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History of the chapel 


Saint Herbot's Légend




The chapel of Saint-Herbot

In magic spot with enchanting surroundings, Saint Herbot surprises and charms the visitor. Why does this 90-foot tower dominate these few houses in this tiny hamlet ? What brought this cathedral-like edifice to this isolated valley?

If stones could speak and recount the people and their times! Fortunately, these stones do furnish some dates and a few names, and help us put together the history of the chapel.

Some dates :

The south porch : the construction began the first of July 1498, at the time of Anne, duchess of Brittany. Her successive husbands (Charles VIII and Louis XII) made war in Italy, where they were inspired by new architectural styles. Italian sculptors led the field, and Brittany was just beginning to construct in the grand style, with eut stone. Saint Herbot is one of the first examples of this new fashion.

The west porch and tower : the construction began in 1516, Other churches in the région were to be inspired either by the porch or the tower, to such an extent that one could speak of "the Saint-Herbot school".

The Sainte-Barbe chapel and the cheviot were begun in 1545 and completed by the stained-glass Windows in 1556.

With the dates of various parts of the construction appear some names, those that ordered the work done : Jehan de LAULNAY, Chorantin KERDIFFEZ, Chorantin COZ. Thèse "governing priests" were responsible for the small religious community of Carmélite friars, which the nobles of Rusquec had brought to Saint-Herbot, when they belonged to the ducal court. The Carmélites engaged in missionary work in the nearby parishes. Hence we see the thème, four times repeated, of the apostles, and the evangelistic pose, with an open bock, facing the public, in addition to the présence of the apostles in the south porch and on the frontal frieze of the chancel.

The présence of the Carmélite friars explains the space enclosed by a gâte (the chancel) where they recited their prayers, while the people performed their dévotions in the rest of the chapel. This chancel has existed since the middle of the sixteentn century, the time of the Protestant reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation. The doctrine was re-centred around Christ. Saint-Herbot was in the forefront of this movement in Europe, with this itscatechism based on images of the Passion (see the bottom of the main window), of Death (see the rood-beam above the chancel), and the Résurrection (in the center of the rosée window). To these symbols we may add the sacraments, the apostles, and the evangelists.

The middle of the 16th century corresponds to the French Renaissance and to the discovery of ancient Greece, whose symbols are to be found in the architecture of the chapel : sibyls, Apollo's prophetesses, and heroes of the ancient world like Hercules, Oedipus, Orpheus, Greek orators and philosophers. We can thus gauge the extent of the Carmélites' classical knowledge.

The cross was the last part to be completed, as attested by the inscription: "Cest Croix fut faict en l'an 1575: M. Mathieu Gravée P(rétre) G(ouvemeur)" : "this cross was made in the year 1575 : M. Mathieu Gravée, governing priest".

On the west face, we can find the Passion of Jésus, reduced to the rank of criminal, accompanied by his mother and a disciple. The side nearest the chapel is filled with angels, and the farther side with fleeing démons. The course of time is reduced in space, as we pass from Adam, a small man at the foot of Jésus on the cross, to the end of the world, where Christ, recognisable by his wounds, is Lord of the universe, with a globe, and bearer of peace, with a rainbow in the shape of a horseshoe.

Facing east, with ils back to the Passion scène, we see the compassion of those who accompanied Jésus until the end : his rnother, John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalen, with her vase of perfume, Veronica holding up her cloth with the holy face, and the angels bearing respectfully the instruments of the Passion.

An architectural achievement such as this could not hâve been accomplished in poverty. Brittany, in the sixteenth century, was relatively prosperous. A dukedom at first, the area was entrusted to nobles, who ardently desired the promotion of the région, particularly those of Rusquec, joined by some others. Their coats of arms are set into the main stained-glass window : Rusquec, la Marche, Kerlech, Le Forestier, Berrien and Rosily.

At the time of the construction of the chapel, Saint-Herbot was situated at the crossroads of those coming from Carhaix to cross the hills, and those coming from Huelgoat toward Pleyben. It was a natural market place. The hire of spaces, for one or two barrels of duty-free wine, contributions in money or in spaces (butter or tufts of oxen hair : Saint-Herbot being, according to the tradition, the patron saint of cattle) brought, year after year, enough money to continue the construction of the chapel.

From fair to fair, St Herbot, the missionary, gradually became known as the patron of cattle. Thus are legends born. Anatole Le Braz collected this one :

"St Herbot first settled at Berrien. But the women there rose up against him, because, as they said, their husbands spent so much time listening to him that they forgot to seed their fields or cut the harvest, so bewitched were they by the man of God...

"The women played various tricks on St Herbot, stealing the clothes that he had left to dry on the bushes, even speaking of burning his hut. One day, they went so as to toss stones at him, running and barking after him like mad dogs. At this, the saint flew into a rage. "If that's the way you want it' he cried, "/ predict that from this day on, the land of Berrien will be nothing but stones. Got himself, in his infinite power, will be unable to clear it!»

"Fleeing before the cursed women, he came seeking shelter to the wild uninhabited place where his chapel is now situated. Here, he was sure to live unmolested. He went to work building his hermitage (called in Briton penity, or house of penitence). To this end, he went to the manor of Nank to ask the loan of a pair of oxen to transport his building material. But the people of Nank were misers. They replied that their oxen were not at the disposal of the first passer-by. "Very well, he said, "the house of Nank will never again have oxen, except those unfit to plow". His curse came true. To this day the people of Nank have never been able to plow properly with oxen.

"After this refusal, he proceeded to Rusquec. Here, there was a good master, king to the poor. "Go into the hills", he said to St Herbot " there you wi// find our herd of oxen grazing. Choose whichever pair you like".

"The saint chose a pair of white oxen, yoked them with willow bark to a tree branch which still had its leaves, and on this strange contraption carried the stones he needed.

"When they had finished carrying the stones, the oxen refused to leave the saint. For years after his death, they could be seen crouched side by side in front of the porch.

"St Herbot has built his house himself, but when it came to doing the roof, he was less competent. He had to call on a roofer. The tradesman, working alone, made slow progress. "Perhaps I could he/p" offered the saint.

"Certainly. You could, for example, cut the pegs. Then I would on/y have to place them and attach the slates".

"I'd be happy to, but what can I eut them on? "

"At this question, the roofer thought: "He is really gui/e/ess. He must be simple-minded, or close to it". He thought he would have some fun at his expense.

"Don't worry about that. You have your hat, which seems solid enough. Why don't you use it as a chopping-block?»

"The saint, who didn't see the joke, thought it an excellent idea. He took off his hat, placed it on the ground in front of him, took a hatchet, and started to split pegs for the roofer.

"The latter laughed to himself. "What a state the cap will be in!" he thought. "Soon there will be nothing left of it!»

"But when the saint finished the pegs, the hat was still whole. St Herbot put it back on his head as if nothing had happened. The roofer no longer felt like laughing. He understood what kind of a man ne was dealing with.

"The roofer exclaimed : "This man is wiser than any roofer on earth". He spread the news of the miracle throughout the region, and from that moment on, pilgrims began streaming to see St Herbot. But the saint avoided people. He sought instead the company of animals.

"It is said that he understood their language, and was never happier than when ne could speak freely with them. He especially enjoyed cattle : cows and oxen, calves and heifers.

"When he got to heaven, he requested to be their patron. The animais remained piously faithful to him. When their owners forget or neglect to bring them to the pardon of Saint-Herbot, as they should, the animals take to the road themselves. This phenomenon has been frequently attested. 

"One day in May", declares a 19 th century source, "I saw with my own eyes e heifer and a bull on pilgrimage. They arrived on the Loqueffret road; no one was with them". The bull stopped at the entrance to the cemetery, opposite to the porch. He stood there, motionless, his nose pointed toward the saint's tomb, while the heifer went to walk three times around the church. When they had finished their devotions, they bellowed three times and set off again together in the direction of the hills". 

Saint Herbot is reputed to be one of the "richest" saints of Brittany, as he is one of the most powerful. He receives copious offerings of money, but especially in kind, princicpal cow-tails.

If you have the chance topass Saint-Herbot, don't rush on, but stop and listen. The stones reflect the magic of the place, the techniques of an era, the faith of those who passed by here, their culture and their life.


Text edited by the Association Tro-War-Dro Sant Herbod. BP 29. 29530. PLONEVEZ-du-FAOU, with special thanks to Judith MOALIC for the translation in English.

(NB : if you find some misprint in the text, please inform me. Thanks. (JC Even)


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