L'abbe Sauniere seems to have based some of his artworks, the altar bas-relief, the fleury Tableau and his angels, from ideas taken from other artists and then changed them slightly to match the vision he had for his church or perhaps even change some of the details to hide his clues within their details. The altar bas-relief seems to have been influenced by Johann Gerbhard Flatz's painting.
Copper engraving by Carl Ernst Forberg of Johann Gerbhard Flatz's Painting - Maria Magdalena
(Engraving of the painting had been flipped horizontal, so I flipped it back. See original engraving here)
The Johann Gerbhard Flatz's Painting, Maria Magdalena, seemed to have been popular at the time and no doubt copied by many. Just because Sauniere based his altar Magdalene on a painting, it does not been it doesn't hold any interest or hidden details.
The painting of Mary Magdalene in a cave or grotto on the Altar bas-relief is the only artwork Sauniere is said to have personally worked on himself, and so presumably of more importance to the priest than the other decorations. If it was important to him, than it should be important to those attempting to solve the clues he may have hidden in his church decorations. Of course, 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, that might be clues, in this artwork.
A new altar costing 700 Francs was apparently donated by a wealthy benefactress of monarchist persuasion, Mme Marie Cavailhé, in July 1887. This new altar would replace the old stone altar with the two stone pillars. It is said the top of the altar that rested on the old stone slab, was moved to his Villa Bethania conservatory to be used as a private chapel, but this is unlikely as the conservatory would not be built until many years later. Also, anything constructed from wood originally in the church when Sauniere arrived in 1885, had suffered from damp, neglect and age, so we can assume the wooden altar top had suffered as well. The altar in the conservatory was probably a new construction built when Sauniere started to use the conservatory as a chapel when he was forbidden to preach in the church.
l'Abbé Saunière's garden showing the original layout and the villa Bethania
As can be seen by the above photograph taken around 1907, Sauniere's original plan seemed not to be a conservatory but an arched wrought iron arbour, which the priest probably planned to grow plants or vines over to offer some shade from the hot sun during the summer. It is not known when the conservatory was constructed but it must have been constructed before 1909 as it was then that the rift between the Bishop de Beausejour, who is demanding Saunière reveals how he could afford to build his domain and live in the style as he had been, escalates and before long Saunière is replaced by a new priest, the Abbé Marty on the 22nd January, 1909. This is when he starts using the conservatory as a chapel for the villagers. ()
Old Photograph of Sauniere's Mary Magdalene Altar Bas-relief
JESU MEDELA VULNERUM SPES UNA POENITENTIUM PER MAGDALENAE LACRYMAS PECCATA NOSTRA DILUAS.
The Latin is not correct but it reads:
Jesus, you remedy against our pains and only hope for our repentance, it is thanks to Magdalene's tears that you wash our sins away.
Some say this inscription Sauniere placed on his altar is blasmthy, as only Jesus can wash away our sins.
The inscription, as with many things related to Sauniere and Rennes-le-Chateau, disappeared. it has recently been replaced with a new copy of the inscription.
L'abbe Sauniere's Mary Magdalene Altar Bas-relief 2006
The view out from the grotto Mary Magdalene resides in, reveals a mountain and what looks like a J & M, that may be ruins of a building.
Old and new photograph of the ruins seen through the grotto entrance
As you can see from the above comparison between the old and new photographs, the 'ruins' detail appear to be different. However, the bad quality of the old photograph, taken from a newspaper, may be responsible for the differences.
Close-up detailed image of the Mary Magdalene Altar grotto 'ruins'.
The above detailed photograph reveals a few details not normally seen as it is nor possible to get close to the altar. There seems to be a doorway at the base of the J detail.
Interesting Door Detail
There seems to be a cross on the door. Perhaps it is a tomb? It also might be one of the many shepherds huts in the area, or one of the capitelles located behind Coustaussa, known locally as the 'Grand Camp'. Is it a clue?
There is also a detail in the top middle peak of the M.
M Peak Detail. Strange but interesting
I have no idea what this detail is, so if anyone has any ideas, please email me and I will post any relevant thoughts here.
To the left of the J ruin, there seems to be another building that has been painted over - you can easily see the thick brush marks. Maybe these buildings were covered up to hide them as they were too 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 heavily applied paint. But if this detail made the view so recognisable, what is it and where is the view?
In fact the view is not hard to find and everyone who travels up the long winding road to Rennes-le-chateau, has the chance to gaze upon it and thousands already must have.
Old Photograph of the view of Coustaussa Chateau ruins and Pech Cardou
Landscape seen out through the grotto entrance with ruins highlighted
Modern view of the ruins of Coustaussa Chateau and Pech Cardou
The above two images overlaid for a more-or-less perfect match
Close-up of Coustaussa Chateau ruins and the hidden 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 of Coustaussa Chateau? Is it a clue?
Speculation and Personal Opinion
J and M
If the 'J' and 'M' are not ruins but initials, or perhaps both, 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 on a distant hill?
Does a Station of the Cross appear in Sauniere's Altar?
To the right of Mary Magdalene, level with her shoulder, what may be the detail of a Station of the Cross can be seen.
Station of the Cross detail
What seems to be the bottom and curved outline of Sauniere's Station of the Cross frame can be seen in the above image Beside this are some indistinct shapes, that after a glance through my photographs, I found a possible match with the 14th Stations of the Cross from Sauniere's Mary Magdalene church.
Station of the Cross 14 from Sauniere's church
Station 14 details comparison - head of red cloaked man has been turned slightly for a better match.
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 the 14th Station of the Cross here. Maybe it is a hint his body lies hidden in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Chateau and this perhaps is a clue to locate it. I do not know the answer so you will have to make up your own minds.
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.
Close-up of a possible shrouded object or body - Highlighted
Again, maybe I am just seeing things, but there does seem to be something unusual here. Maybe, it is another hint that a body, or cave containing objects, lies hidden in the vicinity of Rennes-le-Chateau and this perhaps is a clue to locate it. You will have to make up your own minds and check out these details for yourselves, but they are there. Maybe next time you are in Rennes-le-Chateau you will see them for yourselves.
Again it is easy to speculate with everything discovered in this mystery and to turn the details to match one's personal theory. However, with the amount of possible 'hidden' details contained in this Altar bas-relief, it does seem that Saunière might have been 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. Perhaps when this is done we may notice other details Saunière may have seen fit to include and maybe also why.
The church decorations have been dusted and cleaned in 2012, but unfortunately, but with good intent, many have also been repainted, perhaps hiding or changing some of Sauniere's original details. Luckily I have hundreds of photographs of all the decorations, many are included in my Illustrated Guide to Rennes-le-Chateau No1 for those who want to see Sauniere's original details.
External Related Research Articles
Rennes-le-Chateau - Famous for the mysterious antics of its former priest Berenger Sauniere. It is said that when Sauniere redecorated his church he embedded clues to the secret he discovered during the renovations of the Rennes-le-Chateau church dedicated to Mary Magdalene.