Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 17, 2006
Soaring towers etch skyline
Water of St. Germain fountain restores pilgrims' vigour
St. Germanus of Auxerre – July 31
The Calvary and church of St. Germain at Pleyben, France, includes a massive frieze displaying important scenes from the life of Christ.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Those in search of Germanus of Auxerre, the fifth-century saint so admired throughout France, will find him in effigy high above the main entrance to a remarkable church in the Breton town of Pleyben.
In the geographical centre of the department of Finistere, the settlement claims to be "the crossroads of tourist circuits" in the region because of its church and remarkable parish close.
This area is famed for its unique arrangements of a neighbourhood church, cemetery, ossuary and often, an impressive Calvary. One of the most dramatic and best publicized of the latter is that in this town, a short distance north of Quimper, not far from the Atlantic coast.
Eglise Saint Germaine de Pleyben, visible for long distances because of its soaring, unusual towers, is a remarkable structure. Capped by a dome and turrets, the main Renaissance clocher towers over slightly lower, narrow 15th century Gothic spires. All are remarkably delicate, open and airy and provide a home for mobs of noisy jackdaws, disturbers of an otherwise idyllic setting.
Entering the church, visitors pass beneath the aged, weather-worn statue of the patron, much abused over the years by the avian residents.
Germain is revered here because of his defence of the Breton people in a dispute with a regional governor and is also honoured in England, which he visited twice to combat heresies there. Born about 368 into wealth in the central French city of Auxerre, he became governor of its province and was later made bishop there. Noted for his negotiating abilities and sanctity, a number of miraculous cures are associated with his tomb there.
Although he spent little time in Brittany, the saint has acquired a reputation as an intercessor for assistance in relieving medical problems such as headaches and colic in infants and a number of shrines are dedicated to him.
At Pleyben, waters from the fountain of Saint-Germain are sought by pilgrims seeking relief from lethargy and desiring the return of vigour to their lives.
His church, in conformance with the ornate exterior, for a parish church is equally impressive inside. Panelled vaulting highlights the spaciousness of the nave, illuminated by stained glass windows and decorated with carved motifs and statues of the saints.
Finistere is noted for its Calvaries, that at Pleyben being one of the more impressive, dating from 1555 with later additions. Prominent are the sculpted three crosses with three-dimensional figures at the base, all sited on top of a huge stone archway.
From any angle, the dark figures are starkly silhouetted against the Breton sky and the significance of the event portrayed is unavoidable.
Splendid stained glass
Like the impressive stained glass windows of many European churches, Calvaries were designed as visual learning devices, a method of portraying biblical events to a society that was largely illiterate. So the monument at Pleyben depicts not only the crucifixion, with Jesus flanked by the two thieves - differentiated by an angel and devil on their crosses - but also lower down, a massive frieze displays important scenes from the life of Christ, from the Annunciation on.
Not content with the wonders of the parish close, visitors may wish to seek outlying chapels associated with the Pleyben church. One of these, La Congregation, is situated in the village centre, while six others are in the surrounding countryside.
All Pleyben is not devoted to religion, as evidenced by businesses situated right across Place Charles de Gaulle from the church, a creperie and popular La Blanche Hermine restaurant, ready made to satisfy travellers needing a break from explorations of the town's historic monuments to faith.