The former province of Bretagne is one of the most interesting areas in France. The medieval Duchy was primarily Celtic instead of Germanic, spoke Brythonic Celtic, one of the two branches of the Celtic language, but was deeply allied with the French crown. The Bretons replaced Latin with French as the official language of the region three hundred years before the French themselves did so. Today the maps and the spoken language both are full of strange words, evidence of the clear Celtic origins of the region.
The earlier origins of the region, however, are just as firmly attested as the Celtic. The Morhiban is full of the strange megalithic menhirs and dolmen. Carnac is world-famous, but there are many groupings of these stones. Nobody knows for sure what they represent but their importance is clear. They are found throughout Europe from Ireland to the Urals.
The warlike culture made the name of the Breton warriors something to be feared. They produced du Guesclin and Clisson, two Constables of France during the Hundred Years War. Even in the modern era, the martial spirit runs deep. In World War I, Bretagne lost 240,000 men in the service of the French army – 10% of the total population.
Christianity made an early entrance into the region. One of the first holy men to establish his presence was Saint Gildas from northern Britain. He settled on the island of Rhuys and founded a monastery there in 536. The abbey was built of wood on the site of a Roman oppidum. The monks adopted the rule of Saint Benedict in 818 and in the 11th century the abbey was rebuilt in stone. Nothing remains of this monastery, however because like all other Breton churches of the area, Saint Gildas-de-Rhuys was destroyed by the Norse invaders in the 10th century.
The monastery was rebuilt in stone in the next century, but the monastic discipline was not exemplary. In 1132, Peter Abélard was sent in exile to Saint Gildas-de-Rhuys – he was made abbot at the monastery. It is clear that this was punishment for his theological disputes because Abélard’s time in Bretagne was not pleasant. He described the abbey buildings as decorated with “bear, boar, and bloody trophies of the chase. Monks woke at the sound of the horn and hounds barking. They were cruel and unrestrained in their license.” The recalcitrant monks refused to get rid of their concubines and children and resisted Abélard’s every attempt at reform. He did, however, manage to renovate the church itself. The apse, ambulatory, and transepts are fundamentally in the same configuration now as in his time. Eventually the abbey was ruled by commendatory abbots with predictable results. The decline of the monastery was inevitable and by the nineteenth century, the buildings were in ruins. In 1824 the founder of the Soeurs de la Charité de St Louis, Madame Molé de Champlatreux, purchased the abbey for 55,000 francs. The sisters rebuilt the abbey as we see it today.
The structure features a narrow nave covered with groin vaults. These groin vaults enable clerestory windows to let in a great deal of natural light. The groin vaults are separated by wide transverse bands supported by pilasters attached to the great square pillars.
The side aisles are quite narrow and high, also covered with groin vaults. They were used to funnel pilgrims to the ambulatory chapels without disturbing the religious offices taking place in the main sanctuary.
The most important relics of the monastery were those of Saint Gildas himself. Gildas died at Rhuys on January 29, 570, and according to his wishes, his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift. Three months later, on 11 May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys and buried it there. The importance of these relics in pilgrimage was clear with the ambulatory layout. The apse has a lovely two level hemicycle surrounded by the ambulatory.
The relics themselves are kept at this altar with Gildas’ statue in an elongated radiating chapel behind the apse. This shot of PJ’s shows the altar with the apse and the nave in the distant background.
One hundred and eighty years under the supervision of the Soeurs de la Charité de St Louis have done much to rid the monastery of the disgrace of Abélard’s time. Today, the Abbaye Saint Gildas-de-Rhuys is serene and beautiful, one of the finest Romanesque monuments of Brittany.
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