, a small wall to be crossed and a step to go down. This is very clearly seen in Plouneour-Menez.

Initially the parochial enclosures had grass, or at most some trees whose sale assured some income to the parish; On the days of the fair, the factory of the parish authorized the presence of shops, thus benefiting from the fees paid by street vendors.

The dead were buried in the churches, being the places closest to the altars the most sought after. As the floor of the churches offered a quite restricted space, in order to be able to proceed to new inhumations, the bones of the old dead were removed to deposit them in an ossuary, also called “reliquary”. In 1719, the Parliament of Brittany forbids burial in the churches and although priests will find it difficult to enforce this prohibition, the custom of burying the dead outside the church, on the premises, was gradually imposed.

Constitutive elements of an enclos paroissial

Triumphal arch
To the parish complex the faithful entered from the triumphal arch (“porte triumphale”), which symbolized the entrance of the righteous into the kingdom of heaven , as well as a bridge between living and dead and had to guarantee the deceased protection from the demons .

The church of a Breton parish complex is usually characterized by the presence of depictions of local saints and scenes from their lives.

One party artistically most relevant within the parish enclosure is usually the ordeal : it is the representation (almost a “story”) stone of the Passion of Christ, carved on a pedestal in granite by famous or anonymous artists in the event of disasters or pestilences and that in Brittany – where this art can be dated between the mid- fifteenth and seventeenth centuries – is often very elaborate, with the addition of other elements (other episodes of the New Testament, episodes of the Old Testament, etc.) and / or figures (like figures of saints or like the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the death with the sickle, called in Breton Ankou, etc.), the latter often “dressed” with the clothes of the era in which have been carved.
The ordeal had a function “teaching” and needed to “elevate” to God, the soul of the faithful

It is hypothesized that this type of sculpture can be traced back to the crosses that the first Celts of Christian religion used to place on top of the menhirs.

The oldest Breton calvary is that of Tronoën, which dates back to 1450 – 1470 and is located in the municipal territory of Saint-Jean-de-Trolimon to the north – east of Pointe de la Torche, in the southern Finistère. One of the most complex is instead that of Guimiliau (1581 – 1588), with approx. 200 figures.

Ossuary or funerary chapel
Near the entrance to the church is the ossuary or funerary chapel, where the bones of the dead were transferred from the cemetery : it was considered a bridge between the living and the dead.

The funeral chapel served as a repository for the bones of the dead, in the event that in the church – where the dead were originally buried – there was no more space.

Source from Wikipedia