Thursday, September 30, 2010

Soaking up the beauty and mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau

A footnote to our recent French holiday.

On one of the hottest days - it was 35 degrees according to the car's thermometer (though I wasn't sure that could be accurate) - we walked up to the tiny hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. This unprepossessing, if moderately attractive village, was propelled to international stardom of a kind by the Da Vinci Code. What surprised me was that the village bore few marks of this international notoriety.

The reason for the interest of the conspiracy theorists in this little place is the extraordinary ministry of the priest Berenger Sauniere who arrived in 1885. Through his ministry he renovated the church, built a substantial villa and commissioned art to grace the grounds of these buildings.

The mystery is where the money came from to do all this. The myth makers think he found ancient cathar texts that led him to a treasure hoard or that he discovered the truth about Mary Magdalene and Jesus and was handsomely paid off by the Catholic hierarchy to keep quiet (he certainly never revealed his secret). Others suggest that his largess was the result of fraud on a significant scale.

What is undeniable is that the the building work he carried out magnificent (if occasionally bordering on folly). But his artistic taste suggests a fierce Catholic orthodoxy and not the work of a man who had discovered that Mary Magdalene pitched up in this village to preserve the bloodline of Jesus that led to the rise of the Merovingian kings.

The priest himself spoke modestly of his aims for the his work. He wanted to turn the hilltop fortified, though by the time he got there, significantly run-down town, into a place of peace, tranquility and spiritual enlightenment. 'The hordes of warriors have been replaced by peaceful warriors. They come here to admire, within this incomparable setting, the marvels of art...these works of art have taken the place of the murderous architecture of the past. The turrets and crenelations now serve for contemplating, close to heaven, the magnificent panorama strtching away on every side as far as the eye can see.'

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