Our Lady of the White Wood (Dennis Aubrey)


When PJ and I shoot a new church, we’ve done a good amount of research, but we never really know what we will find. The structure may be in good condition or bad, it may feel abandoned or alive. And sometimes we find a church that is just stunningly photographic.

On the day that we visited the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Boquen near the Brittany town of Plénée-Jugon my knee was hurting badly, despite the giant brace that I was wearing. We had shot another church earlier and driven a great deal that day. When we arrived, we could see the church in the middle of the abbey grounds, approachable by an uphill pedestrian road that circled around half the entire property. Because of the pain, I really didn’t feel like trekking up the hill with all of the equipment, but the disappointment on PJ’s face decided me to attempt it. It was a long walk dragging the equipment case (“Baby” for those who remember the naming conventions that PJ has established) and finally ahead I could see the church. I also noticed that it was possible to drive right up to the door and I was a bit cranky about that.

Chancel, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the pain and frustration disappeared the moment we walked into the giant Cistercian abbey church Notre-Dame de Boquen. It was simply spectacular in its size and beauty and – a rarity – empty of all visitors (who seemed to be attending a service in the adjacent chapel). We unpacked the gear and spent the next two hours marveling at the place.

Nave, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

Cistercian monks built their monasteries in remote sites that they cleared and cultivated. In Brittany they founded their first abbey at Bégard in 1130. Seven years later Olivier II, the seigneur of Dinan, sent twelve monks from Bégard to found an abbey in a wooded and marshy area in the moors of Led, a few miles kilometers south of the town of Plénée-Jugon. The site was a former Roman camp on a hill about 150 meters high and was called “Boquen,” meaning “white wood”.

Side aisle arcade, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle arcade, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

The abbey was christened Notre Dame de Boquen and prospered quickly with the diligent efforts of the monks, the patronage of the seigneurs of nearby Dinan and the local lords who donated a mill and a fishery to help maintain the abbey.

Like many of its sisters, the abbey church was built in primarily a Romanesque style with Gothic elements and features clean, spare lines. The Cistercian perfection of line, form, and volume are the source of the beauty and demonstrate why Notre Dame de Boquen is a classic example of what many consider the most beautiful style in medieval architecture.

South side aisle, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

The chancel was rebuilt in the middle of the 15th century – enlarged in the Gothic style. The great window of the east wall looks out to the white woods of Our Lady beyond. This is an altogether engaging and beautiful sight, and morning services at sunrise must have been spectacular.

Chancel, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Chancel, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

By the 16th century, however, the abbey had experienced a decline and passed into the hands of commendatory abbots who used Boquen simply as a source of revenue. They neglected religious discipline and allowed the church to fall into ruins. At one point they demolished side aisles in order to avoid the costs of repair. The vaults collapsed and by the 18th century, the Notre Dame de Boquen was in ruins. During the extensive restorations begun in 1953, wooden vaults replaced the original stone vaulting.

Wooden vault, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Wooden vault, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today Plénée-Jugon is known as Monastère Notre Dame de la Croix Vivifiante and since 1976 has been a convent of the Little Sisters of Bethleham. It is a thriving monastic community and in a lovely setting, much like it would have been 800 years ago, aside from a car or two parked below the gates.

Transept arches, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept arches, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit to Notre Dame de Boquen was at the perfect time of day on a beautiful September day. By the time we were shooting, it was late afternoon and the light was perfect from the west, mostly behind us. The church created patterns shadows and light on the stone and in the silence, we felt the strong monastic presence of the Romanesque ideals of the Cistercian. If the intent of builders can be imprinted in stone, Boquen is a living example of that possibility.

18 responses to “Our Lady of the White Wood (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a gem! I spent a week in Dinan nearly 20 years ago and never even heard about this church. The rebuilding of the roof is superb – no attempt to replicate the lost medieval stone vaults but excellent carpentry. We tend to place a high value on stone vaults from this period, but there were very good reasons for putting wooden roofs or ceilings/vaults into medieval churches. Economy – the wood was cheaper than the cut stone required for vaulting, Structural issues – the walls and buttresses were not strong enough to cope with a stone vault even a groined vault. And the third one is a bit of a surprise – acoustics. Sometimes a wooden vault or even flat ceiling gave better acoustics for preaching and singing than a stone vault. Architecturally this church is a superb example of Cistercian economy of style, even with the later chancel space.

    • Tony, it is such a delight to have you commenting on our Via Lucis posts. You bring a wealth of knowledge to the conversations, thank you.

      Most of the churches that we saw in Brittany had wooden vaults, but few as elegant as this one. I particularly like the half barrel vaults (quarter rounds) in the side aisles. This church was certainly restored with great care and they preserved the Cistercian characteristics so well.

      If you are interested, we did a post on Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, which was experimenting with converting churches with wooden vaults to stone vaults. This was contemporary to Plénée-Jugon but reflected a completely different architectural sensibility.

  2. Just a thought, take the church of Notre Dame de Boquen and drop it into rural Ireland and it would look right at home. The Gothic architecture of Ireland is fundamentally Romanesque – thick walls and very few stone vaults (usually only over chapels and chancels). Low arcades on stumpy short columns between nave and aisles and plenty of wall for plastering and painting. The church roofs of medieval Ireland were usually in wood., and a very few precious examples have survived. I imagine that many medieval monastic churches in Ireland looked very similar to Notre Dame de Boquen. I keep wondering why Irish medievalists don’t look at Brittany for examples of comparable and contrasting structures.

  3. These images are so very beautiful. I am particularly impressed at the subtle exposures–that is, all areas, windows, ceilings, corners, walls, you name it, are all exposed properly. No small trick, that! A perfect combination: a great eye married to technical proficiency.

    • Doug, thank you so much for these kindnesses, especially coming from another photographer. This project is our life’s work and it is a great pleasure to find others who share our passion.

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