I have had a few emails lately asking about the chapel and altar in l'Abbe Saunière's Villa Bethania conservatory, which has prompted me to finish off this article.
1901 - Construction of the Villa Bethania begins
The architect for this grand building scheme would once again be the architect Tiburce Caminade. He would also sometimes act as intermediary between saunière and suppliers. Between 1901 and 1904 Caminade would receive a total sum of 2800 francs, paid in 14 installments.
Elie Bot would be the building contractor, he employed 17 workers and all of them were fed by Saunière. The stones were quarried in St Sauveur and had to be transported back to the village using carts and donkeys.
The construction of the Villa Bethania continues and would finally be completed in 1905. It is the grandest building in the village. Saunière said he wanted the villa Bethania to become a retirement house for the priests of the diocese after his death, but as we know this never happened.
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 in 1909, 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.
With Saunière occupying the presbytery the abbé Marty has to seek accommodation in a nearby village. When he arrived at the church, after the long walk up the hill, he finds it empty. The villagers, having shunned the new priest, instead were in the temporary chapel Saunière had set up in the conservatory of the Villa Bethania. It was here Saunière would say mass to the villages leaving the Abbé Marty with an empty church. I cannot imagine it took him long to realise that the long walk up the hill each Sunday was a complete waste of time and stopped coming.
Perhaps Sauniere had already constructed the conservatory, maybe as a private chapel for himself or one he had installed ready for the priests whom he said would occupy the villa after his death.
Although overgrown by the time this photograph was taken, the glass roof of the Conservatory can be seen
The Altar in the Conservatory
The statue of Mary Magdalene seen here was originally placed in the Sauniere's church garden grotto. It is this statue, according to a villager, he then moves some years later into the Villa Bethania conservatory to utilize it as part of his temporary altar when he is stopped from holding services in the church. After Saunière's death, like so many of his personal belongings and nick-knacks, it has disappeared.
It has been said that Saunière re-used some of the old altar to construct this one, but it is clear to see that this is of a more recent design than would have been removed from the ancient church. The stone top of the altar was never used here as can be seen in the image above. The altar top here is wooden and not a stone slab.
A likely location for the old altar top is the inscribed stone slab in front of the Altar pillar in the church garden.
As you can see in the above photograph, the conservatory frame has suffered from the harsh wet weather and many panes of glass are missing. Much of this glass, along with the glass from the orangey was tipped over the edge of the hill by the car park and can still be found there.
The cross now resides in the Villa Bethania dining room.
Conservatory Cross now hanging in the Villa Bethania Dining Room at Rennes-le-Chateau
Close-up view of the face of Jesus on the cross
The Mary Magdalene statue is very similar to the image of her on Saunière's church altar, which is no doubt the reason he removed it from the grotto.
Saunière's Altar Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene statue from the conservatory altar
The Mary Magdalene Statue from the Conservatory and the Baluster where it is believed Sauniere found a parchment that led him to his wealth.
Conservatory Statue - Probably the Virgin Mary
This statue was stored in the room beneath the Tour Magdala. It is very degraded. I do have some photographs but I can't find them at the moment and will post them when I do.
As you can see by the above photograph, Saunière's domain had fallen into disrepair. None of the original glass remains in the conservatory. There is no altar or statues so perhaps they have been moved to avoid them becoming damaged. Perhaps they had already suffered from the rain, the statue of the Virgin Mary that used to be in the conservatory and later stored under the Tour Magdala, certainly had, so perhaps the altar in the conservatory today is a modern one, placed there after the renovation.
Old and modern view of the Altar
Old and Modern Altar Comparison
As can be seen from the above comparison, the designs below the small doors are different. The old design has 4 swirls and the new only 3. This may be evidence the the altar, or part of it, is new, or perhaps just painted differently, though all of the other designs seem to be the same.
View from modern conservatory towards the water cisterns & Conservatory with modern glass
Sauniere's Church Details (A4)
Rennes-le-Chateau Guide No2 - includes then and now photographs (A4)
Publications of Saunière's Church and Domain circa 1007
33 Postcards of l’Abbé Saunière Album (Digital Download)