St Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary, so the fact that she's the patron saint of women in various roles (women in labour, housewives, grandmothers and unmarried women) isn't very surprising, although her link to cabinet makers and horser riders would seem a little more baffling.
She was adopted as Brittany's patron saint in 1914 and is certainly quite a drawcard, as she attracts 600,000 pilgrims a year, a number that has significantly increased since Pope John Paul II visited in 1996.
As you might expect, the town of Sainte-Anne d'Auray is fairly bristling with statues to St Anne. I was particularly taken by this one which stands in a shady area of the gardens to one side of the War Memorial. Quite apart from its considerable artistic merit, it is also massive - at least double life size - and very imposing.
St Anne d'Auray is 'big' on John Paul II, which is not surprising, as he visited here on 20 September 1996. It's not every place of pilgrimage that manages to attract a Pope during his papacy, and there has been a noticeable upswing in pilgrim numbers since his visit - currently about 600,000 per annum, with the largest number visiting on 26 July, the Grand Pardon of St Anne (her saint's day).
Ever one to seek out the bizarre, this image of JPII overlooking the basilica caught my attention because of his startlingly crimson mouth. Surely our pale Polish erstwhile Pope didn't really wear red lipstick (even if it is nicely colour coordinated with his robes)?
This ornate set of steps stand at the opposite end of a huge lawn from the Basilica and have no visible signage. They have no obvious purpose since they lead from nowhere to nowhere over an unthreatening section of gravel, and had me bamboozled for a good while until I did some background research.
It turns out that the Scala Sancta ('Holy Steps' in Latin) were constructed in the early 17th century and originally formed a gateway to the shrine of St Anne. However, the when the decision was taken to build the huge basilica in the 1860s, the steps were carefully dismantled and reassembled in their current location, a couple of hundred metres away.
This is a beautiful - if effectively functionless - structure, but their design is slightly out of keeping with the basilica and the war memorial, which made them feel all the more obselescent.
The Wall of Remembrance at the Breton war memorial is a place that I'll never forget for a whole host of reasons.
Firstly, it's staggeringly beautiful in its pared back simplicity. The pale stone panels listing the war casualties village by village are interspersed by the Stations of the Cross (fourteen events in the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus) which are depicted as simple line drawings.
Secondly, the wall is extraordinarily long, and encloses a large lawned area with the war memorial as a centrepiece. I had no idea of the scale of Breton casualties in the First World War, and was left speechless when I learned that one in fourteen (7%) of all Bretons was killed between 1914 and 1918 - the highest proportion of casualties inflicted on any nationality in that conflict.
Thirdly, despite the fact that over 8,000 names have been engraved on the wall since it was constructed in 1923, the list of casualties on the wall is in no way complete. Only those who had the money to subscribe to the scheme are named, many opted to record the name of their family rather than individuals, and as a result, at least 100,000 names are missing. If you look carefully at each place name, you will see a number and a cross inscribed next to it, which reflects the total number of casualties from that place, which is often far higher than the number of names that appear below. Take Quiberon in the photo above, for example, where only 18 names are listed, but 103 people were killed.
This is one of the saddest places that I've visited in a long time, and one of the most beautiful monuments to the fallen that I've ever seen.
One million Bretons answered the call up during World War I, but a horrifying 25% never returned, about double the rate of casualties suffered by other French troops. The 250,000 Bretons died equates to one in fourteen of Brittany's entire population, leading to a whole slew of social problems in postwar society, including a severe gender imbalances and labour shortages.
The logical question why the Breton troops were so disproportionately represented in the casualties. From what I've read, there is still a lingering sense - as with troops from the British colonies in other theatres of the same war - that they were deployed by their (French) commanders as 'cannon fodder' on the battlefields of Flanders. I'm not knowledgeable enough on military history to comment on whether this is realistic or not.
The war memorial in Sainte-Anne d'Auray was established to commemorate the Breton war casualties in World War I (optimistically billed as "The War to End All Wars) and constructed between 1923 and 1932 ... unfortunately just in time for the next world war. To commemorate those who have given their lives in subsequent conflicts, an adjacent war memorial was established.
The monument itself is a delightful structure, overlooking an impossibly well manicured lawn and surrounded by a heartrending wall of remembrance to the Breton dead.
The war memorial has an altar at its core, which is protected by an exquisite blue and gold mosaic ceiling. Just remember that the presence of an altar means that this is a consecrated (holy) space, so treat it with the respect it deserves, which involves maintaining a respectful silence and not touching or climbing on the altar table.
Before we visited Brittany, I'd not heard anything about Sainte-Anne d'Auray, and it was only a short but intriguing comment in our guidebook that persuaded us to take a detour through the town on the way back from Carnac.
As soon as we turned into town, the huge tower of the Basilica reared into view, and it began to dawn on me that this was not going to be the small shrine to a local patron saint that I'd been expecting. But even that wasn't enough to prepare me for the gargantuan scale of the massive basilica in what is little more than a village suburb of nearby Auray.
The adoration of St Anne on this site dates back to the first missionaries who evangelised Brittany in the 6th century and constructed a chapel in her honour. By 1724, the chapel had long since fallen into disrepair. However, interest in her cult was spectacularly reenvigorated when St Anne appeared in a series of visions to what one source charmingly describes as 'a pious ploughman', Yves Nicolazic.
Over a period of two years, St Anne repeatedly instructed Nicolazic to rebuild the ancient chapel. Being of humble class and illiterate, he was an odd choice of champion, but he doggedly persisted in his mission, and eventually persuaded the bishop of Vannes to construct a new chapel to St Anne on the original site.
The new chapel became a major source of pilgrimage over the following centuries and by the late 19th century, had become far too small for the number of pilgrims visiting. The current basilica was constructed between 1865 and 1872. It is a hulkingly austere mass of grey granite that has an imposing presence, particularly from the front, where the oddly positioned flying buttresses emphasise its width rather than its height. Viewed from the side, the vertical and horizontal elements give the building a much more harmoniously proportioned appearance.
Unfortunately we couldn't explore the interior of the basilica as we visited during evening mass. However, we did manage to see the chapel dedicated to Yves Nicolazic, which is on the right hand side, closest to the door. There is an ongoing campaign to have him canonised (elevated to sainthood), a cause that was endorsed by the former Pope, John Paul II, when he visited in 1996.
In 1914, St Anne was officially recognised as the patron saint of Brittany, ironically just before the First World War, in which her newly adopted people would suffer such horrifically disproportionate casualties.
The appalling Breton casualties in World War I are commemorated in the exquisitely moving Breton war memorial and the surrounding wall of remembrance.
Sadly, humanity displays a depressing inability to learn the lessons of the past, and memorial to commemorate the "The War to End All Wars" was completed less than a decade before the outbreak of the next world war.
With pragmatic fatalism, the subsequent war memorial - also located within the wall of remembrance - was not limited to the commemoration of a single conflict, and instead is dedicated to 'all our fallen in all wars'.
The one impression that you'll probably come away with from visiting the war memorial in Sainte-Anne d'Auray is that it commemorate Breton - rather than French - war casualties.
Despite attempts to achieve national homogenisation of identity under a French banner, the Breton sense of nationalism remains endearingly robust. To reinforce this point, the main photo here features inscriptions in Breton - Briezh. Despite the somewhat Russian-sounding name, Briezh is a Celtic language that has most in common with Welsh and Cornish. Encouragingly, Breton is still a relatively vibrant language with many native speakers, so you'll probably stumble across it surprisingly often, and not just in road signage and advertising.