Louise de Quengo: a noble breton buried at the couvent
Excavations that took place before the restoration work on the convent uncovered five lead coffins. The first four were able to be examined quickly but experts had to wait until construction work began before the fifth coffin could be removed and examined. Inside this final coffin were the remains of Louise de Quengo, a Breton noblewoman who had died in 1656. Her coffin was discovered at the base of a wall, in the convent’s Saint-Joseph chapel, while the four others were found in the choir of the church. The remains in the more accessible first four coffins were examined and gave some very important insights into the funeral rites of the Breton elite.
Louise de Quengo’s coffin could only be recovered in March 2014, when construction work on the conference centre started. It contained an exceptionally well-preserved mummified corpse. Her autopsy revealed the great advances there had been in science and medicine at that time. The removal of her heart demonstrated a high-level of surgical skill. Until this discovery, we knew very little about the funerals of the most important people in society at that time and the evolution of these practices between the Middle Ages and the modern era. Some of her clothing, including her slippers, is currently on display at the Musée de Bretagne in Rennes. An exhibition dedicated to this Breton lady has also been scheduled for 2016.
The couvent in medieval times
The convent was founded by the Order of Preachers, known as the Dominicans. This new order, created in 1215, was seen as particularly original as it was established in city centres.
The 18th century is regarded as the golden age for these new communities of mendicant orders, yet Rennes and Brittany were rather late to accept them.
The Dominican convent in Rennes was built a whole century later, and is not located within the city walls but rather in the Saint-Malo neighbourhood. It marked the beginning of an important spiritual, intellectual and political role in both the town’s and Brittany’s history.
The construction of the couvent
The entire convent was built on land from generous donors: Pierre Rouxel and his wife gave the Dominicans of Dinan (convent founded in 1232) much of what they owned in front of the church of Saint-Aubin in Rennes. On 5 June 1368, despite the reticence of the secular clergy towards new orders seen as competitiors, the Dominicans were granted approval by Duke John IV to build a church and convent.
The church’s foundation stone ceremony was held on 2 February 1369 and attended by the Duke. Construction was slow, because it relied on donations from followers. To speed the process up, John IV offered his financial support and thus became the official founder.
The legend of good news
The convent’s church is dedicated to the worship of Our Lady of Good News (Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle). There is a legend that explains this choice. In 1364, John of Montfort became Duke of Brittany under the name of John IV during the Battle of Auray. He vowed to build a church in honour of the Virgin Mary if he won the battle.
It was the “good news” (bonne nouvelle) of his success, announced to his wife as she prayed at the Saint-Vincent chapel in Rennes, which determined the site and the name of the new convent.
Ducal protection was confirmed when Anne of Brittany celebrated her engagement to Charles VIII at the convent on 17 November 1491. The wedding took place at the Château de Langeais on 6 December, establishing the personal union between France and Brittany.
An important place of pilgrimage
The Couvent des Jacobins became an important place of pilgrimage thanks to its worship of the image of Our Lady of Good News. This painting dating from the late 15th century is currently preserved at the church of Saint-Aubin. Many events considered as miracles explain the fervour for this painting.
In 1593 a woman came back to life after Our Lady of Good News was invoked. This event appears to have increased pilgrimage to the convent.
In 1624, to thank the Virgin for protecting them from a major plague epidemic, the people of Rennes offered her a silver model of the town, which was put on display in the new chapel.
In December 1720, after the great fire of Rennes, the surviving residents of the Saint-Michel and Lices neighbourhoods credited their survival to the protection of the Virgin. To thank her, a votive image was given to the convent.
The convent’s income Wealthy families would rent burial plots to be buried as close to the painting as possible. The profits were then invested in buying property or building houses to let. Shops were set up along the convent walls, on the Rue de Saint-Malo, with their income providing further earnings which allowed for the construction of extensions to the convent in the 17th century.
A religious order at the heart of society
Mendicant orders adopted a lifestyle of poverty and depended solely on charity for their material existence. Owning property and the Dominican order’s income appear to be entirely in contradiction with this vow. The first reform, the Observant, began in France around 1400 and was to restore the fundamental principles of the Dominican rule in members. This, endorsed by Yves Mahyeuc, would only reach Brittany a century later.
The Dominican’s main activity was preaching, prepared for with intellectual training. Even though members were poor, they were taught to carry out this duty. All convents taught theology before anything else which could then be complemented by teachings on philosophy, the canon law and Sacred Scripture.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the importance of the Couvent des Jacobins was not only linked to the worship of Our Lady of Good News, it was also an educational centre whose intellectual influence generated an increasing number of vocations. Several Dominicans from Rennes became famous for the quality of their research.The members were given permission to teach philosophy and theology in public.
Their teachings drew on the convent’s extensive library: over 5,000 books, a proportion of which is now housed at the Champs Libres, in the Rennes Métropole library). Just before the French Revolution, some members began to embrace the new ideas brought by the Freemasons. Out of the 20 Dominicans still at the convent in the 1770s, at least five of them were actively involved in the Perfect Union lodge.
The couvent after the french revolution
During the Revolution, the assets of members were seized, properties were dismantled and sold as national possessions. However, no buyer was found for the convent buildings. In 1793, it was assigned to the army and adapted to be used as military stores.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, changes were made to the area surrounding the convent. The recent church of Saint-Aubin, the construction of which was launched by Jean-Baptiste Martenot in 1884, replaced the ancient building and opened up part of the Place Sainte-Anne square. In 1926, Emmanuel Le Ray built a police station on the convent’s former small square.
Until the 1980s, the convent housed the headquarters of the army’s sporting associations and stored equipment as well as some of the Ministry of Defence’s archives. In September 1986, the convent was listed on the Historic Monument additional inventory, before being officially recognised as a listed building in 1991. In 2002, it became the property of Rennes Métropole. Two contemporary art biennales were held on the site after it was acquired by Rennes Métropole in 2002.