When people talk to us about our Via Lucis project, they seem most impressed that we shoot the great cathedrals of Chartres, Orleans, or Reims, but most of our work is on churches far less imposing. Last week, for example, we shot the Église Saint Gal de Langast in the Côtes-d’Armor department of Brittany.
To call Saint Gal modest is accurate but understated. We fell in love with it because it is “topsy-turvy”.
It is perhaps the most unstable looking church that we have ever seen. There appears to be a sink hole somewhere in the middle of the nave on the south side. Both arcade walls of the nave lean out to the south and backwards to the west. The south wall of the nave is held up by supports from the south side aisle that push inwards toward the nave.
The north wall of the nave is held in place by supports from the north side aisle that pull the wall backwards, preventing it from collapsing. Somehow, the church stays vertical and possesses an odd charm.
Saint Gal was thought to date from the first quarter of the 16th century; in fact a founding date of 1508 was accepted as gospel. But restorations carried out from 1982 to 1995 proved the church to be Romanesque in origin, possibly even pre-Romanesque. There are no historical or church records available to give any information about the founding of Saint Gal, but the architectural evidence is clear.
The nave windows that once provided light to the church interior have been filled in during recent years. It was necessary to raise the level of the side aisles to support the collapsing nave walls and these windows are now below the roof line, as can be seen in this shot from the south side aisle. Once, however, these relatively large windows would have provided plenty of bright light into the interior.
Among the discoveries made during the restorations were a series of frescoes that had previously been covered up. When restored, they proved to be 12th century. The frescoes are located on the intrados – the interior faces – of the arcade arches and are quite impressive and unique in this region.
What we saw in Saint Gal was a unique, curious, and somewhat helper-skelter church that leaned every which way but still stands today, proudly displaying its Romanesque frescoes and serving as a vital part of the religious life of Langast.
In our time in Brittany there was not a single church that might be identified as purely Romanesque. Everwhere else in France you can find something Romanesque. In the Auvergne, Alsace, Poitou, Charente, Bourgogne, and Normandy, examples abound.
But not in Brittany. And in one corner of tho ancient province, one of the few examples that still stands was not recognized for what it was.
On a photographic note, the church presented a challenge to accurately portray the leaning and tilting of the walls. It was necessary to find some true vertical element and correct to that using the tilt-shift lenses so that the actual wall deformations were shown. So what you see in these pictures is actually what the church looks like in real life.