Feature Articles – The Grail Priest
The tiny village of Tréhorenteuc, near the magical Forest of Brocéliande, was home to a visionary priest, who used his church as a canvas to paint the stories of King Arthur, the Round Table and the Holy Grail. Unsurprisingly, he fell foul of the Church’s hierarchy, but left a legacy that can be admired to this very day.
by Philip Coppens
A French book on Father Henri Gillard, the Rector of Tréhorenteuc, begins by making a comparison between the village and Rennes-le-Château and the priest and Bérenger Saunière. The author, himself a retired priest of Tréhorenteuc, is then quick to point out there was never any mystery as to how Gillard attained his wealth. But what the two priests do share in common is that – fifty years apart – they found a derelict village church, in the middle of nowhere, and left it as a place full of mystery and place of pilgrimage for those in search of the mythical.
The community of Tréhorenteuc is in the heart of Brittany, on the edge of the forest of Brocéliande, near a popular location of the forest, known as the Val sans Retour, the Valley of No Return. The name originates with the legend of Morgane, who was said to have imprisoned the men here who had been betrayed her. But despite its claim to legendary fame, the village was seen as the middle of nowhere; the small community was poor and life was generally hard. The travelers who came here in search of the legends of King Arthur preferred the Abbey of Paimpont and the various other buildings and springs linked with those legends. Gillard would change all of that.
Born in 1901, Henri Gillard had been ordained priest in 1924, upon which he became a professor and then a vicar. His friends described him as a man who “took refuge in another world” and that “what he saw gave him access to another way of seeing and expressing.” He was a good man, but unliked by his Church superiors, largely because he had an independent mind and, it seems, diverging interpretations about what Christianity was and should be about.
In March 1942, around Easter, he was posted “Rector of Tréhorenteuc”, a position he would hold for the next two decades. In that period, he would restore the church completely, including its windows, paintings, mosaics, the altar and the Stations of the Cross. Everything was redone according to his instructions and everything was imbued with a symbolism that was atypical of the standard message the Church conveys. Though symbolism is of course not uncommon in a church, what was special about the work Gillard carried out, was that everything breathed the legends of King Arthur, the Round Table and the Grail. Hence why the church would eventually become popularly known as the Church of the Grail.
When Gillard arrived in 1942, it was known that this was a “penitence” of his bishop, with whom he lived in disaccord. Most priests had only stayed here as few years as possible, but Gillard was persuaded that he could revitalize the religious experience of the locals by rebuilding the church. His superiors told him that he could, provided that he secured half the funding. In the end, there was only ever money for restoration. As people knew about his tangled relationship with the Church hierarchy, it was probably in the line of expectations that he would make Tréhorenteuc an anomaly. When asked, he said that he did not see any contradiction between the local spirit of the sites and its references to the Grail and King Arthur and the message of Christ. He did add, however, that his superiors had never authorized his works. It seems that they considered him to be out of the way, and didn’t care about what he did, as no-one care about Tréhorenteuc. Yet.
The restoration works would take twelve years. On April 20, 1943, at a time of the Second World War when the area was still under German occupation, he installed the first renovation to his church: a stained glass window of the Round Table. It shows the Knights of the Round Table, with King Arthur, with the Holy Grail. Over the next years, the old statues and works of arts would disappear and be replaced, one by one. All new pieces were inspired by and had scenes from the local legends, featuring the Grail, King Arthur, and the like. The large fresco on the West wall depicts the Fountain of Barenton, the legendary meeting place of Merlin and Vivaine, the Lady of the Lake. The stained glass window at the rear of the chancel depicts Joseph of Arimathea kneeling in front of Jesus Christ to receive the Holy Grail. The left-hand window shows a more rare Christian scenes, the Last Supper, though the scene seems to have been largely used so that it could show the Holy Grail being on the table in front of Jesus. A white deer, symbolizing the Forest of Brocéliande, is shown with a halo and wearing a cross, accompanied by four animals. The work was based on a design by the famous artist Jean Delpech and depicted a scene from the Grail story, when Galahad sees four supernatural animals who reveal themselves as Jesus and the Four Evangelists. In the Grail tradition, the deer was seen as the guide that brought the heroes to their destiny, as it was seen as the guide of the souls of the dead to the Afterworld.
It is said that the church has three levels. One is the story of the gospels and Christianity. The second is that of Saint Onenne, to whom the church is dedicated. The third is that of the Holy Grail and it is definitely the latter that is the most prominent. The church was built in the 17th century and was dedicated to and marked the site of the burial of Saint Onenne. She was the sister of King Judicael, a 7th century Breton King, who founded the nearby abbey of Paimpont. Brother and sister are commemorated in two wooden statues in the church. But Onenne had an interesting story: she was a noble woman who wished to distribute her wealth to the poor, while personally dedicating her life to prayer and silence in Tréhorenteuc. In this respect, she was very similar to her brother, who preferred a spiritual life over that of becoming king – when he was forced to sit on the throne, he soon abdicated to return to a monastic life. Their simple, introspective lifestyle would later be echoed by Gillard’s own. Maybe the lady spoke to him, as her remains were buried somewhere underneath his church. Though both were real people, their story seems to have accumulated much symbolism; Judicael’s feast day is June 21, the summer solstice, a day full of symbolism. Onenne was the youngest of 22 children – an almost incredible number of children to have, but also a number that is one of the most important magical numbers. Coincidence? Maybe the historical facts were molded so that a symbolic layer could be inscribed into the events.
All of these renovations cost money. He tried to get the two statues of St Onenne and Judicael for 7000 Francs, only to find that the artist forced his hand and demanded 20,000 Francs. He spent most of his own salary on the church. Most of the week, Gillard was known to eat nothing but bread and hot water to which he had added some sugar. On Sundays, he was invited in the local restaurant to have a nutritional meal, while the famous French esoteric writer Jean Markale and his wife – who lived with Gillard for three months for twelve summers in a row – made sure that he put on some extra weight by adding mushrooms and vegetables to his menu. Markale noted that “I have never known a man who lived as simple.” The rest of the money came from his poor parishioners, as well as asking his superiors for money to carry out the essential repairs to the fabric of the church. In 1948, he began to publish a series of guides – sixteen in total, each between fifty and 100 pages long – that were dedicated to the myths and legends of the region, all money always going to the restoration of the church.
Everything in the church embraces the spirit of the Grail, but nothing more so than the Stations of the Cross, created by two prisoners of war, Peter Wissdorf and Karl Rezabeck, on strict instructions from Gillard himself. Rezabeck commented that “I knew nothing about mythology. He gave me all the details, told me the legends of Merlin […] He took me everywhere in the region.” In the end, Rezabeck depicted himself in the fourth station, as a Roman soldier, standing between Christ and the Virgin Mary. The story of the Stations of the Cross is typical of Gillard’s ingenuity in finding quality but inexpensive labor. He went to the prisoner of war camp in 1945 and asked for the release of the two men, so that they could work on his church. The end result is a mixture of the traditional Calvary of Christ, mixed with local lore and legend.
A key message that Gillard wanted to imbed in this stations involved Jesus’ three falls, depicted in the third, seventh and ninth station. They were linked with the three temptations Jesus had in the dessert, those of Pride, Avarice and Lust. The scene of the first fall is set at Tréhorenteuc and in the middle of the flowers, stands St Onenne, a theme to be found throughout the zodiac: the Calvary of Christ is depicted as occurred in the area surrounding Tréhorenteuc. At the same time, Gillard also linked the stations with the signs of the zodiac: the fifth sign of the zodiac was the Scorpion, the sign of manual labor, depicted by Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ’s cross; in the tenth station, two soldiers are casting lots for Jesus’ cloths, symbolizing Gemini or Twins, the symbol of brotherhood.
The ninth station is often seen as the most ingenious: Jesus falls for the third time, in front of Morgane, who is lightly dressed in a red robe. The scene is set in the Valley of No Return. A local newspaper once headlined: “In Tréhorenteuc, a pin-up in the Stations of the Cross.” In the 13th station, Joseph of Arimathea collects the blood of Christ in the Holy Grail. At first, one may think this is a rather Christian scene, but for Gillard, it was not. The cup itself is decorated with an emerald, thus betraying which version of the Grail Gillard cherished.
The story of the Green Emerald is linked with Lucifer, leader of the Army of Angels. It is one of the less known Grail tradition, but one clearly close to Gillard’s heart. After Lucifer’s Rebellion, he fell down to Earth, where one emerald, known as the Grail, fell from his crown. The emerald happened to fall in the Garden of Eden and was much later worked into a chalice which also became known as the Grail. After the Last Supper, it was taken by Pontius Pilate, but was given to Joseph of Arimathea. He was said to have come to Brittany and evangelized the Bretons, in the very region of Tréhorenteuc. At his death, the Holy Grail was taken by angels back to heaven.
As time went on, people began to hear about Tréhorenteuc. Visitors came to see this quaint church. The artist and atheist André Breton came and discussed philosophy with Gillard. But sadly, his colleagues began to speak about his oeuvre and Gillard once again came under the microscope of his superiors. In September 1962, an anonymous letter which originated from three fellow priests infuriated Gillard. He walked out in September, to Paris where he stayed with Markale. He hoped to find a parish in Paris where people were more open-minded. But the more he tried, the more doors were closed in front of him. When he returned to Brittany in early 1963, his superiors forced him into a retirement home rather than reinstate him at Tréhorenteuc, which was his own hope. The locals pleaded with the bishopric, whose only reply was that Gillard himself walked away from the posting. Gillard was shattered. “I gave my own money to the restoration of the presbytery and the church, and now I cannot live and work there”, he commented. Fortunately, after initially struggling with his health as a result of the treatment he had received, he cheered up. His successor in Tréhorenteuc allowed him to come and hang out as often as he wanted, which from 1968 onwards, he did frequently.
Gillard died on July 15, 1979 and was buried in the church that he restored. Outside of his church stands a statue of him, a permanent mark of what he did for the village and for the promotion of the Grail tradition that lives in this region. He was a remarkable man and Markale saw in him a spiritual master. The Grail Priest left a single message for the visitors behind, an inscription which reads “The Door is Within.” There was a reason why he fell foul of his superiors: it was because he was unwilling to tow the party line. He was convinced that Christianity was far more personal than the Church made it out to be and that we should experience the divine ourselves, and actually could experience it directly, contrary to the dictum of the Church, which was that we should communicate with God through the intermediary of the church and the priest. Instead, the Holy Grail Church was about showing scenes of the Holy Grail, set in the local area, to tell the visitors and worshippers that faith and belief was a personal quest, inviting him and her to step in the footsteps of the Grail Knight, and make his way onwards in life by aiming for the highest Grail, and follow one’s own course, so that the Interior Door would be opened and the divine experienced. Markale states that it was Gillard’s mission in life to find a means of teaching a great tradition that went back thousands of years. Gillard was convinced Jesus had not invented anything, but that he had merely brought forward certain principles and knowledge that were far older and which others had often preferred to forget or put aside.
What Gillard did in Tréhorenteuc, was visualize this ancient, local knowledge and make it the center of his church, so that everyone who came through his door, would see through the layers and realize that this was not a church like any other: this was a Church of the Holy Grail.
This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 92 (March – April 2012).