A short list of Breton iconic images

Breton iconic images –  A for Artichoke

Each country, region and village has its peculiarities that make them unique.

Breton iconic images - Artichoke
Artichoke for Brittany

Brittany is not any different and here is a short selection of what you’ll come across at some stage when visiting.

Since 1991, Brittany has specialized in the cultivation of artichokes that are sold under the label “petit violet Prince de Bretagne”.

This hybrid of wild thistle is originally native to the Mediterranean regions.

The artichoke of Brittany, which is easily recognizable by the violet colour of its leaves and its small size, is exclusively grown by hand and harvested twice a year.

Its cultivation has become such a success that the artichoke is considered the ultimate Breton veggie!

Breton iconic images – B for Biniou

The Biniou’s ‘ancestor’, the Romans  utricularis tibia, was a leather bag filled with air.

Breton iconic images - Biniou - bagpipe
Biniou – bagpipe

The air blown in through a pipe came out through another pipe drilled with several holes.

This instrument, which spread in Europe and became known as bagpipe, musette, cornemuse, piob-mor, zampogna and gaita, underwent transformations over time.

Modern day Breton biniou consists of four elements:

The leather bag (ar sac’h), the pipe into which air is blown (ar sutel) to inflate the bag, the pipe (al levriad) and the bourdon (ar c’horn-boud) another pipe producing bass sounds.

Elaborate carvings and inlays often adorned ancient binious.

Breton iconic images – B for Bigoudène

Headdresses differed not only from region to region, but also from parish to parish and reflected women’s social status.

The headdress worn by the women from Bigouden (Ar Vro Vigoudenn in Breton), a region of south Cornouaille is know as Bigoudène.

Breton iconic images - Traditional Bigoudène headdress
Traditional Bigoudène headdress

It has become one of the traditional Breton iconic images.

It was quite commonly worn by old Breton women until the late 1970’s, but younger generations didn’t follow the tradition and today the headdress is only seen during religious celebrations and folk festivals.

The size of the Bigoudène was originally quite modest, but it evolved during the 19th century to reach or exceed 30cm in height!

Initially made of rustic canvas, it was soon replaced by embroidered lace as its size increased!

It stood on top of the hair that was combed into a bun on top of the skull, and it was held up by two embroidered ribbons that were tied under the chin.

Imagine the expertise required by the old Breton ladies to keep their headdress on the head on a windy day!

Breton iconic images - Breton tradition male hat
Breton tradition male hat

Breton iconic images – C for Chapeau Rond

Aristocratic Breton men wore the famous Chapeau Breton, a round and black hat with a felt, cardboard or straw frame.

The Bourgeois class people wore a cap with colourful ribbons.

The traditional round Breton hat gave birth to a bawdy song ‘Ils ont des chapeaux ronds’.

Here goes the chorus:

Ils ont des chapeaux ronds
Vive la Bretagne
Ils ont des chapeaux ronds
Vive les Bretons

Breton iconic images – C for Calvary

You’ll find Calvaires all over Brittany.

They stand on a pedestal and are sometimes encased in an open shrine, but they are always associated with sculptures representing the Crucifixion, Mary, the apostles or local saints.

Breton iconic images - Calvary
Calvary (Cavaire de Tronoen)

Some Neolithic megaliths were also ‘Christianized’ and sculpted with religious scenes.

They symbolize, in their primitive style, the superimposition of Pagan and Christian faiths which produced the unique Breton culture.

Calvaries were placed at the crossroads and act as ‘road signs’ and seem to put the pilgrims, travelers and passers-by on the ‘right path’.

They were constant reminders of the Christian faith in a region where the pagan faith was so deeply rooted… and still is.

You’ll find these elaborated monuments mostly in Lower Brittany, a region which still proudly speaks the Breton dialect.

Breton iconic images – C for Crêpes

The buckwheat pancakes are a Breton specialty, however, you need to know that crêpes are sweet while galettes are savory pancakes.

Here is a recipe if you want to have a go at Breton pancakes. Enjoy!

Breton iconic images – F for Flag

The Breton flag is known as Gwenn ha Du in Breton – White and Black.

It consists of nine black and white stripes with a rectangular partition on the upper left side sprinkled with stylized flecks of ermines.

Breton iconic images - Breton Flag
Breton Flag

Both an emblem and the flag of modern day Brittany, Gwenn ha Du was created in 1925 by the Breton nationalist activist Morvan Marchal.

Duke John III of Brittany adopted the ermine in 1316, at a time it was considered the fur of the kings!

The ermine therefore appears on the flag in order to retain the memory of the former Duchy.

The white stripes represent the traditional Breton-speaking countries in Basse Bretagne (Léon, Trégor, Cornouaille and Vannes).

Lower Brittany is also known as Bretagne Bretonnante (Breton speaking).

The black stripes represent the regions of Haute Bretagne – Upper Brittany (Rennes, Nantes, Dole, St-Malo and Penthièvre), where people traditionally speak Gallo, a Romance language that developed in Northern Gaul.

Breton iconic images – H for Hortensia – Hydrangea

Hydrangeas – Hortensias in French -are native to south and east Asia, North and South America.

They are without any doubt the emblematic flower of Brittany, but the origin of its name is a total mystery!

Some believe that the French explorer and naturalist Philibert Commerson (1727-1773), who was part of the expedition around the world carried out by Bougainville in 1766, named it in honour of his housekeeper, assistant and mistress!

Breton iconic images - Hydrangeas

She indeed accompanied him disguised as a man, because at that time women were not allowed of the French Navy ships.

Superstitious sailors said it was a bad omen!

Many like this story, but the problem is that her name was Jeanne Baret!

The most accepted theory is that Antoine Laurent de Jussieu named the shrub in honour of Hortense, the daughter of Joséphine de Beauharnais.

Hydrangeas not only wonderfully adapted to the Peninsule d’Armorique, but they also easily propagated as they thrived on the granite and slate soil and the mild and humid climate.

The nature soil in which they grow, dictates their colour.

Adding crushed slate or alumina salts based products to the soil will therefore produce blue flowers, while a neutral soil will produce purple flowers and calcareous soil red and pink flowers…

Hydrangeas are found in most Breton gardens and bloom from spring to autumn!

Breton iconic images – L for Lace

You have just read how the Breton ladies used to be fond of pretty lace headdresses.

You’ll not be surprised then to learn that this fashion triggered the development of embroidery-lace work, a local industry that thrived until the early 20th century.

Breton iconic images - Lace making
Lace making

Throughout the 19th century, embroiderers and weavers indeed formed a thriving corporation that was well established and founded many renowned embroidery workshops.

Many Bigoudènes women gave up working in the workshops once they had children and worked as lace makers from home, but the pay was much lower.

Tragically, WWI decimated a large part of the population and plunged the country into a state of mourning that lasted years.

The rising price of raw materials, weak demand and low remuneration ended up in the decline of lace-work and embroidery activity.

The activity was fortunately revived in the years that follow the war and is today doing decently well.

Breton iconic images – L for Lighthouse

Brittany, the region of France which has the most littoral, is obviously mainly dedicated to the sea.

Breton iconic images - Lighthouse

Seaside tourism has been thriving for the past few decades, however, fishing has traditionally been the main activity of the coastal regions.

Lighthouses are therefore part of the Breton landscape, as they guide the fishermen back to the safety of the harbour.

Most of the sixty-one lighthouses of Brittany were built during the 19th century.

However, they are no longer inhabited nor manned, but are open to the public to the delight of all and are one of the most popular Breton iconic images.

Breton iconic images – M for Megaliths

There are very few stone circles in Brittany.

However, Southern Brittany is renowned for the alignments of granite megaliths (menhirs) and tumuli erected between 6000-2000BC by pre-Celtic folks, whose origins have been lost in the dust of time.

Breton iconic images - Megaliths

The purpose of the standing stones has also remained an enigma, but they are part of the Breton iconic images and culture.

Some believe that they could have been part of a huge system of astronomical measurement, record-keeping and prediction.

Brittany is indeed considered the centre of megalith constructions during the Neolithic era and is referred as “core area” of the megalith culture.

You’ll find plethora of isolated free-standing standing stones and above ground tombs of various types (portal tomb, passage grave and gallery grave).

When the Celts settled in Brittany in the 5th century BC, they found the megaliths but not those who erected them, and soon legends appeared in order to justify the origins of the mysterious stones.

Breton iconic images – T for Triskel

Brittany adopted the Triskel (Triskèle, Triskell, triquètre, triscèle) as a regional symbol.

Breton iconic images - Triskel

The Triskel, the Celtic ‘Spiral of Life’ represents three stylized human legs or three spirals.

It appeared during the Bronze Age and was a traditional Celtic art pattern for the following 3000 years, until the Second Iron Age (400-100BC) also known as La Tène civilization.

The Triskel could well represent the three major Celtic gods (Lugh, Dagda and Ogma), the three elements (Earth, Fire and Water), time (Past, Present and Future) or the three worlds (World of the Living, World of the Dead and World of the Spirits).

Its significance has never been established with certainty, as druid tradition was oral and has therefore been lost over the centuries (at least to the uninitiated!)

Still, the Triskel carries powerful symbols, and has been the emblem of the Breton National Party since 1940.

You’ll therefore find it throughout the whole Breton peninsula!

Discover more about the Origins of Brittany

Wikimedia Commons photos: Bigoudene headdressNotre Dame de TronoenBobbin lace

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