May 2006

The legend of the Abbe Bérenger Saunière is synonymous with Rennes-le-Château. Seemingly, one does not exist without the other. Hundreds of books, websites, television documentaries, and now, even movies, have professed to have solved the riddle, and identified the treasure.

So what do we really know?

We know from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that the Roman General Titus sacked Jerusalem in 72 AD, and pillaged the Temple of Solomon and its treasure. Then in 410 AD, Rome fell to the Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, who proceeded to re-establish their kingdom in and around the Pyrenees. The historian Procopius claims to have inventoried their booty, and concluded that it was intact, minus the Ark of the Covenant, which had been missing from the historic record for some time.

It is here that the treasure of Solomon and other ancient relics come directly into the provenance of the Rennes-le-Château legend.

The vicinity around the new kingdom of the Visigoths soon became the focus of the Cathars, Knights Templars, Lords of the Grail Castles, The Hapsburgs, the Priory of Sion and the Nazis. Each laid claim to a treasure. Was it spiritual or physical? Just what was its true nature?

In the region of the Visigoth Empire, near what would later become the Cathar fortress of Montségur, we uncover a memory of the treasure of Solomon. Legend tells us that the Visigoth King Roderic searched for Solomon’s treasure in the colossal caves of Lombrives. Here, in the care of the hermit Trevizent, he discovered an emerald table and a chest containing three cups. Curiously, Trevizent is the name of the hermit who initiates Parzival in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. A little known fact is that Eschenbach never wrote fiction, only history. Thus, one must ask, could the treasure of Solomon be the source of today’s grail legends?

Now, how romantic is that? But hold on! We have not even begun and already we have abandoned Occam’s Razor. It is that easy to do. Let us return to the plot; just what did Abbe Saunière discover?

In the early moments of Steven Spielberg’s film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Professor Jones, played by Harrison Ford, informs his college history class that “archaeology is the search for truth – not fact. And X never ever marks the spot!” As one might expect, it’s not long before Indiana Jones is proved wrong on both accounts! Sometimes archaeology is all about fact, and sometimes ‘X’ does mark the spot, as we shall soon see.

If the legend of Bérenger Saunière and Rennes-le-Château were an Inspector Morse or CSI episode, then the restorations that Abbe Saunière designed for his church and village would represent damning evidence for the prosecution. They are incredibly revealing, and offer us our most plausible application of Occam’s Razor yet. So what do they include?

Saunière began restoring his church, home and grounds in 1891, funded by an initial donation from the Countess of Chambord, the same shadowy figure who funded Louis de Coma’s building projects (which, the reader will remember, were predominantly dedicated to Mary Magdalene and the remembrance of the biblical ‘Gethsemane’).  Saunière’s restorations are covered in minute detail in many books, websites and documentaries, so I will only briefly mention them here, before moving onto his less referenced and more revealing work, namely the Tour Magdela.

Abbe Saunière’s restorations include:

The Interior of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene
Some of Saunière’s most revealing, albeit macabre, restorations are on the inside of the church of Saint Mary Magdalene, although an interesting one greets you before you even enter. Carved in masonry above the entrance is the now famous Latin inscription TERRIBILIS EST LOCUS ISTE, or ‘This Place is Terrible’. This seemingly inappropriate greeting is actually quite ordinary, meaning ‘great, amazing, wonderful, etc’ and not anything sinister.

This Place is Terrible – the entrance to Saunière’s Church © Andrew Gough


The Abbe’s most famous restoration is a statue of the devil, immediately to the left as one enters the church. It is believed to represent Asmodeus, keeper of secrets and guardian of treasure, most notably Solomon’s. Alternatively, it is said to represent Rex Mundi, the Cathar God of evil. Sceptics will state that this is not the only church to have a statue like this, but to date, they have only provided evidence of one other (just west of Carcassonne).

Asmodeous: Cathar King or guardian of treasure? © Andrew Gough


Beyond the statue, on the west face of the church interior, the abbe commissioned an extraordinary mural. This emotive and lucid fresco depicts the biblical, Sermon on the Mount. What makes it special is the presence of a bag erupting with gold at the foot of a hill before Jesus. Undisturbed by this provocative site, Jesus’ beloved followers remain transfixed, devout in their adoration and seemingly oblivious to the gold! Most interpret this as evidence of a hidden treasure in the region of Rennes-le-Château. While I would agree, the treasure, I believe, is spiritual, not physical, as vindicated by the fact that Jesus’ followers appear to ignore the gold completely.

Saunière’s Sermon on the Mount: is the treasure spiritual or simply gold? © Andrew Gough

Close-up of the bag of gold © Andrew Gough


The Stations of the Cross are also suggestive of concealed knowledge. While most are standard, albeit unusually lavish (being the most expensive versions available, purchased from the same manufacturer that provided the west wall fresco), some have been personally modified by the priest and his trusted advisors. And the modifications are very unusual. For instance, one depicts a night scene, complete with a full moon, of Christ being taken down from the cross. The implication is that Christ never died on the cross. Another hints at treasure concealed in local mines.

But these are a mere warm-up for clues Abbe Saunière left closer to the altar, and beyond.

Saunière added the night and moon to a traditional day scene. Why? © Andrew Gough


Dramatically, Abbe Saunière selected and arranged the order of the Saints statues within the church to imply the presence of the Holy Grail.

Intriguingly, the first letter of each Saint’s name spells out G R A A L, French for Grail! The sequence of Saints goes like this:

* St Germaine
* St Roch
* St Antoine de Padoue
* St Antoine
* St Luc

Furthermore, the configuration of the statues forms a large, albeit disproportional shaped ‘M’, and seems to represent Mary Magdalene, as depicted below:


And while treasure hunters have recognized this ‘anomaly’ for some time, in the context of Occam’s Razor it appears to add further credence to our budding hypothesis.

One last point on the statues; it is worth mentioning that the statue of Saint Antoine stands opposite the statue of Mary Magdalene. Their respective feast days are the 17th and 22nd; numbers that reoccur throughout the legend. (see 22 & 17: The Haunting of Rennes-le-Château)

Moving towards the east of the church, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the alter painting of Mary Magdalene in the grotto. Saunière personally designed it, and it contains some very revealing detail.

In the painting, Mary is on her knees, staring at a long wooden cross, or ‘X’. Her hands are crossed in a peculiar fashion, forming what appears to be a swastika, which was once a very sacred symbol, before it was adopted by the Germans in the War.

Abbe Saunièrs altar painting – the Magdalene in the Grotto © Andrew Gough


Readers of The Da Vinci Code will recall that Margaret Starbird was one of Dan Brown’s primary references. As a recognized expert in the sacred feminine, and Mary Magdalene in particular, Starbird was a natural reference for Brown’s subject matter.

In her book, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, Starbird, highlights the symbolism of the ‘X’ in classical art. Starbird concludes that it a sign of concealed esoteric knowledge, meaning quite literally, ‘X’ marks the spot. Take that Indiana Jones!

Does the ‘X’ mark the spot? © Andrew Gough


So what we have here are four X’s. Could Abbe Saunière be trying to tell us he has uncovered concealed knowledge and is preserving it for those with ‘eyes to see’? Before we get carried away, let us review the rest of the painting.

Clearly, we can see that Mary Magdalene and a Grotto are involved, but are the supporting clues symbolic or literal? As we take a closer look at the skyline in the background we see what appears to be real structures, and they appear to mirror images of actual buildings in the village of Rennes-le-Château. From the viewer’s right, we see can see:

1) A Mountain (Pech Cardou)
2) A Castle (Hautpoul residence)
3) A Tower (Tour Magdela)

A possible fourth landmark in the painting, on the viewers left, could either represent the adjoining tower to the Tour Magdela or the Church of Mary Magdalene.

Intriguingly, the abbe’s altar paining, which again he personally designed, would seem to point to the presence of Mary Magdalene in a Grotto just outside of Rennes-le-Château. Additionally, there is symbolic evidence of concealed knowledge. What else do we know that could confirm this rather speculative evidence?

Abbe Saunière’s Grotto of the Magdalene
The grotto outside of Abbe Saunières church is a much ignored and highly significant clue. The priest built the grotto with unusual stones that he gathered on his walks into the valley beyond the modern day parking lot. He collected them in a rucksack and even built an extension to his church that allowed him to conceal his daily harvest from the villagers. Only he had a key.

Sauniere’s Grotto © Andrew Gough


The grotto Saunière constructed, like the natural grotto in the cliff-side near where he collected the unusual stones (more about this later!), was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. It contained a statue of The Magdalene, and a stone bench with the raised characters XXSLX written across the top. Sadly, the entire grotto was destroyed by treasure hunters, who were convinced it concealed a secret.  It has since been rebuilt and the XXSLX is still intact, although nobody has come close to deciphering it.

XXSLX – just what does it mean? © Andrew Gough


What are we to make of this apparent code, especially since there is no ‘S’ in Latin?  The grotto was originally aligned on the Tour Magdela, the Tower of the Magdalene, arguably Saunière’s finest creation, some 75 yards in the distance. It now sits on a slight variance from the original. So let’s have a look at the Tour Magdela.

The Tour Magdela
The Tour Magdela is a spectacular structure. It defines the village of Rennes-le-Château and provides definitive clues to the secret that Abbe Saunière unearthed.

The Tour Magdala © Andrew Gough


Once again we turn to Margaret Starbird, who informs us that ‘the word magdala in Hebrew means ‘tower’ (with connotations also of “stronghold” or “fortress“)’. We shall keep this in mind as we review the Tour Magdela’s many clues.

We mentioned before the frequent occurrence of the numbers 22 and 17 in the Rennes-le-Château legend. Well, here we find some of the most revealing examples:

* Two sets of 11 steps (22) lead up to the observatory platform that leads to the Tour Magdela.

* An anomalous tile on the floor of the Tour Magdela points up a 22 step stone staircase where a lone window points unambiguously at a grotto, approximately a mile in the distance.

* The ancient place-name of the Grotto is ‘Grotte du Fournet – dite de la Magdeleine’, which translates ‘The Burial Site of the Mary Magdalene‘.

* The offset of the lone window to the grotto in the distance is, astoundingly, 22 degrees (see Blog entry ‘Fear and Loathing in Rennes-le-Château‘ for an account of my discovery of this alignment)

The Grotto of Mary from the Tower of Mary © Andrew Gough


My first walk to the grotto was quite arduous, to say the least.

The arduous walk to the Grotto © Andrew Gough


Before proceeding, let me state that there is no longer anything of value in the grotto. Trust me, I’ve explored the possibilities. Please do not attempt to disturb this fragile and sacred site.

Concealed in The Burial Site of the Mary Magdalene grotto are the apparent remains of two graves. The first, near the entrance, is an imprint in the shape of a small coffin. Not surprisingly, the spot had recently been adorned with candles and flowers, so its potential importance is clearly known to a few. Further back, underneath a rocky outcrop, I found the remnants of what appears to be a shallow grave, one that was dug up at some point in the not too distant past (possibly the time of Saunière).

The entrance to The Burial Site of Mary Magdalene? © Andrew Gough

A shallow grave? © Andrew Gough


So, before making any conclusions, let’s review the facts:

* The number 22, the feast day of Mary Magdalene, is concealed throughout the Tour Magdela.

* Saunière personally designed unconventional restorations in his church that point to the significance of Mary Magdalene, The Grail and concealed religious truths or spiritual knowledge (i.e. ‘X’ marks the spot).

* The Abbe was obsessed with grottos, including erecting statues of saints who were associated with them (i.e. Saint Anthony and Mary Magdalene). We must not forget that he built one from scratch, constructed with stones he had secretly gathered from the valley below, in the vicinity of the real grotto; the ‘Grotte du Fournet – dite de la Magdeleine’ – the Burial Site of Mary Magdalene. Sauniere’s imitation grotto points at the tower of the Magdalene, the Tour Magdela, which in turn, unambiguously points at the ‘Grotte du Fournet – dite de la Magdeleine.’

While that is all pleasantly persuasive, a picture is worth a thousand words:


Now, the reader will be conscious of the fact that little effort has been made to discuss the series of events that could have led Mary Magdalene, and possible her daughter Sara, to French soil. This possibility is covered rather exhaustively in other books and web sites, and is addressed in Simon Cox’s The Dan Brown Companion, which used this very research to form its explosive conclusions.

Thus, the temptation is to say that the Abbe Beringer Saunière discovered the bones of Mary Magdalene and possibly her daughter Sara, the embodiment of the Holy Grail, in the grotto pointed to by the Tour Magdela. In fact this is very tempting. And if we forget for a moment the dogma of Christianity, then this supposition becomes very attractive, indeed. It even passes many of the tests of Occam’s Razor (again, if we leave our preconceptions about Christianity behind).

But as any real physical evidence is lacking, all we can confidently state is that Abbe Saunière did find a treasure, or secret, or both, in the grotto, and what his restorations have done is simply commemorate his discovery by encoding the number 22. That appears clear. What did he find? Well, that is speculative, although I do have my theories. However, I am confident that Occam’s Razor tells me that I am on the right trail. The Grotto might not be the smoking gun at the scene of the crime, but at least it is evidence there was a crime – so to speak.