L'abbe Sauniere wrote an entry in his diary on September 21st 1891, that has fired the imagination with some Rennes-le-Château researchers, including myself, that these words were evidence Sauniere had discovered a tomb, and he seems he did!
Tombeau - cénotaphe, sépulcre, tombe, stèle, caveau or grave, table-tomb.
First of all, I will briefly recount the story told to me by an old villager living in Rennes-le-Chateau.
The incident took place during one of my early trips to Rennes-le-Chateau. I had met an English couple, who lived in Esperaza, while ordering a burger in McDonalds in Limoux. I had been in Rennes-le-Chateau a few days and the food stock I had brought from England, had all but gone. Recognising me as English - it wasn't difficult, we started talking and they joined me in my camper to eat their burgers and have a cup of English tea. They invited me for a meal of roast chicken at their house the following evening. The following evening, I had a meal with them as planned and invited them to the Pomme Blues restaurant in Rennes-le-Chateau -which was still open at the time, the following night to repay the favour with a bottle of wine. Pomme Blues is now called Dragon de Rhedae.
To cut a longer story short, As my friends arrived in the Rennes-le-Chateau car park, we began talking to an old frenchman who lived in the village. I had met him a couple of times while staying overnight in my campervan near to the Tour Magdala. He had even tried a cup of english tea and ate one of my english sausages, which he enjoyed. He only spoke French so I never had any idea what he was saying. However, this time my two new friends translated for me. The old man said his family knew Marie Dénarnaud. He then began telling us stories about Sauniere and Marie and the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery. We were all keen to hear more and so invited him to join us for a glass of wine, which he readily accepted. He seemed to enjoy the company and sharing his knowledge of the priest as told to his family. His stories were both entertaining and interesting and after a few glasses of wine he mentioned a tomb Sauniere found.
I asked, via my translators, is this the tomb Sauniere mentioned in his diary in 1891?
He had nodded it was. This is his story.
After Sauniere had removed the old altar, (finding no parchments) the pieces were placed outside until Sauniere decided what to do with them, but for now he had other work to busy himself with. The altar pieces lay all but forgotten until Sauniere started planning his church garden some time later. He decided he would place a statue of the lady of Lourdes on the carved altar pillar, but first he wanted to carry out some changes and a stonemason was employed to do this. Mission 1891 would be engraved on one end. It was while the stonemason was chipping off the hard cement from its top, used to bed the heavy stone altar slab onto the pillar, that something was found. A small square piece of marble set into the top of the pillar. Sauniere was called to come and see it for himself and he was accompanied by a young Marie Dénarnaud. After the small square of marble was levered off, a small square cavity was revealed. Inside they found a small object wrapped in old parchment and sealed with wax.
The object seen in the following images were found in the altar of another old church during restorations and may look similar to what Sauniere discovered.
Object similar to what Sauniere may have been discovered in the altar cavity
Object in the Altar Cavity
Image revealing the object size as it is opened
Object Photo-shopped into Sauniere's Altar Cavity for comparison
The object unwrapped
A small metal tin was found inside containing three Messages. The two square paper packages held pieces of a Saints bone. The paper with the text is the relic's provenance with the name of the Bishop who placed it there, the name of the Saint who's bone/s are included, and the date the ceremony was carried out.
These relic containers are called a Sepulcrum. They have to be in every altar. The altar is just a table if it does not contain a sepulcrum. The cavity containing the sepulcrum is called a tomb (tombeau in French) or altar grave.
The frenchman said this is the tombeau that was discovered and that l'abbe Sauniere mentioned in his diary on September 21st 1891.
Another example of a Sepulcrum in an altar cavity
These relics were found in a cavity in the base of the altar
Here is another example of a Sepulcrum containing Saints relics found in an altar
I had already done some research into the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, and I noticed something wrong with the story. The old altar pillar was finished and erected in the garden by 21st June 1891, but the diary entry was written 3 months after this event on 21st September 1891.
Official report of the Installation and Blessing, in the church square, of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes 21 June 1891
Official Report of the Installation and Blessing, in the church square, of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (21 June 1891)
In the year one thousand eight hundred and ninety-one, on the twenty-first day of June, on the feast day of St. Louis de Gonzague. To commemorate the First Communion of 24 children of the parish and to bring to a close the spiritual exercises of the retreat that had been preached by the Reverend Father Ferrafiat, diocesan missionary, of the Family of St. Vincent de Paul, residing at Notre Dame de Marceille, the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, after being carried through the principal streets of the parish by 4 men on a magnificent litter accompanied in procession by the entire parish and an enormous crowd that had gathered from miles around, was duly installed and blessed right there in the square, thanks to the same missionary zeal that eight days before had evangelized the inhabitants of Rennes-le-Château. This beautiful family occasion ended with an enthusiastic address by the Venerable Father, with three cheers in honour of the Virgin Mary, and with the blessing of the Holy Sacrament. At the end of this ceremony all the children of the First Communion, led by the Curé of the parish and accompanied by our dear diocesan missionary, entered the garden of the Virgin and there, beneath the Virgin Mary's gaze, at the feet of the Holy Mother, as witness of their various promises and oaths, they allowed the Photographer to record, along with their beautiful costumes, their faces in which are reflected such innocence and happiness.
Present at this solemn occasion were: the curés of Couiza and Espéraza, Monsieur l’abbé Fournès.
B. Saunière, priest, Curé of the Parish of Rennes-le-Château.
Names of the people who had the happiness and honour to carry the statue: Messieurs Antoine Captier; Zacharie Peihou [?]; Jean Maury; Feuillet
Done at Rennes-le-Château on the day, month and year stated above,
B. Saunière, priest.
Rennes-le-Chateau Mission 1891
I asked the old man why Sauniere had only mentioned this discovery of the tombeau in September, when he must have found it some time before this date. The old man had smiled and said, 'it is all part of the mystery. I know only what I was told but it is the truth, the tombeau Sauniere found was the bones of a saint in that old altar stone.'
From him saying."...it was all part of the mystery...", I assumed he had no idea why Sauniere wrote about the tombeau in September.
The old man seemed genuine enough and had no reason to lie. The story has no embellishments with the body of Mary Magdalene or Jesus. No connection with the Priory of Sion or any other secret organisations or cults, and no mention of any treasure. The altar must have contained saintly relics for Sauniere to have carried out the Eucharist upon it. As mentioned previously, without the saint's relic/s, the altar is just a table. But why did Sauniere only mention finding the tombeau in September 1891? He doesn't actually say he found the tombeau on that day, but we can only assume he did because he mentioned it on that date. Perhaps if it was discovered shortly before the Mission celebration, he was too busy organising everything and put it to one side to open later and it was not until September he remembered about it. Though I find this doubtful, unless, as he must have done, knew what the package contained and as his new altar was already finished, and presumably included a relic, held no importance to it at that time. We must also remember that from May 4th 1890, Bérenger Saunière is given a second parish to look after in the nearby village of Antugnac. The village of Antugnac is five kilometres from Rennes-le-Chateau, and every Sunday Saunière had no choice but to walk there to celebrate mass. Sauniere had to continue doing this until Abbé Gaudissard is appointed parish priest at Antugnac from 1st June 1891.
If anyone has any ideas for the delay, please let me know.
After posting this article, Jacek suggested perhaps the 'tombeau' was in the second pillar. This would be the plain one and not the carved pillar Sauniere placed in his garden. This would make sense if true and would explain the delay in making the diary entry. Sauniere might have planned to use the plain pillar for something and while it was being cleaned, found the relics in a cavity similar to the one in the carved pillar. Perhaps he then gave it to Boudet who placed it by the entrance to the Rennes-le-Bains cemetery, if that pillar is the same one.
It does seem that the altar pillar, first mentioned when he had the altar dismantled, is not heard of again until 1891 when it was placed upside down in the garden to place the Statue of the Lady of Lourdes on top. The 2nd plain pillar was never mentioned again.
If the story is true, in some ways I wish I had never heard the story, as I always imagined the tombeau Sauniere mentioned in his diary would be of someone special. A tomb with treasure also inside perhaps. This story proves the truth, if that is what it is, can sometimes be a lot less exciting than imagination makes it out to be.
Tombeau usually means an above ground tomb which exactly matches that of a saint's grave in the altar pillar. A Tombe would be a below ground grave.
Sepulcrum which, in Latin, "tomb", "crypt", term for a "grave relics". The cavity has to adhere (approximately) to the sizes of approximately 15 x 10 cm cavity (no larger) for receiving a relic. For example it could be 12 x 12, 11 x 14, etc. (some website's have this slightly bigger or slightly smaller. The cavity in Sauniere's ancient altar pillar exactly adheres to these measurement guidelines at approximately 11.7 x 11.9 cm.
I leave it up to you to decide on the truth of the old man's story.
I did try to make contact with him again a few years ago, but he is no longer in the village. Another villager said he became ill and went to live with his family and they had no idea if he was still alive or not.
Interestingly, this story does fit in with the story that Sauniere discovered 3 to 5 parchments in the altar pillar when he had it dismantled, although at a much later date.
Usually the saints bone/s are located in a container "buried" in the consecration of the altar with incense in the three grains in the Sepulcrum and closed with a panel called the Sigil. The custom of relics kept under the altar can be traced to the 5th century and becomes more common in the High Middle Ages until it became requisite by the Catholic church. The contain is usually some type of metal, sometimes of the precious variety, and occasionally wood or glass.
Deposition of the relics in the altar and the sealing of the grave with cement
"The bodies of the saints rest in peace, their name will live forever."
I have no idea whose bones were in the Rennes-le-Chateau ancient altar, or if they were eventually transferred to the new altar, or whose relics were placed in the new altar. Usually it is a piece of bone from the saint the church is dedicated to, and that would be Mary Magdalene. However, the church was re-dedicated to Mary Magdalene after the 14th century, previously being dedicated to Saint Marie. Originally it was never the main church of the village but a private chapel of the chateau, the main village church being St Pierre aux Liens or Saint Peters, until it became a ruin in 1380 when the village was attacked. Thus the name of the saint is unknown but presumably if Sauniere found the old Sepulcrum, then he must have known.
787AD, at the 2nd Council at Nicaea, a relic for each altar was mandatory. Since there was a lack of relics at this time, it was not always feasible and the Eucharist, (Holy Communion) was used as an alternative in some situations. A Sepulcrum can also be called a Holy Grave . In addition, the vessel or cavity in which the bones and human remains of saints and martyrs are embedded in an altar, as Sepulcrum designated.
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