Breton Easter Island Rises on a Hilltop Valley
In a bid to rival Easter Island and its ‘moai’ perhaps, residents of Brittany are raising monumental statutes of their own, high on a sloping hillside at Carnoët, an area misleadingly named the Valley of the Saints.
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The Breton version is a vision of a local philosophy teacher and is backed by the Carnoët mayor – Rémy Lorinquer — who hopes it will be good for tourism as well as the heritage industry.
The Vallée des Saints site, 38 km from Morlaix on the Cotes d’Armor coast, has been baptised by Breton locals as a “folie for eternity”. It aims to celebrate and heighten awareness of an endangered heritage: the High Middle Ages in Brittany and its vital source of cultural and territorial identity for Bretagne. This hill side near Finistère is to be covered with effigies that are a tribute to inter-Celtic history, and reflect the importance of granite in the Bretton landscape and local economy.
Started in 2008 the project has so far seen 20 megaliths erected on the site — a grassy undulating 37 hectares hillside in Lower Brittany. The statues — ironically given one of the aims — are carved from imported Chinese granite and stand some 3 to 4 metres high. The plan is for local sculptors to carve 1000 statues of local Saints over the next 25 years.
Each statue is of a Saint linked with local legends which in turn are a blend of Celtic, Gallo-Roman and Christian culture, says Cristian Galliou, assistant treasurer of the association — Association la Vallée des Saints — that is coordinating the extraordinary project.
The statues are funded by sponsors and so far nearly 1,000 of these have given 12,000 euros in total to pay for the works. Families and communities have also banded together to sponsor a statue representing their own patron saint and chosen its location on the hillside.
The initial statues are the seven founding Saints of Brittany and each will face towards their homeland:
St Pol Aurelian patron saint of Pol de Léon. This Saint was reportedly born in Glamorgan Wales and lived in a retreat on the Isle of Batz. He fought off a fiery dragon that terrorised the people of Ocismor (Saint-Pol-de-Leon) where he later established a monastery.
St. Corentin patron saint of Quimper and of sea food, was originally from Ireland, and settled in Cornouaille — a church bearing his name can be found in Cury. He lived here as a hermit.
The other saints are St. Tugdwal patron saint of Treguier; St. Patern patron saint of Vannes; St. Brioc patron saint of Saint Brieuc; St Malo patron saint of Saint Malo; and St. Samson patron saint of Dol de Bretagne.
Philippe Abjean, a 58 year old philosophy teacher, practicing Catholic, and chosen as “Breton of the Year” by Armor magazine in 2010, initiated the project to “leave a testimonial for centuries to come”. He said these legends are “a too-widely ignored treasury of popular culture”. He admitted comparisons with Easter Island were inevitable. “What strikes me is that we all know about those statues, the ‘moai’ , but we have no knowledge of how their society functioned at the time. In a few million years it is unclear what will remain of Bretagne but perhaps it will be these statues? “
If the website that chronicles the odyssey speaks of a “world-class tourist attraction” and refers to a hope of “drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually”, Philippe Abjean is more circumspect: “There will never be any admission fee to this site, we are not building another Disneyland. […] But it may become a place that speaks of its history, all will depend on how the locals take ownership of it. “
Crédit Agricole de Bretagne bank and Super U du Finistère supermarket have both contributed to the initiative. Yvan Madec, manager of Leclerc supermarket at Landivisiau told the Rue 89 website which carried the reportage, he had donated 500 euros to the project “because we support regional culture.” He added: “I think it’s a great collective project… in an era of individualism! “
The project gets no public subsidy, but has been recognized as being of general cultural interest, which means donations and gifts enjoy a 60% tax rebate.
The video clip shows scenes from La Vallée des Saints in Bretagne proudly identified as Terres Celtiques or Celtic Lands.
As the video below (filmed at Saint-Pol-de-Léon (29) in summer 2009) shows, the sculptors tackling the project can hardly be considered members of the Michelangelo school. These stonemasons are using modern high powered drills, stone cutters, granite blasters and mechanical angle grinders to split, crack. carve and polish the granite into their roughly hewn statues:
Not everyone is impressed. Here Wendy Mewes a British resident in Brittany, who claims to be a bit of a heritage buff herself, pens her own view of the project:
“The Valley of the Saints project is to place up to 1000 statues of Breton saints, carved by contemporary sculptors, in a rural location of Cotes d’Armor. The more I thought about this, the more bizarre an idea it seemed, and after finally managing a visit last month, I still came away wondering what on earth it’s all about. The concept may not immediately scream ‘theme park’, but in essence that’s what it seems to be. How sticking a bunch of stylised lumps of granite all over a beautiful natural landscape contributes to Breton heritage is hard to envisage. Is it even art? Where is the authenticity of experience that is the essence of cultural tradition?”
Story: Ken Pottinger
- Yann Fouéré: Breton militant and European federalist (independent.co.uk)