The coastal city of Lorient in the Bretagne department of Morhiban has long been an important maritime center in France. From the 16th century, it has been important both to commercial interests and the French navy. During World War II, it also became important to the German navy during the occupation. The Keroman Submarine Base was a German U-boat base located in the bay just west of the Île Saint-Michel. This huge concrete enclosure sheltered thirty U-boats and was a thorn in the side of shipping during the war. The Allied military planners made a great effort to destroy the base, but the attacks were hindered by smoke screens, strong fighter opposition and the massively reinforced concrete structures.
Targeted air attacks on the base and its submarine pens ultimately proved useless. The Allies changed their tactics and decided to destroy Lorient instead. Between 14 January 1943 and 17 February 1943, as many as 500 high-explosive aerial bombs and more than 60,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Lorient; nearly 90% of the city was flattened. Without the ability to resupply the submarines, the U-boats were unable to return to their patrols. But the cost was enormous – thousands of French civilians, as well as German military personnel, were killed.
Just six miles east of these submarine pens (as the crow flies) is the small village of Merlévenez. Those few intervening miles did not protect the Merleveneziens or their beloved 12th century church, the Église Notre Dame de Joie. The bombings destroyed the clocher and when it collapsed, it took down the entire roof of the structure, damaged the north transept and the north wall of the nave. Fortunately, the interior of the church was completely spared. The roof and the octagonal tower were rebuilt in 1955.
Notre Dame de Joie is built on the plan of a Latin cross with a five-bay nave and side aisles. The apse has a flat wall instead of a rounded chevet and contains a Gothic stained glass window that miraculously survived the bombing in World War II. The entire nave is covered with a wooden vault which replaced the barrel vault that did not survive the bombing.
The side aisles are separated from the nave by the high ogive arches of the arcade. The arches are carried by the heavy cruciform piers. Notice that there is no clerestory level so the nave receives no direct lighting at all. The engaged columns in the nave once supported the transverse arches for the barrel vaulting.
The narrow side aisles are covered with half barrel vaults of wood. I don’t know if the originals also featured half barrel vaults, which seems most likely the case given the small windows high on the walls. In more recent years, the windows in the alternating bays of the side aisle have been enlarged and fitted with stained glass windows from the master glassworker from Nancy, Jacques Gruber.
In the crossing, four massive arches spring the squinches that carry the chancel arch. We can see the apsidal chapel in the north transept, which is a 20th century reconstruction based excavations of the original church. We can also get a sense of the depth of the apse to the right. There is a great feeling of spaciousness to the eastern part of the church that is not apparent when looking down the nave from the west.
Notre Dame de Joie once had a carved tympanum over the south portal featuring the Madonna and two angels, but it has long since disappeared. The only remnants of the sculptural program are the capitals found throughout the church interior. Normally the sculpture in Brittany features geometric and vegetal patterns, but at Merlévenez we see grimacing heads, acrobats, wrestlers, and fantastic animals. The hard local granite is difficult to carve and the results look somewhat primitive, but they are very interesting nonetheless.
We have almost no information on the founding of the church. In the 12th century, the Knights Templar received a donation of land from the lord Kermadio in Kervignac and founded the commanderie there, but excavations have shown that parts of the church are older than the installation of the Order in Brittany in 1130. After the suppression of the Templars in 1312, the monastery was given to the Bishop of Vannes and made it the seat of the parish. The Breton name for the field adjacent to the church is Parq Hloestr, or “field of the cloister.”
In the church, the south portal in the transept was reserved for the use of the Knights. The passageway forms the connection between the transept and the south aisle of the nave.
Of the name, Notre Dame de Joie, the tradition is that it received that name after it became a parish church after the Templers had departed. There was an Abbaye Notre Dame de la Joye in Hennebont, just north of Lorient. There is a document requesting permission in 1405 to build a mill in “their lands located in the parish of Merlévenez.” The influence of this abbey might also be reflected in another church of the same name – a parish chapel in Nostang just two miles east. Finally, there is a basilica in the nearby town of Pontivy that changed its name after an outbreak of dysentery abated following appeals to the Virgin Mary in 1696.
Another tradition speaks of a local lord who been married for some years but was childless. He promised to build a church dedicated to Mary if there was a successful intercession. In this tradition, the name “Merlévenez” means “daughter of joy.” The Breton origin is supported by the name of a town called Brélevenez just to the north. That name means “hill of joy”. Personally, I like to think that it comes from the French word merle, blackbird, conjuring the impression of flocks of birds returning to the town. I wonder if the streams of bombers in 1943 evoked the same image.
Location: 47.736095° -3.234707°