The preservation of Catholic art and architecture in Brittany is generating its own kind of spirituality alongside and, in some cases, as a substitute for regular practice of the Catholic faith, writes Ellen Badone in the current issue of the journal Material Religion (March). Up until the 1980s, Brittany was among the most devout regions of France, with relatively high rates of Mass attendance. Today, however, many parishes no longer hold Mass each week, congregations are increasingly smaller and elderly, and religious vocations have dropped almost to zero. Yet “Lower Brittany is characterized by one of the densest networks of religious buildings—parish churches and chapels in small hamlets—in France, with an average of five or six places of worship in each municipality,” Badone writes. Many of these chapels fell into disrepair as people left rural areas for the city. In the last two decades, however, there has been a concerted effort to restore and preserve these old structures by neighborhood groups, with festivals being held in honor of each chapel’s patron saint.
Most notable was the founding of the Association for the Promotion of Parish Enclosures (known in France as APEVE) in 2009 to publicize and preserve these elaborate structures that include a wall enclosing a parish along with a cemetery, a distinctive Breton crucifix, and an arch serving as gate into the enclosure. APEVE, co-founded by a retired Catholic priest, has attracted significant public attention to its tours and seminars as it seeks to promote “religious heritage” among Bretons rather than tourists. In studying the guides and other literature published by APEVE, Badone finds little promotion of Catholic doctrine or practices but considerable spirituality. The guides in particular are infused with notions of church art as introducing spiritual mysteries and the “inexpressible.” Art is referred to as a “sacrament of beauty,” drawing on connections with Catholicism. Badone concludes that it is not so much the case that the enclosed parishes are now serving secular functions as tourist attractions and museums (actually, many of them still are used for Catholic Masses). Rather, the “artistic beauty of these monuments provides a conduit connecting visitors to a perceived transcendent, immortal and universal community.”
(Material Religion, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bloomsbury/mar)