If any of you have read Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code, then you know where this post is headed. For those of you who haven’t, it’s worth a read. However, much of Brown’s source material came from one theory in particular – a theory chronicled in the non-fiction Davinci Code – a book entitled Holy Blood Holy Grail by British historians Leigh, Baigent, and Lincoln. Many of the places, characters, and themes that Brown used were lifted directly from the pages of Holy Blood Holy Grail. And like in any great work of fiction, those names and places were changed and altered for Brown’s purposes (in fact one of Brown’s characters, Leigh Teabing, is a blending of two of the authors’ names – Teabing is an anagram to Baigent).
In this article, I shall delve a bit into the truth behind the secrets of the Da Vinci Code. I won’t get too much into the specifics, but will just touch upon the tip of the proverbial iceberg where Brown got some of his ideas for his bestselling thriller. It all begins on top of a mysterious mountain in the south of France: Rennes-le-Chateau.
Beginning first as a prehistoric encampment and then a Roman colony, the mountaintop village and fortifications were situated within the wealthiest part of Gaul (present-day France, but inhabited by Celtic tribes during the Iron Age). It became an Visigoth town with about 30o people living in and around the area in the 6th and 7th centuries. And by the end of the Renaissance era, nothing remained but rubble. The present structures date to the 17th and 18th centuries, which is fine with me, because that is when our story begins…
The village church, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, had fallen into disrepair by the time a poor, local priest by the name of Berenger Sauniere took over the parish and began renovating the buildings and grounds in 1887. Da Vinci Code fans will recognize the name Sauniere (the fictitious Jacques Sauniere was the murdered Louvre curator at the beginning of the story and Grand Master to the even more fictitious Priory of Sion). Where did a poor priest get the money to restore old buildings and build new ones in what essentially amounts to the middle of nowhere countryside? That is only one small part of the mystery.
Legend states that while he was excavating, Sauniere discovered an ancient tomb containing the remains of someone very important along with documentation that could be potentially earth-shattering to the Church. Or perhaps he discovered the long-lost gold of the Knights Templar (the museum features an old worn down stone tablet featuring the Templar seal). Again, those of you who have read Dan Brown’s book know where this is going, so I can skip over all of the theories. Needless to say, regardless of what you believe, Sauniere did find something down there. Whether or not his “treasure” would alter the face of Christianity or not, he found enough to give him (the equivalent in today’s money) $500,000 that it would take to finish his construction plans and afford him the lavish lifestyle he enjoyed until his death in 1917 (for additional information, click here).
Sauniere decorated his small church in very distinct ways. It is unlike any church I have ever been to. Apparently, he used the statues, frescoes, and even the stations of the cross as a map to the truth – a visual, three-dimensional scavenger hunt to help guide future seekers to the knowledge he possessed. It is also interesting to note there is an undisturbed crypt beneath the altar. Nobody has been allowed access to excavate and no entrance has been discovered. Above this crypt is where the priest left his puzzle for us to decode.
The puzzle was taken directly from two sources written by Sauniere’s predecessors at the church. The first, Abbe Antoine Bigou had been given a great secret by the Lady d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort, who owned the property, in 1781. The priest placed a large gravestone on the Lady’s tomb into which he carved a cipher. Hidden within this cipher are instructions to locate this great secret. He died after passing along the secret to two other priests.
Eventually, the secret made its way down the line of succession to another father at Rennes-le-Chateau, Abbe Henri Boudet. He retrieved the tombstone, decoded the cipher, and with the knowledge he obtained, wrote a book called, The True Celtic Language and Stone Circle of Rennes–les–Bains. His work wasn’t well received so he devised a plan to immortalize what he had learned from Lady Hautpoul. It was this priest who personally selected Berenger Sauniere for the job at Rennes-le-Chateau.
Sauniere was charged with maintaining this great secret so he took Boudet’s book and reinterpreted the map and key into his renovations of the church. Of note, as you walk into the entrance is a pedestal featuring four angels (looking in the four cardinal directions) with the initials BS in the middle and a phrase in Latin – Par ce signe tu le vaincras (By this sign shall ye conquer him). The angel in front is kneeling and pointing down to the figure of a devil, holding up the pillar itself (a very strange sight to see in a church, and it is said that the BS either stands for the two priests of Boudet and Sauniere or for the latter’s initials). But is the angel pointing to the devil or to the BS?
Above the confessional in the rear of the church is a fresco of the Sermon on the Mount with a few obvious irregularities. To begin with, roses are strewn across the hillside (the rose is the symbol for the goddess, according the Dan Brown and other historians). Secondly, there is a woman with a baby in the crowd. Could this be Mary Magdalene with Jesus’ infant son in her arms? Thirdly, to the bottom right you can see the top part of a wooden pillar under which was found a phial that enabled the abbe to uncover the crypt beneath the church. Fourth, on the left side you can see the seal of Solomon in the form of a pink lily blossom. Finally, in the bottom center, there is a penitence bag with a hole in it. But what do all of these subtle clues imply?
Around the room, you will find statues of saints, specific saints chosen for a variety of reasons. There are six and when you draw lines between them you will see the Star of David (or if you’re a Brown fan, the blade and the chalice). If you skip the statue of Mary Magdalene (with her skull and open book by her feet), the other five spell out the letter M – for Mary Magdalene, or mother. If you put the names of those other saints Sauniere chose in order (skipping Magdalene), they spell out G-R-A-A-L (the French word for Grail) – and their lines point directly to where the priest positioned her statue.
Lastly, we must take a look at the combination of the altar and the Stations of the Cross. It is said that the clues in each station lead to buried treasure somewhere near the mountain. But of particular interest to me was the 14th station, in which men are depicted carrying the body of Christ into his tomb (one can see this imagery in every Catholic church in the world), however, something is different at Rennes-le-Chateau. In station 14, Mary Magdalene can be seen crying into the arms of someone else. The moon is high in the sky and it would have been highly unlikely that this event was carried out in the evening. Are the men carrying Jesus’ body into the tomb… or out of it?
I smell a conspiracy here. Turning immediately to my left, I find myself face to face with the craziest altar I’ve ever seen. It is topped by a dome of blue with sparkling stars. On either side, you will see statues of Joseph and Mary, yet each carry a baby Jesus. Why two? Were there two babies perhaps? Did Jesus have a brother? Was he a twin? The name Thomas means ‘twin‘. Maybe every mention of Thomas in the Bible is of Jesus’ twin brother… Who knows?
The most striking though is the bas relief on the altar itself. It portrays Mary Magdalene praying in front of a cross, a skull sits are her feet, an open book next to her, and her fingers crossed at an odd angle. Additionally, she is staring up at a cross formed by two branches tied together (another twin reference… which one lived, which died?). Sauniere seems to be suggesting what Dan Brown learned of and ran with. Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children (or perhaps if you stretch it even further, Jesus’ twin brother and Mary Magdalene were married and had children), and those children survived to carry his bloodline into the south of France.
Remember, this information is merely the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to learn about. I can’t tell you how much I have read on these subjects, but I’ll hesitate to weigh in as I only wanted to share the imagery in this magnificent and unique church with you. Think about the possibilities and make your own conclusions. At the very least, if you’re interested, pick up a copy of Holy Blood Holy Grail. I enjoyed reading it far more than the Da Vinci Code.
Hasta la Proxima…