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Local Saints: Sainte Anne d'Auray

This is the latest in an irregular series of articles on saints and holy people local to us in Northern France. You can find previous blogs here and here. Today I will introduce perhaps the most important local saints, Sainte Anne d'Auray, patron saint of Brittany.


The Shrine of St. Anne d’Auray in Brittany is one of the most visited in France. Anne isn't one of the more well-known saints outside Catholic Europe but in Christian and Islamic tradition, Saint Anne was the mother of Mary and the maternal grandmother of Jesus. This is Apocrypha as Anne isn't mentioned in the Gospels but traditions about Mary's family, childhood and betrothal to Joseph developed very early in the history of the church. In the 4th century and then much later in the 15th century, a belief arose that Mary was conceived of Anne without Original sin hence God preserved Mary's body and soul intact and sinless from her first moment of existence


(As a side note, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (Mary being conceived free from original sin) is not to be confused with the virginal conception of her son Jesus. Catholics now believe that Mary was conceived of both parents.)


Anne is usually depicted as an older woman with either Mary as a child and sometimes with adult Mary and a baby Jesus- the Virgin and child with Saint Anne ("Anne Trinitaire") is a common representation in Germany fro the 15th century. She almost always wears a headscarf.





Veneration of St Anne was common in early Christian Brittany possibly even as early as the 3rd century. This is supposed to be part fo the process of religious syncretism with Anne replacing Gallic worship of goddess Dana (Dana -> Anne, see?) before the arrival of the Britons in NW France. Not too far from the South coast a small chapel was built at a tiny village which took the name Keranna but by 1600 the chapel was gone and only the name remained. One evening in 1623 a local man Yves Nicolazic and his brother-in-law encountered a beautiful woman as they were taking their oxen to a watering trough. The woman said nothing to the two men, and they in turn said nothing to anyone else but must have been quite perplexed.


A year later, on August 25, 1624, the lady again appeared to Yves but this time spoke to him in his native Breton language saying “I am Anne, mother of Mary. There was a chapel built here before that was dedicated to me. I ask you to build it again and take care of it because God wants me honored here”. Yves didn't take this seriously and, bizarrely perhaps, ignored the request. Well, it was a strange woman, after all. Then on March 7, 1625 Yves suddenly saw a single candle burning on the site of the original chapel. The sight was seen by most of the villagers and upon arriving they found an ancient statue of Saint Anne buried in the ground. Finally (finally!) Yves took heed and began plans to rebuild the chapel. Catholicism waxed and waned in France but the 1814 Bourbon restoration bought about a resurgence amplified locally by a newed feeling for Breton identity. As word went round the chapel became more and more popular, and a larger structure had to be built. A church was built on the site of the original chapel in 1872, it was built of Breton granite and was named a Minor Basilica in 1874. The original statue was destroyed during the French Revolution, as were so many holy objects, so the Basilica now houses a replica of that carved in 1825. We were able to visit last year and yes, it's enormous.


Probably the biggest event of the year is the "Great Pardon". This is a kind of mini-pilgrimage and one the most Breton manifestations of Catholicism, essentially a penitential procession. People who want a saint to interecede or have had a saint intercede in their lives progress to a designated meeting point for prayer and reflection. Once they are granted absolution, the groups engage in communal festivities to express the joy of Christian redemption- usually a funfair with wine.


There are a number of major Pardons: Saint Yves at Tréguier, known as the Pardon of the poor; Our Lady of Rumengol, known as the Pardon of the singers; Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, near Morlaix, called the Pardon of fire; Saint Ronan, or the Pardon of the mountain; and Sainte Anne de la Palud, or the Pardon of the sea. Saint Yves, incidentally is the other patron saint of Brittany, but that's another story.


The Pardons used to be colorful affairs with pilgrims coming from all over Europe and local people dressed in regional costume. They were a common feature in late 19th century art and hugely influenced the Pont Aven school of painting. Gaugin's Vision After the Sermon is a good example:



As a result of the pilgrimages a small industry popped up developing souvenirs, devotional items, statuary and more- in fact a whole material culture. We've even found some Saint Anne pieces in Normandy before and regularly come across small statues of her.


It's an odd story- Jesus' apocryphal Grandmother, still active in worship in northern France. Saint Anne is recognized as the patroness of grandparents, women in labour, and of miners. Saint Anne is also said to be a patron saint of sailors and a protector from storms. In this sense maybe we all need a Saint Anne in our lives.




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