May 272012
 

It was 21st September 1891. Beneath the Knight’s Stone which the two local labourers had just lifted there was a tomb. The local story is that the priest climbed down among the bones, ferreted around and emerged a few minutes later carrying a pot filled with jewels and gold coins. Although the story has no doubt gained much in the retelling over the years, it is probably based at least partly on the truth.

At the time of the French Revolution the village priest was called Antoine Bigou. He made the mistake of voicing royalist sympathies and was therefore labelled a “recalcitrant priest”. In August 1792 the Assembly of the Republic in Paris passed a law proscribing such churchmen. Presumably the Abbé Bigou heard shortly after that his life was now in danger because within a month he had gathered his belongings together and hidden the church valuables and some other objects trusted to his care by the Marchioness of Hautpoul de Blanchefort when she died in 1881(I will discuss this in a later blog). Then he locked up the church and the presbytery and fled to Spain where he died three years later.

So, where better to hide valuables that were too heavy to carry than in a tomb in front of the altar covered by a large stone? Even though the Roman Catholic Church was no longer the power in the republic that it had been when France was a monarchy, the local people were still sufficiently traditional not to look with favour on the desecration of the church and opening up a tomb situated right in front of the altar.

As soon as he climbed out of the tomb Saunière sent the workmen off for an early lunch. When they returned after having eaten they found the church was locked and they were prevented from entering. The priest stayed inside and continued his excavations on his own. After that only his faithful housekeeper, Marie Dénarnaud, was ever let in on the secrets he had found and she took the information to her grave. There is a single brief entry in his diary for that day which says “Discovery of a tomb”.

It has been speculated that the Abbé, prompted by the clue left in the glass phial that was hidden in the column supporting the pulpit, discovered that the tomb had been constructed to hide an entrance to the crypt. All that is known for sure is that when the church was reopened for Mass the following Sunday the evidence of his excavations was hidden behind screens and boarding so that nothing could be seen by the parishioners.

This state of affairs continued for some weeks. Saunière let it be known that he was carrying out repairs to the church on his own to save money. However soon after this he started spending extravagant sums on the restoration of the church and elsewhere around the village. It was clear that he was spending far more than he had obtained from a pot of gold. Not surprisingly tongues started wagging about the possible source of his new-found wealth.

 

The photo shows the altar in front of which the tomb was located.

 

Next week I will discuss other possible entrances to the crypt.

 

 

May 202012
 

There is no doubt that Bérenger Saunière, the priest at Rennes-le-Chateau from 1885 to 1917, found something in his church which led him to become fabulously wealthy. One report suggests that, during restoration of the church in 1887, the altar was replaced. One of the old supports was a a stone pillar with Visigoth carvings on it which now stands in the small garden beside the Villa Bethania carrying a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (see top photo).

Apparently they found a recess carved into the top of the pillar. This is quite a common occurrence. The carved out void is intended to contain holy relics linked with the dedication of the church. However this hollow was found to contain two documents which have been published and argued over ever since. People have read various codes and other meanings into these documents. I will deal with this subject in a later blog.

The question is, what other larger hiding places were there in the church? The most likely would be an underground crypt below the nave. Such catacombs are common in churches and frequently contain the tombs of important local and national figures, rather than burying them out in the churchyard where they would be more at risk from treasure hunters. However a crypt is usually a large void and can conceal a lot more than a few tombs. And the most secure crypt is one where the entrance is hidden or where it has been built over to prevent access. Did Saunière discover such an entrance?

Prior to this another secret hiding-place had been found. When the old wooden pulpit had been taken down in order to be replaced by the magnificent, painted masonry one which is now there, the timber supporting column was discovered to have a cavity in it which contained a small, rolled-up parchment inside a glass phial. This was handed to Saunière who took it away to study the contents.

The following morning the Abbé led the two local workmen who were helping him to a stone slab in front of the altar and instructed them to lift it. The stone was large (about 4 feet by 2 feet by 6 inches thick) and mortared into place, so it took a lot of effort and time to get it out. When they finally lifted it upright they had a surprise. On the underside of the slab was a carved design of two Romanesque arches. Beneath the left hand arch a knight is depicted watering his horse and under the other arch is a mounted knight (some say carrying a child in his arms). The Knight Stone is now on display in the Rennes-le-Chateau museum (see lower photo).

 

I will tell you next week about what was found beneath the lifted stone.

 

 

May 152012
 

Although the devil supporting the holy water stoup is the most bizarre of the statues in this little church there are many other colourful works. Around the walls inside the church are no fewer than eight individual and group statues, most of then on plinths more than five feet high.

The altar front has a full-colour bas-relief of the Mary Magdalene kneeling in tears in a rocky landscape. By her knees is a human skull. Behind the altar are statues of the Virgin and Joseph, both holding the Christ child. Above them is deep blue half-domed vault covered in stars and punctuated by the only window in the main church – a small, circular stained-glass depiction of the Magdalene anointing the feet of Jesus. Thus very little natural light enters the building. To the left of the altar is the magnificent pulpit (far grander than most cathedrals) which is reached by a stairway hidden in the outside wall. (See top photo.)

At the west end of the nave is the confessional surmounted by the magnificent semi-circular bas-relief of Christ on the mount summoning his flock – “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavily laden”. (See middle photo.) Altogether, although it is small, the interior of this plain little village church is one of the most colourfully-decorated in the Roman Catholic world.

One of the most interesting and most prominent statues in the church is that of Saint Antony of Padua which stands on a tall plinth carried by four angels. Saint Antony is the exalted being to whom the faithful pray for the recovery of lost objects. When the Bishop of Carcassonne attended the inauguration of this statue he is supposed to have said to Saunière words to the effect of, “I like your sense of gratitude”, presumably meaning that he was thanking the Saint for something he had found – perhaps in this very church.

Behind this statue is the door to the sacristy which is locked and to which the public are not allowed access. Various reports say the left hand wall of this room has a range of cupboards fixed to it. It is alleged that in the back of one of these cupboards is a door that leads in to a secret room which Saunière had built on to the side of the Sacristy against the outside wall of the church. I have been unable to find a report from anyone who has entered this quadrant-shaped room or who is able to describe what is in the room. Could it be a staircase leading down into the crypt which is believed to lie beneath the church but to which nobody has been able to find an entrance since Saunière’s time? I will go into this in more detail in a future blog.

The other decorative object around the otherwise very plain exterior to the church is the porch. The lower photo shows the details. The fascia to the tympanum is decorated with carved roses and a cross. The bas-relief panel dedicating the church to Saint Mary Magdalene carries the Latin inscription “…domus terribilis est…” which has often been wrongly translated as “this place is terrible”.

 

In the next few weeks I will tell you about more strange things connected with the church at Rennes-le-Chateau.

 

 

May 062012
 

The highlight of our recent trip to Cathar Country was our look around the village of Rennes- le-Chateau. Surely most people interested in history, and especially French history, must have heard of this fascinating little place. It was our fourth visit, but this time we managed to see a number of things we had missed on previous visits.

It was a beautiful morning and we got there early, in fact before most of the buildings had opened. The only place we could get into this early was the little church of Saint Mary Magdalene where the door already stood open. We were the only people in the place so we could take all the photos we wanted without interruption. It was great to be ahead of the crowds.

You are probably aware of the bizarre decorations which are everywhere you look in this strange church. However the strangest of them all is the devil which carries the holy water stoup on its shoulders (see photo). I am told this is the only devil portrayed inside a catholic church anywhere in the world.

This winged devil is believed to portray Asmodeus, who was said in fables to be the guardian of the treasure of the Temple of Solomon. This has led writers to ask whether Berenger Saunière, the village priest who became fabulously wealthy in the 1890’s, placed this particular devil here as a clue to what he found somewhere around the church. This is because the treasure of Solomon was looted by Titus, the Roman emperor, when he sacked Jerusalem in AD 70 and carried back to Rome. In AD 410 Rome, in its turn, was overrun by the Visigoths under King Alaric I and its wealth was  carried off by them. The village of Rennes-le-Chateau (now with less than 200 inhabitants) then became the capital city of the Visigoths, had a population of over 30,000 and was the seat of its royalty – the obvious place to store the treasure they had acquired.

You will also notice the four angels above the stoup. At their feet is a Latin inscription which roughly translates as “By this sign you will conquer him” and below that again is a red plaque with the initials BS in it, framed by two salamanders. The original devil’s head (which was apparently more evil-looking, if possible, than the present one) was broken off by a vandal in 1997 and replaced by the one in the photo.

Some readers may accuse me of seeing mystery where there is none. However I think you will agree that there are several interesting questions which remain to be answered satisfactorily about this strange statue complex.

 

In the next few weeks I will tell you about other strange things connected with the church at Rennes-le-Chateau.