Rennes-le-Château has become infamous for its association with the mysteries highlighted in the novel The Da Vinci Code.
in the 1950s there were rumors of a buried treasure left by the Visigoths,
the barbarian people who sacked Rome in 410
and carried off its wealth. According to some, that part of that treasure had been found by the parish priest of Rennes-le-Château
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a man named Bérenger Saunière, who used his wealth to restore the church
and to build himself an odd mansion in the village.
Then, beginning in the 1960s,
new rumors surfaced: that the priest Saunière had not found a Visigothic
treasure but hidden documents that
revealed that Jesus had not died on the cross but survived and married Mary Magdalen, and had fathered a son by her. After Jesus' death,
she had traveled to France, where their descendants became the Merovingian dynasty of French kings. Sauniere became part of a secret
organization known as the Priory of Sion, that guarded the secret of Jesus' descendants, who survived even to the modern day. Saunière's
money, according to this version of the legend, came from the Pope in Rome, who paid him not to reveal the true history of Jesus.
Saunière is supposed to have hidden clues to this secret knowledge throughout his own parish church as he restored it.
The people of
the tiny village have accepted their role in perpetuating these legends, and
there is now a museum in Bérenger Saunière's house
and souvenir shops throughout the village selling books about the mysteries and even about Cathars and witchcraft and anything historical or
pseudo-historical and vaguely mysterious. Above left is a wax figure of Saunière in the museum and above right is his actual tomb.
The museum also
boasts the Visigothic pillar that, according
to some, hid the treasure or at least pointed to its location.
We toured Saunière's
"mansion" (well, maybe you'd think that this house was a mansion
if you lived in
rural, nineteenth-century France), which looked--shockingly--like an ordinary nineteenth-century home.
Perhaps most startling
was the presence of a greenhouse in his backyard!
Okay, there was also a private chapel--since Saunière was somehow discredited
and eventually banned from saying mass in the parish church he had restored.
may have more to do with the fact that Saunière lived with his housekeeper
for many years--in fact, he later left his house to her and she is buried with him in his tomb.
Believers in the
legend say that Saunière was discredited for his secret knowledge--and
they also point to the fact that he built a tour
in another part of his backyard (shown above from three angles) that he called the Tour Magdala or "Tower of the Magdalen."
We toured this tour and--gasp!--it was an office lined with bookshelves that looked out over the countryside!
The wackiest part of the legend focuses on the parish church, that was built in the Middle Ages but restored by Saunière.
As you enter the
church, Latin carving above the portal read "Terribilis est locus iste"
or "Terrible is this place."
(In fact, it is a biblical phrase once used at the start of mass and should be understood as "awe-inspiring" rather than "terrible."
As one of our guidebooks suggested, maybe the "terrible" part referred to the decor--a hodgepodge of colors and artwork.
But look at all the clues inside the church: a statue of Mary Magdalen holding a cross!
Maybe more odd
is this statue of three angels above a sign that reads in French"Par
ce signe tu le vaincras"
or "By this sign you will conquer him." The words belong to a vision that the Roman emperor Constantine
is said to have had before engaging in battle against his enemy--when he won that battle, he converted to
Christianity and sponsored it as the favored religion in the Roman Empire. But note that the cross above the
angels' heads has a rose at its center--and the "Rose-Cross" or Rosicrucian secret society is linked in the legend
about this alleged secret history of Jesus.
pointed out by some is the striking--well, striking to some--similarity in
the posture of Jesus being baptized, on the left below,
and the devil (below right, who is depicted at the entrance to the church, holding on his shoulders the font of holy water).
But what is this supposed to be saying? That Jesus is the devil? And are these two sculptures really all that similar?
It was a wacky and fun day, though.
We also stopped in at the town of Alet-les-Bains, not far away, with its ruined medieval monastery.
It was a cute town, but it was Sunday and nothing much was open and few people were around.
Click here to go to the next page on our trip to the town of Narbonne.
Close this page to return to the main menu and map of southern France.