Sunday, July 29, 2012

St. Mary Magdalene and Rennes-le-Chateau

St. Mary Magdalene in the village church of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Last Sunday was the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. A little over three years ago, I found myself in the southwest of France for the marriage of two friends. In the days leading up to the wedding, four of us made a day trip to Rennes-le-Chateau, the Roswell of France, which, in recent years, has become linked the revived interest in the Magdalene. St. Mary Magdalene is patroness of the village church and its supposedly curious interior has been fodder for innumerable conspiracy theories following the publication of books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and, later, The Da Vinci Code.

I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the eighth grade and was taken by the idea of Templars and Cathars and hidden secrets. (Yes, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons every weekend then too.) I wanted to see this mysterious town with its ancient church and surrounding ruins.

The main door of the tiny Romanesque church.

After 25 years, I at last found myself climbing up the hill from the car park with two retired academics, a medical anthropologist, and a digital camera ready to be wowed. What I found was a charming little village so small that it might better be called a bled, a few crystal shops, and a tiny church crammed with objects of blasphemously poor taste ordered up from 19th Century church supply catalogues by a rogue priest who thought of himself as an artistic soul.

Much has been made of the secret of the Magdalene, but conspiracy writers have singularly failed to enlist the locals in the conspiracy. As anyone who has been to the South of France knows, you can’t swing a cat without hitting something named for the Magdalene. She’s about as occult, in the original sense of the word, as is St. George in England or St. Patrick in Ireland. It’s hard to find a church of any size without an altar to this supposedly suppressed intimate of Christ, whose mysteriousness those pesky Orthodox spoil when they continue to trumpet her as “The Equal of the Apostles.”

Likewise, Fr. Sauniere, the infamous parish priest who rebuilt the church, is made out to be a shadowy figure who found a treasure or secret documents that made him wealthy. In fact, he funded his various building projects Bernie Madoff style by selling thousands of Masses—thousands more of them than he could ever possibly say. For this he was put on trial by the Bishop of Carcasonne and died a poor man. For all of that, he seems to have been a rather charming rogue, if a bit delusional, as the fanciful village history he wrote below shows:
Rennes Ie Chateau owes its origins to the fortified city of Rhedae, which was founded in the 5th century by the Visigoths. The city lay on the plateau extending towards the southeast at the foot of the present village and numbered some 30,000 inhabitants. The capital of the vast district of Rhedae, it was destroyed in 1170 by the King of Aragon's army.

In the 14th century Pierre II des Voisins, seneschal of Carcassonne, restored the fortifications and the town grew prosperous once more. It was seized anew by the Spanish, however, who left only the ancient church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, the castle of the lords of Rennes and a few dwellings standing.

1362 thus marked the end of the city of Rhedae, which subsequently became the small settlement of Rennes Ie Chateau.

Following these disasters, the modest village seems for a long time to have been forgotten by the rest of the world.

In recent years, however, the old feudal castle, still standing, has seen the activity of the past resume around it. The church, which was falling into ruin, has been completely restored and magnificently decorated.

The grounds around the church, formerly full of rubble, now feature a splendid Calvary, half hidden amongst flowers and shrubs. The Villa Bethany, a superb residence in the most sophisticated style with a large garden in front and surmounted by a fine statue of the Saviour, His arms open wide, has Just been completed. The old ramparts have been replaced by a broad walkway running along the crest of the mountain. An elegant veranda acts las bartizan. At the other end, the Magdala Tower, a crenellted marvel of civil and military architecture, serves as a library.

These works of art have taken the place of the murderous architecture of the past. The turrets and crenellations now serve for contemplating, close to heaven, the magnificent panorama stretching away on every side as far as the eye can see.

And the hordes of warriors have been replaced by peaceful hordes. They come up here to admire, within this incomparable setting, the marvels of art wrought by a priest with an artist's soul, one who loves his church and his parishioners.

Bernard Sauniere

Fr. Sauniere restored the village’s delapidated church and, sadly, filled it with brightly colored plaster statues typical of l’art St. Sulpice. It is easy to see why many visitors believe that there is something unique here. And something unique there is, for of all of the churches I have tromped through in France, never have I seen one entirely kitted out with catalog goods of this period.

Holy water stoup. It's certainly colorful.

The 14th Station of the Cross, which some believe shows Jesus being carried out of the
tomb rather than being placed in it. I wonder what the catalogue description said?

Many churches have a piece or two of this sort, but Fr. Sauniere was able to redecorate his entire church from the catalogues of low-end Parisian suppliers. As many other people have written, there is nothing to be seen here except stock merchandise and inscriptions with the sorts of mason’s errors that you can find in numerous buildings in the surrounding area. This sort of decoration isn't so unusual in American parishes of the same period, but the starkness of the 11th Century church makes Fr. Sauniere's additions stand out.

The unspoilt Chateau of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Whatever did or didn't happen here, Rennes-le-Chateau is well worth a visit. The chateau, the church, and the village are an excellent example of a fortified hill town and the views into the valley below are spectacular. Fr. Sauniere’s additions such as the Tour Magdala, which housed his library, may not be historically accurate, but are only a bit more fanciful than some of Villoet-le-Duc’s restoration work at nearby Carcasonne.

The Tour Magdala, built by Fr. Sauniere to house his library.
It's about 10 feet square and not much higher.

If you find yourself in the neighborhood, make a detour and take a look at the nearby towns of St. Anselm and St. Polycarp as well. You might also hop over to the Abbey of St. Hilary, where the first sparkling wine was made, a secret whose discovery is worthy of the Magdalene.

Finally, let me say that the lack of verifiable history does not take away the fact that in the last two generations, seekers have created something special here.  Rennes-le-Chateau has become a place of pilgrimage for those hungry for mystery.  Secret messianic bloodlines and apparitions of Cathar bishops all bear witness to the growing hunger for the spiritual and mystical in our world today.  I may not always agree theologically and historically with my more gnostically-oriented friends, but we share a view of a world touched with mystery and wonder that makes us far more closely related in spirit than I am to many of my post-Christian Christian friends, who may belong to bodies with impeccable theological and historical credentials.  If Dan Brown, despite himself, leads people to an interest in Mary Magdalene and from there to pondering the mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith, well, God has used cruder instruments.

There are many more photos on Flickr.

The Wikipedia article on the village gives a fairly good summary of the village's history and the growth of the myths surrounding it.