Bérenger Saunière was the Curé of Rennes-le-Château
in the late nineteenth century. He had been born locally in Montazels
in the Aude. His life as Curé (priest) at Rennes-le-Château
should have been unremarkable. As it turned out his inexplacable
wealth has given rise to a great deal of speculation.
Saunière became priest of Rennes-le-Château in 1885. The village
church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, was almost in ruins when he
arrived. He started restoration of the church around 1887. According
to legend, when a large stone that served as part of the altar was
moved, Saunièree found that a pillar supporting the slab was hollow.
Contained in the hollow space were four parchments. Two of them
detailed genealogies. The other two contained coded writings that
had to be deciphered by experts in Paris. One message was the following:
A Dagobert II Roi et a Sion est ce tresor et il est la mort ("To
King Dagobert II and to Sion belong this treasure, and he is dead
Again according to legend, while he was in Paris, Saunière bought
reproductions of paintings, including Nicholas Poussin's The
Shepards of Arcadia. This painting, dated 1640, shows people
standing close to a sarcophagus with the inscription: Et in Arcadia
Ego ("I too was in Arcadia"). It was claimed that
the original sarcophagus was sited near Rennes-le-Chateau. According
to those with particularly vivid imaginations, the site could be
identified by matching the mountains in the background on the painting
with the foothills of the pyrenees around Rennes-le-Château.
Work at the church continued. Another stone slab was found under
the floor. From now on, the priest began extensive secretive searches
of the surrounding area. His restoration programme continued. This
time funds seemed limitless. Saunièree bought land in the village
and comissioned a number of buildings around his parish church.
Among them were a presbytery and domain, including a private library
called "Tower of Magdala" honoring Mary Magdalene. He
filled the church with new statues and had biblical texts inscribed
around the church, including one at the entrance of the church:
Terribilis est locus iste ("This place is terrible"
According to some, Saunièree found much more than conventional
treasure. Buried in his church at Rennes-le-Chateau he found documents
confirming ancient traditions that Jesus Christ had come to live
in France. And not just Jesus, but also his wife, Mary Magdelene.
Further, the document explained that their offsping initiated a
dynasty which is known to us as the Merovingian Kings of France.
The coded message "To King Dagobert II and to Sion belongs
this treasure, and he is dead there" was interpreted to refer
to this. The "treasure," (ie the secret of Jesus's bloodline)
belonged to Dagobert II, a Merovingian king, and to the Priory
of Sion. "And he is dead there," referred to the tomb
containing the body of Jesus - none other than the sepulchre painted
by Poussin. Paticularly impressionable people point out that the
phrase "Et in Arcadia ego" is an anagram of: "I!
Tego arcana dei": "Depart! I hold the secrets of God."
According to some, Saunière, armed with this secret, and the evidence
to support it, blackmailed the Vatican to obtain untold amounts
of money. Was this where his wealth had come from? According to
others, the truth is more prosaic. Saunière did find valuable artifacts
during restorations of the church. He noted a discovery in his notebooks.
He also kept quiet about it to sell the artifacts and raise money.
He also started to excavate around the church, hoping to find more,
possibly robbing graves.
During his lifetime, rumours of Saunière's spending had aready
started spreading. The local Catholic bishop, the Bishop of Carcassonne,
investigated the matter and concluded that Saunière had made his
money from "trafficking in Masses," a common activity
among nineteenth and early-twentieth-century priests. (Indeed the
Bishop himself is known to have been guilty of trafficking in masses).
In the Roman
Catholic Church, Masses could be, and still can be, celebrated
for the benefit of a specific soul, helping it ascend from Purgatory
into Heaven. Masses can also be said for the benefit of the living.
Before Vatican II priests routinely charged a stipend for each Mass
they said. Priests advertised their willingness to celebrate a great
number of Masses for both the living and the dead. Although trafficking
in masses was clearly Simonaic it was not seriously discouraged.
On the other hand, advertising was regarded as unfair competition
and was condemned by the Church. If priests failed to celebrate
the Masses paid for, the matter was even more serious since it amounted
The bishop traced advertisements placed by Saunière in
Catholic magazines throughout France and abroad. It became apparent
that Saunière could not possibly have celebrated all the
Masses he had charged for. He was a fraudster as well as a simonist.
In 1909, the Bishop asked Saunièree to leave Rennes-le-Château.
He refused and was suspended from his church duties and privileges.
In fact he carried on much as before, living in his domain, and
serving his congregation while his official replacement preached
in an empty church. He died peniless in 1917. His assets had already
been transferred to Marie Denarnaud, his housekeeper, who now lies
in a grave adjacent to his.
The name Saunière is also used for the name of a leading
character in The
Da Vinci Code.
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