A few years ago the chapel opposite our cottage in Brittany was deconsecrated. In no time, Denis, the eccentric and widely loved handyman who worked for the Mairie*, had converted it into a public amenity with the nave a meeting room-cum-exhibition space and the chancel a kitchen and toilet. Outside, he built a ramp for access to the side door.
Then came the final touch; he installed a beautifully sculpted rounded Iron-Age standing stone at the top of the steps that lead up to the Chapel’s front door. The newly-placed stone, which filled a space on the left, more than matched the rather dull, square-cut stone on the right (see illustration). There had been a need for some symmetry for years!
This blog is about the round sculpted stone and about Denis’ guardianship that made its installation possible. However, were it not for some sensitive, last-minute negotiations, it might still lay hidden.
Hundreds of Iron-Age phallic standing stones have been found in Brittany although few have features as clearly defined as ours. The function of these stones, which were carved 2500 or more years ago, is a mystery. Perhaps they once marked a burial site or served to define a boundary; either way, the significance of the form of stones such as ours, which would have required an enormous amount of work, is not known.
Such stones were originally upright but many fell over, often becoming buried. Lots were moved to churchyards to be Christianised by the addition of a cross or some other ‘purifying’ modification. It seems that ours found its way into the grounds of the sixteenth century church at the far end of the village. Unfortunately, because the church dignitaries found its form an affront, they arranged for its once-rounded tip to be flattened.
At some stage the stone was moved to a garden nearby to be placed on the top of a pillar at the end of a wall where it formed part of a gateway. Much later, when street lighting was introduced into the village, the stone fell into a trench dug to take the electric cables. When asked what she wanted, the gate’s owner said, as she later repeated, the stone had offended her for years and all she could wish for is that it was out of her sight. With the help of a crane – the stone weighs around 250 kg – those working on the lighting delivered it to the Mairie for safe keeping.
The date of the delivery coincided with the appointment of Denis as the Mairie’s agent technique and, on his arrival, caring for the stone became his responsibility – a role he cherished. He saw it as a treasure of historical importance and one that was not simply the property of the Mairie and the village, but also of society as a whole. Being its guardian was an honour.
Because of the risk of it being lost or stolen he kept the stone hidden for the next twenty three years with its last home under thick ivy in the grounds of the chapel itself. The renovation offered a wonderful opportunity for the stone to be seen by the public once again; why not put it at the top of the front steps?
By chance I walked passed the chapel just as the steps were being finished. Denis was standing looking thoughtful and worried with the carved stone lying at his feet. To put it in place he would need permission and while he knew that the Mayor saw it as something worthy of display, he also knew that, as before, there might be people in the village who would take offence. Denis’s worried face was because he predicted that on those grounds permission would be denied.
He then showed me the stone and I was amazed. For me this Iron-Age carving was magnificent, and not having it adorn the main entrance would be a tragedy, indeed a terribly wasted opportunity. Moreover it was part of the village’s history. I asked Denis to pass on my views to the Mayor who I liked and knew well.
A few weeks later the beautiful stone was installed by the top step, standing upright as it would have 2500 years ago. Moreover, with its base firmly imbedded in cement it would neither fall over nor be stolen. Soon after, on his sixtieth birthday, Denis retired knowing that his years of stewardship with its responsibility to society had worked. Interestingly, it was not until months after his retirement that he told me how the views I had expressed made the difference.
Most days I go past the standing stone and each time I am struck by its powerful simplicity. I am also reminded of its history and of the crucial role played by Denis. The village has been very lucky.
The illustration shows a photo of the two standing stones set in their present position in front of the main door of the renovated chapel in Tréguennec. The stone on the left, which was salvaged, saved and then installed by Denis, has an unmistakably phallic form. The damaged inflicted to its top is obvious
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Denis, Pierre, Dominic, Rohan and Vivien.
*While Tréguennec only has a population of just over 300, like many similar villages in France it has a primary school, a library, land and public meeting rooms. In Tréguennec, all these are overseen by an elected Mayor, councillors, an administrator and an agent technique who maintains municipal land and property. The mayor’s office is called the Mairie.