Inside Saunière's Church

'This is a terrible place'

'This is a terrible place'

Having come into his mysterious wealth, the priest Berenger Sauniere redecorated his church with strange and often almost un-Christian imagery. What were these bizarre symbols - and what do they mean?

It was in 1891 that Sauniere placed a statue of Mary Magdalene above the newly-remodelled the porch, inscribing the curious legend: Terribilis est locus iste - 'This is a terrible place' - above the entrance.

This the Latin rendition of a phrase in Genesis (28:17), the first part of the sentence uttered by Jacob after he had his vision of the ladder joining Heaven and Earth. The rest of the sentence is written on the arch of the porch: 'It is the house of God and the gate of Heaven'.

Interior of St Mary Magdalene's church, looking towards the altar.

Interior of St Mary Magdalene's church, looking towards the altar

On 21 June 1891, with great ceremony Saunière installed a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes outside the church, using the famous Visigoth pillar, once part of the altar, as the base. Purposely or not, he turned this upside down, inverting the carving of the cross.

This work - together with some other bits and pieces such as a new pulpit - cost around 1000 francs.

But the most important work on the church, which included most of the controversial imagery, took place in the period 1897-98 - at a cost of around 15,000 francs.

The decorations were largely commissioned from the Giscard studio in Toulouse. This can still be seen in the city, adorned with examples of the sculptor's art, some of which are clearly Masonic symbols. But perhaps it is not so surprising that a stonemason was also a Freemason!

 

Crouching Demon, Crouching Christ

What greets the visitor to the church is by now the most famous aspect of Saunière's renovations - the famous demon of Rennes-le-Château, which even after several visits still has the power to startle.

Saunière beside the statue and Visigoth pillar

Saunière beside the statue and Visigoth pillar

The demon, contorted in a couching position, bears on his back the holy water stoup, which is surmounted by four angels making the sign of the cross. Beneath the angels are salamanders.

Above the demon is the phrase Par ce signe tu le vaincras - 'by this sign you will conquer him' or 'it'. Although this is a common phrase - the famous words said to have been heard by the Emperor Constantine on seeing the cross in the sky that led him to convert to Christianity - and appears to refer to the sign of the cross being made by the angels, the curious thing is the superfluous le (him or it). As it is an odd mistake for a clergyman to have made, it was presumably intentional.

The demon is most often said to represent Asmodeus, the demon guardian of buried treasure, although there is nothing to show that this was Saunière's specific intention.

The Giscard studio in Toulouse

The Giscard studio in Toulouse

If it is Asmodeus, then the statue may be a reference to a legend connected with the building of Solomon's Temple, in which the demon was attempting to interfere with the building work, until Solomon stopped him by making him carry water - the element that controls Asmodeus. This would fit with the fact that the demon is carrying the holy water stoup. If this interpretation is correct, it may be a Masonic reference, as many of the legends relating to the building of the Temple of Solomon were incorporated in the traditions of Freemasonry.

A more mundane interpretation is that the demon represents the French Republic. In his 1885 sermon that landed him in hot water with the local authorities, Saunière said: 'The Republicans, there is the Devil to conquer and which must bend its knee under the weight of religion and the baptised. The sign of the cross is victorious and is with us.'

Saunière's contract with B. Giscard

Saunière's contract with B. Giscard

The demon, which is showing one of its bent knees, is a perfect visual representation of these words. If so, then the anomalous 'it' refers to the Republic, to which Saunière was opposed, particularly because of its wish to reduce the power of the Catholic Church in France.

Another interpretation is that it is making references to places in the vicinity. The demon appears to be sitting - perhaps referring to a rock in the hills above Rennes-les-Bains known as the Devil's Armchair. The demon is also making a circle with the fingers of one hand (which may be because it originally held something such as a staff), which could indicate a spring very close to the Devil's Armchair called the Source of the Circle. Is this where Saunière's treasure was found?

In 1986, it was discovered that the heads of the angels were hollow, stuffed with pages from German newspapers dating from 1898, the year of the refurbishment of the church. Why Saunière would have had German newspapers is a puzzle.

The Demon of Rennes-le-Château

The Demon of Rennes-le-Château

In 1996, the demon's head was hacked off and carried away by unknown vandals, possibly in the hope that something would be found inside its head, too. It has since been replaced with a replica.

Against the opposite wall is a lifesized tableau of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist. Jesus is bending his knees in a very similar way to the demon, as if Saunière was trying to draw a parallel between them. Why a priest would want to do so is unclear. Possibly it has a Johannite interpretation - Johannite belief, which was incorporated into the doctrines of some of the Masonic and other secret societies with which Saunière may have been connected, holds that John the Baptist is superior to Jesus, and certainly here John is towering over the crouching Jesus in a most unusually emphatic manner.

Between the two sets of statues a section of the floor has been laid out to represent a chessboard - a recurring motif in the Rennes-le-Château mystery.

 

Distinctly Untraditional Touches

The Demon - Asmodeus?

The Demon - Asmodeus?

Taking up the whole of the western wall is a huge bas-relief showing Jesus preaching on the mount. There are two anomalies here: two of the children are in 19th-century dress, and there is a small sack with a hole through which gold coins can be seen.

Sauniere also made a few telling changes to the traditional imagery of the stations of the cross that, as in all Catholic churches, are placed around the walls of the church. Although taken from a standard set supplied by the Giscard studio - identical but unpainted ones can be seen in the church in nearby Couiza - odd touches have been added in Saunière's version.

In the 8th station, for example, there is a child seemingly wearing tartan, with a woman in a widow's veil. This has been taken as a Masonic reference - Freemasons refer to themselves as 'sons of the widow' and the tartan

The Devil's Armchair

The Devil's Armchair

of this widow's son may indicate the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Indeed, there is evidence to link Saunière with a specific form of Freemasonry called the Rectified Scottish Rite.

The plaster saints around the walls are also standard issue: many identical statues can be seen in churches in the area. Yet here, as Alain Féral - a well-known artist who lives in the village - has pointed out, if lines in the shape of an 'M' (for Magdalene?) are drawn between them, the initials of each - St Germaine, St Roch, St Anthony of Padua, St Anthony the Hermit, and St Luke, spell GRAAL (grail).

The demon's new head

The demon's new head

Saunière's final touch, added to the decorations in 1900, was apparently his pride and joy - he is said to have painted it himself. This was the bas-relief of Mary Magdalene in her grotto on the front of the altar, apparently based on a stained-glass window in the church at Puichéric, some 25 miles from Rennes-le-Château.

In 1981 French writer and researcher Jacques Rivière claimed that, if the points of all the summits of the hills in the Aude are joined up, they reproduce the figure of Mary Magdalene as she appears on the bas-relief, her head being the ramparts of Carcassone. Another leading

The baptism

The baptism

Rennes researcher, Pierre Jarnac, has repeated this exercise and confirms that it is indeed true. If the bas-relief of the Magdalene is supposed to be a map, then at the intersection of the cross on which her gaze is fixed is - Puichéric.

Finally, British researcher and author Guy Patton has shown that Saunière apparently placed objects around his church and domaine in order to make pentagonal patterns.

The Maquette

The decoration in the church and the strange buildings of his domaine

The 8th station of the cross

The 8th station of the cross

seemed to be the only clues that Saunière left behind. However, recently a French researcher, André Douzet, claims to have come across another strange artefact designed by the priest of Rennes-le-Château that was intended to be placed in the church - but never was because of his death.

This is a maquette, or plaster model, showing a landscape of hills and valleys marked with the names of places associated with the death and burial of Jesus. Such a model is produced as a 'draft' for a more permanent piece of artwork cast in bronze - once approved by the person who commissioned it, a mould is taken that is then used to cast the finished product.

Douzet claims that the maquette, which was commissioned from a model-maker in Aix-en-Provence - over 150 miles from Rennes-le-Château - came with paperwork that shows that it was ordered by Saunière in 1916, and that the reason that the bronze version was

The pentagonal geometry underlying Saunière's building work

The pentagonal geometry underlying Saunière's building work

never made was that the priest died before he could give his final approval. It was then forgotten until, by pure chance, it came into Douzet's hands in 1992.

Like most things connected with the Saunière story, the model is paradoxical and controversial. Although it is labelled with the names of places that are familiar from the Gospel tales of Jesus's crucifixion, entombment and resurrection, the topography does not correspond at all to known landscape around of Jerusalem where these events are supposed to have happened, and which should have been easy for a priest to find out.

André Douzet unveils the maquette at Rennes-le-Château

André Douzet unveils the maquette at Rennes-le-Château

Most puzzling of all, it shows the location of two tombs, one of Jesus and one of Joseph of Arimathea. According to the New Testament accounts, Jesus was placed in the tomb that had been reserved for Joseph of Arimathea - so the two should be one and the same. Again, this is a very strange mistake for a priest to make - if it is a mistake.

The obvious thought is that the landscape shown in the model is not that of Jerusalem, but of somewhere around Rennes-le-Château - somewhere important to Saunière, perhaps the location of his secret. Since unveiling the model to the public at a conference in Rennes-le-Château in the summer of

The maquette - Saunière's last Testament?

The maquette - Saunière's last Testament?

1995, Douzet claims to have identified the terrain as the area around the abandoned villages of Perillos and Opoul, some 30 miles to the west of Saunière's parish.

However, although he has written a book on the subject, Douzet has not yet made public the documents that he claims prove that the model was ordered and designed by Saunière, so this remains one of the many tantalising trails in the Rennes-le-Château mystery. Indeed, there is evidence - which appears in Douzet's own book - that the model was known about in Italy in the early 1970s (photographs of it appeared in a religious publication there), but at that time did not bear the names of the Gospel places that are so crucial to his interpretation of its meaning. As, when it came into his possession, the model was supposed to have languished, untouched, in the modelmakers' workshop since Saunière's death in 1917, how could it have been photographed in Italy over 50 years later?

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What Did Saunière Find?

The Saunière Story: Facts & Fables

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