View shows position of the Altar pillar in the church garden in relation to Sauniere's Mary Magdalene Church
Beginning of a Myth - Parchment Discovery
The original Mary Magdalene altar support pillar seems to be, if the story is true, where everything began to change for Bérenger Saunière. Supposedly, he discovered one or more parchments, while carrying out repairs to the ancient altar.
July 27 - 1887. Saunière employed some local workers to remove the stone altar so he could install a new one to fit in with the look he wanted to achieve in the church. It is not clear what happened next as the facts are as elusive as the fabled Holy Grail. It is said that in one of these pillars he found tubes of wood sealed with wax. The workers handed these tubes to the priest Saunière, and inside he found some parchments.
Another hypothesis is that while the church renovations were being carried out a glass vial was found by Antoine Captier the bell ringer. It had fallen out of a secret compartment in the wooden baluster, part of the pulpit that had been removed. The vial was handed to Saunière who discovered a small parchment inside. Baluster Research Article
There are some discrepancies in where, when and what Saunière found and I have covered this in more depth here: Rennes-le-Chateau Timeline - See dates 1886 - 1887 and 1891
Saunière standing next to the Altar Pillar he had placed upside down in the church garden. A statue of 'our Lady of Lourdes' or Mother Mary, stands on top. This photograph shows how it looked during Saunière's era but it has changed now, suffering from wind, rain and hippies who stuck mirrors on it.
Sauniere's old Altar Pillar and the New Altar Pillar copy
The pillar top or cap stone dose not seem to be part of the original altar pillar and is something Sauniere probably had carved to adorn the top for a base to place the statue on.
It is not easy to see on the old pillar but the inscription reads PENITENCE! PENITENSE! It is unknown why the word Penitense was written or its meaning.
It is not easy to see on the old pillar but the inscription reads PENITENCE! PENITENSE!
Old Inscription Close-up showing the 'S' of Penitense
New Modern Inscription Close-up showing the 'S' of Penitense has now been changed to a 'C'
Note the deference between the two 'C's and the P to N of the first Penitence has been re-inscribed as it had become worn from the harsh weather experienced in the area at times.
It is possible the 'S' could just be a trick of the light as PENITENSE does not seem to be a word and seems unlikely to be a spelling mistake. If it is not and Sauniere's purpose was to spell Penitence with an 'S', then why? Is there an anagram hidden in the inscriptions on the altar and he needed an 'S' to use? if so I have not been able to find it.
The altar pillar was moved to the Sauniere museum in 1993 and was replaced by a replica provided by the Association Terre de Rhedae, and that version itself was to be later replaced by another replica, done by sculptor Alain Feral in 2000.
Local Villagers begin moving the Original Altar Pillar into the Sauniere Museum in 1993
Photograph showing the cavity in the top of the original Altar Pillar
Various Images of the Dismantled Original Altar Pillar that Sauniere removed from his Church
Original Altar Pillar
The original Altar pillar shown here is now on display in the Saunière Museum at Rennes-le-Chateau.
If you look at the images of the pillar on this page you will see that there appears to be no possible hiding place for the 2 or 5 parchments -reports vary on the number discovered - or any wooden tubes. The square shaped recess seen in the top, was once thought to have been the hiding place. This hole though may have been a recess for the stone lug that would have protruded from the underside of the altar top, or for the cement to hold the top securely in place. It may have also been utilised to hold a small religious artefact, a fragment of a bone from a saint, or a church dedication. I am not convinced that this square hole ever concealed anything of importance to the mystery. The Altar top, which seems to have been a substantial piece of stone, and thus very heavy, must have been almost impossible for Bigou to have raised up on his own, and then place something underneath. Of course he may have had help from a fellow priest or one or more of his parishioners. Also it is believed that the design of the altar consisted of one side of the top cemented into the wall, the rest of its weight supported by two stone pillars, making it almost impossible to lift up and slide something into the small space. Only the whereabouts of one pillar is known today, the other destroyed or lost.
So, if no parchment was ever discovered in the altar why does this rumour persist? Some have suggested, due to its similarity to a known Visigoth pillar design, that it dates from Visigothic times by the carvings that cover its sides. Saunière, for reasons only known to him, had some of the details removed, smoothing the stone to add some inscriptions of his own. PENITENCE! PENITENSE! was carved on the top edge and 'MISSION 1891' along the bottom.
PENITENCE! PENITENSE! seems to commemorate the 8th apparition of the Virgin Mary by Bernadette, at nearby Lourdes, but this is spelt different, also there are three: PENANCE! PENANCE! PENANCE! This believes me to think that maybe Saunière's inscription has another meaning.
Mission 1891 from Sauniere's Altar Pillar
The date '1891' is also significant in this mystery. It on this date Saunière wrote in his diary, "FOUND A TOMB". It was also the year his relationship with his housekeeper Marie Dénarnaud began. They are rumoured to have become lovers in the following years. Marie would remain faithful to Sauniere her entire life, never seeming to reveal any of the secrets he confided in her.
The 1891 Saunière had carved on the pillar is not quite right, we know the pillar is upside down so if we turn it the right way up it reads 1681 - or does it?
The 8 is not an 8 but two separate circles – it is written, perhaps, like a bible passage number, and if we look at Mathew or Mark – because of the M of mission above it – both verse’s 16:1+ may indicate Saunière has included details in this pillar that maybe clues.
Mark 16:1 - 8 is about the resurrection and Mary Magdalene finding Jesus' empty tomb.
Mark 16:1-8 (King James Version)1And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
3And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
4And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
7But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
And Matthew 16:1 is about the Pharisees and Sadducees demanding Jesus show them a sign.
Matthew 16:1 (King James Version)
1The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
2He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
3And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
4A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.
So is Sauniere indicating we have to look for a 'sign' to reveal something about the resurrection?
The altar pillar has a cross carved on it, perhaps this is a clue to the sign to be used.
Is it the sign of the cross made by Sauniere's angels?
Saunière most have guessed the historic importance of this carved stone, yet he still defaces part of it. He then places it upside down in the Mary Magdalene church garden to suffer at the mercy of the wind and rain. He also placed a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. Did the carvings, if any, he had removed, contain information that started the priest on his mysterious road to riches? Though it would be a few years before his spending spree begins, it all leads back to this specific moment. Maybe the carving/s he may have had removed were not originally part of the Visigoth design but added at a later date by a previous priest of the village. Bigou perhaps? This would have been easier to carry out by himself than to try and lift up the top. The carvings could have been on the side facing the wall and so away from prying eyes. if this is so then this information could then have led Saunière to lift the large flagstone in front of the altar revealing the carved stone we know today as 'THE KNIGHTS STONE' or maybe to something else. This would perhaps explain the persisting story and importance of Sauniere finding something hidden in or on this altar.