On one of my frequent visits to the excellent RenneSSence news feed website, I clicked on the link to the Rennes-le-Château Archive website where it revealed some close-up images of hidden details in the altar bas-relief from Sauniere's church.
Original French article HERE or visit and follow the link there. I recommend you visit the RenneSSence news feed often as the news is updated regularly if not daily.
Though in French the images were excellent and I dug out my photographs of the altar to have a look for myself and to see if I could add anything to the original article by Jean Brunelin, my findings are below.
The painting of Mary Magdalene in a cave or grotto on the Altar bas-relief is the only artwork Sauniere is said to have worked on himself and so presumably of more importance to the priest than the other decorations. The reason may have been nothing more than wanting to take a hand in the church decorations himself, but a closer look at the painting seems to hint that Sauniere may have hidden certain details in this artwork.
Mary Magdalene church Altar painting
In the top left-hand corner in the rocks forming the grotto entrance the shape of a book can be made out.
Book detail in the rocks
Station of the Cross
To the right of mary magdalene level with her shoulder the detail of a Station of the Cross can be seen.
Station of the Cross detail
The bottom and curved outline of the Station frame can be seen in this image
Looking through the Stations of the Cross from Sauniere's church, the best match for this detail is station 14.
Station of the Cross 14 from Sauniere's church
Station 14 details comparison - head of red cloaked man has been turned slightly.
It is either crudely or craftily done to just hint that something might be there, and maybe I am just seeing things, but there does seem to be an attempt by Sauniere to hide an image of Station 14 here.
(right) The Key detail - (right) Bottle key added below altar key detail for comparison
Due to the dust covering the bas-relief and the small detail of the key it is hard to see but its shape can be made out in the highlighted square in the centre of the image. If it is a key here it seems to match the shape of the key found in the third bottle but perhaps a closer image of this key detail is need to be sure.
Shroud covered object
A Shroud covered object in a cave, grotto or tomb perhaps
The sharp lines and angles on this object have obviously been carried out with care and on purpose to define something. Though we can only see one end of the object, to me it looks like an oblong shape covered by a cloth draping down off one end. It is unclear but there seems to be the beginning of a shape in the cloth on top about an inch in from the end edge. The brown object to the right of the shrouded object could be a wooden chest and there seems to be something resting on top but it is too indistinct to make out.
Alternatively the brown object could be the head of a body lying down. If you look close you can just make out a closed eye, maybe a nose and some hair. perhaps this is the face of the body hidden under the shroud. There seems to be a small round object behind the head too small to see what it is.
The coin detail and a closer look with the coin's detail highlighted
There certainly seems to be a circular object here. The details are not easy to make out but it could be a coin or a seal and looks like a female holding a cup, either tipping something out or catching something from the head figure with small lines radiating out from it. (highlighted)
Above this coin like detail there is something that looks like a bird with a wing outstretched or maybe a hand, again it is hard to make out exactly what it is.
A close-up view of the 'ruins' seen out through the grotto entrance
The two main objects seem to be a 'J' and 'M' with a rock or ruin between them and another smaller ruin to the right of the 'M'. On the left, not so clear, there seems to be some more buildings that have been painted over, you can easily see the thick brush marks. Maybe these buildings were covered up as they were two obvious, too easily recognisable. If you follow the line of the ground from the bottom of the 'J' you can see it showing through the paint applied later. There seems to be a cross on the small building opposite the leg of the 'J'.
Ignoring the 'J' and 'M' for a moment I will try and put a name to the mountain and the ruins to the right of the 'J'.
Landscape seen out through the grotto entrance with ruins highlighted
Ruins of Coustaussa Chateau and Pech Cardou
The above two images overlaid
As you can see from the above image the position of the mountain and the ruins from the Altar painting are a very good match for the ruins of Coustaussa Chateau and Pech Cardou in the landscape.
Close-up of the altar and Coustaussa Chateau ruins
Because of the over painting it is difficult to see the depicted ruins clearly to decide if they are a good match for the Coustaussa chateau ruins, but it would explain why Sauniere had second thoughts, deciding to paint over the easily recognisable shape of the Coustaussa ruins. But why, what would it matter if we could recognise these ruins as those in Coustaussa?
J and M
If the 'J' and 'M' are not ruins but initials they could be those of Jesus and Mary. This would agree with the persistent rumour that the body of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are buried in the area. Could Sauniere be giving us a location here, Mount Cardou perhaps, or with the position of the 'J' and 'M' when matched with the landscape, maybe somewhere further down the valley.
Again it is easy to speculate with everything discovered in this mystery and to turn the details to much one's personal theory, but with the amount of possible 'hidden' details contained in this Altar bas-relief it does seem that Saunière was up to something here. Like the Fleury tableau and the rest of the church decorations, the Altar painting needs a good clean to reveal all of its details, maybe only when this is done we will finally see what details Saunière has hidden here and also maybe why.
Original bas-relief article and many more interesting articles can be found on the French Rennes-le-Château Archive website.