Passion For Art


There has been much debate over whether the hilly landscape appearing in the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ is in fact a view towards the village of Rennes-le-Chateau. If it can be shown there is a likeness, it would go some way to proving what many have said, that Poussin visited the area and saw the tomb which he then painted. He would probably have made some sketches to work from, painting the picture in his studio at a later date. Though there is no proof Poussin ever visited the area, there is also no proof that he didn’t’t. What is well known is that Poussin spent most of his life living and painting in Paris and Rome, also there are gaps during his early years of his whereabouts. Around the time the ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia’ was painted, (circa 1640) he seems to have been on the road from Paris to Rome. It is not unconceivable to think that he could have traveled to the area of Arques on the way, saw the tomb and made a sketch which he then later referred to when he painted the Shepherds of Arcadia The Hidded Geometry In Poussins Shepherds Of Arcadia




To literate people in the 17th century the name Arcadia readily evoked the pastoral tradition, that easy going genre of poetry that had developed in parallel with epic writing since the time of the classical Greeks. The tradition stems from the supposedly carefree, open-air life enjoyed by shepherds and shepherdesses who spent all summer guarding their flocks, thus giving them plenty of time in which to play their flutes and compose poetry.

The literary sources are numerous – from the Eclogues or Bucolics of Virgil to the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro (1502) – all invoking an imaginary place, a “kingdom of Utopia”. However the phrase ET IN ARCADIA EGO can not be traced to any known classical source. The Latin words means “Even in Arcadia I exist”, where “I” is considered to refer to death.

The visual source for the painting is certainly found in its celebrated precursor by the Bolognese artist Guercino (1591-1666), painted around 1618-1620 and now in the Galleria Corsini, Rome. This was in all likelihood commissioned by the Florentine Barberini family, amongst the most important patrons of the arts in Rome, and notably cardinal Francesco Barberini who had commissioned “The Death of Germanicus”. Was it this man who informed Poussin of the work by Guercino?

Poussin in fact painted two works on the “Death in Arcadia” theme. The earlier painting from around 1630-1632 (now in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England) shows two shepherds and their charming female companion discovering with shock that a tomb bearing the disturbing message exists in their idyllic countryside. They are depicted leaning forward anxiously, confronting the fearsome discovery. As in the Guercino work, but with less prominence, on top of the tomb rests a skull – an essential attribute of Memento mori. Poussin also adds the river god, Alpheus, to the assembly. The face of the young girl gives a note of melancholy and this is an altogether more serious and solemn work than his second painting on this theme.

As with the first version, we don’t know who commissioned our subject painting (executed around 1638-1640 and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris), however it was destined to become much more famous. In 1685 it enered the collection of Louis XIV and over the next two centuries inspired artists, writers and poets alike. It was this painting which would be copied in bas-relief by Louis Deprez in the 19th century for the monument conceived by Chateaubriand in Rome at San Lorenzo in Lucina to mark Poussin’s burial place.

The Louvre painting, monumental and silent, shows a more relaxed group around the tomb who, instead of reacting dramatically, seem to be pondering the meaning of the inscription. Here Poussin does not portray the simple carefree shepherds who are supposed to inhabit Arcadia, but instead classically formed, sober and dignified figures from antiquity. Indeed the young woman, standing erect to the right of the symmetrical group and slightly in the foreground, manifests the classical ideal with smooth brow, fine nose, elegant proportions and statuesque bearing. The skull is gone, so who now pronounces ET IN ARCADIA EGO ? The historian Panofsky suggests a change in interpretation of the subject, stating: “The Louvre painting no longer represents a dramatic encounter with Death, but a contemplative meditation on the idea of mortality.” Claude Lévi-Strauss has recently suggested, rather than the inversion of the normal Latin formula, as stated by Panofsky, that it is the so static girl who represents Death or Destiny. In this sense it is she who pronounces the fateful words, suggested to us by the young shepherd on the right who turns to face her whilst pointing to the inscription.
The Priest, the Paintings and a Fabulous Treasure

The village of Rennes-le-Château in south-west France is perched, almost inaccessibly, high up on a rocky outcrop with spectacular views over the Rhazès countryside towards Carcassonne to the North and the mountains of the Pyrenees to the south. With its natural defences and abundant resources it is an ancient site with archaeological evidence proving man’s presence there for over 3000 years. The Gauls created an important commercial site there and its modern name is considered to derive from the Gallic “Reda”, a four-wheeled chariot. The Romans also colonised the area, consecrating holy baths nearby. But it was the Visigoths who turned it into the prosperous town known as “Rhedae”. In 410, having pillaged Rome and captured the massive treasure of Jerusalem which had been taken there by the Emperor Titus in the year 10, the Visigoths occupied the whole of southern Gaul and Spain where they created the most powerful kingdom in the western world, with Toulouse as its capital.

But the Visigoths were ultimately defeated by the Merovingians or Franks, led by Clovis, who set fire to Toulouse, and was then further subdued by an Arab invasion which was only stopped at Poitiers by Charles Martel. When the Franks finally drove the Arabs and Visigoths back into Spain, Charlemagne, who had become the all-powerful master of an immense empire, gave the city of Carcassonne to one of his leaders with Rhedae being a part of his lands. It was raised to the level of a Royal City by the marriage of Almaric, son of a Visigoth king, with the Frankish Princess Clothilde, and it was to become famous for its court.

From the 11th century, Rhedae began to decline, first the land being sold to the House of Barcelona, then being put to the torch by Simon de Montfort and his crusaders against the Cathar Heresy, then being subjected to pillage and terror by the “Routiers”, an armed and vicious gang of mercenaries, ultimately to suffer its final death throes in the grip of the plague. Thus the city of Rhedae disappeared for ever leaving only the small village today known as Rennes-le-Château with little houses nestling around the ruins of the castle of Pierre de Voisins and the church of Saint Magdalen.

The last Lady of the village – Marie de Négre d’Ables, Dame d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort – died in the castle of Rennes in 1781. But this was not the end for the village, rather it marked the beginning of an incredible story!
Abbé Antoine Bigou

The Lady d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort was the trustee of a great secret which had been handed down in her family for generations. Before her death, and having no sons, she decided to confide this secret, together with some important documents, to her confessor the abbé Antoine Bigou, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Château, requesting that he in turn should pass on this mysterious secret to a worthy person.
The abbé was deeply disturbed by what he had learnt, particularly since France was currently in a state of political and social unrest which was to lead ultimately to the revolution of 1789. So he decided to hide the documents in a cavity within a Visigothic pillar which served to support the altar in the church of Saint Magdalen. Then he had a large slab of stone removed and transported from the Tomb of Arques (a small funeral monument situated on the Zero Meridian, not far from Rennes), which he had placed flat atop the tomb of Marie de Négre and engraved on it several inscriptions in Latin, plus one in Greek lettering which, when transliterated into Latin, read:


At the head of this tombstone he erected another stone containing an epitaph, the numerous irregularities it contained drawing our attention to its nature as a cryptogram, the correct interpretation of which would indicate a secret place.

At the same time, inside the church was an extremely old sculptured stone which depicted a knight and child riding on the same horse (which was known as the Dalle des Chevaliers (“Knights’ Tombstone”), dating from the Carolingian era). At the time of the French Revolution, and in view of its religious connations, he considered it wise to turn this stone face down.

Soon afterwards, having been declared a rebellious priest, he found it necessary to flee to Spain where he died 18 months later, but not before passing on the secret to another exiled priest, the Abbé Cauneille, who in turn communicated it to two other priests – abbé Jean Vié, the parish priest of Rennes-les-Bains from 1840 to 1870, and abbé Emile Vayron, the parish priest of St Laurent de la Cabrerisse during the same period. The knowledge these priests possessed, however, was only that a priceless treasure lay somewhere in the Rhazèz, in the environs of Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains, in twelve hidden places – the key to which the Abbé Bigou had concealed in Marie de Négre’s epitaph – and also of the existence of some documents of great historical importance. It fell to the lot of two other priests to uncover the details of these secrets:

– Abbé Henri Boudet who succeeded Jean Vié as the parish priest of Rennes-les-Bains and who had been intentionally educated by the abbé Cayron, and

– Abbé Bérenger Saunière, who became parish priest of Rennes-le-Château in 1885.
Abbé Henri Boudet

At the age of 50, the abbé Boudet was a highly cultured, erudite, enigmatic man, an indefatigable walker and a specialist in field archeology and ancient languages. He published a strange book entitled “La vraie langue Celtique et le Cromleck de Rennes-les-Bains” (The True Celtic Language and the Stone Circle of Rennes-les-Bains). In it he reveals from the outset that the object of the decoding is “… to penetrate the secret of a local story, by the interpretation of a word composed in a foreign language”. The book was criticised from the instant of its publication as a “fantastical and indescribable work”, yet although full of humour and obvious absurdities completely at odds with the personality of its author, it concealed between its lines the location of 12 chests each of which could be opened using a special number and thus reveal the mysterious secret of Marie de Négre.

Disappointed at the way his book was received, the abbé Boudet then devized a plan to immortalize the secret in the stones of the St Magdalen church, by decorating it in such a way that it would provide the perfect illustration of his book. To carry out this project he chose the new curé Bérenger Saunière. In the meantime, throughout his ministry at Rennes-les-Bains, he went out of his way to falsify grave stones in the cemetery and the surrounding area and, whilst on his regular long country walks, deliberately changed the location of certain stone crosses and created new ones.
Abbé Bérenger Saunière

Born in 1852, he was the eldest in a poor family of 7 children from Montazels, a village situated just a few miles from Rennes-le-Château. When he was put in charge of the parish at the age of 33, he was a handsome, enthusiastic man full of energy and not a little outraged at the dilapidated state of the church and presbytery. During the parliamentary elections of October 1885, from his rocky pulpit held up by an ancient pillar, he encouraged his parishioners to vote against the republicans, a party who were against the Catholic Church. But the republicans were victorious – he was exiled to a seminary in Narbonne and his income stopped.

The following year, however, possibly thanks to the intervention of the abbé Boudet, he was reinstated. And so began the lengthy process of restoration work using donations given by monarchist sympathisers, the most intriguing of whom was a certain Mr Guillaume, apparently an envoy of the Comtesse de Chambord (a Habsbourg) who had been widowed two years previously, her husband having been a pretender to the Crown of France and last descendant of the Bourbon family. This Mr Guillaume (in reality Johann of Habsbourg, Archduke of Austro-Hungaria) gave the curé the then huge sum of 3000 francs in return for looking for and finding any documents hidden in the church, in particular those which the Abbé Bigou had considered so explosive. He was to become a constant visitor.

Restoration commenced with the removal of the old altar, one side of which was supported by two old pillars, one of which had the Visigothic “cross of silence” sculpted into it. During its handling a flagstone was broken revealing a hiding place inside of which was concealed a container filled with pieces of gold and a treasure, apparently that of the local nobles, entrusted to their curé Antoine Bigou before they escaped abroad following the execution of Louis XVI and the fall of the monarchy.

After this discovery, the work was postponed, particularly since the workmen on the site said that they had seen the priest removing a wooden tube with wax seals on it from inside the “capsa” (the usual place for concealing saintly relics). It is believed that this tube contained two parchments and a manuscript, the latter, decoded by the abbé Boudet, gave an anagram of the epitaph of Marie de Nègre together with the following message:


(shepherdess no temptation that Poussin Teniers hold the key Pax 681. By the cross and this horse of God I dispatch this guardian demon at midday blue apples).

This message refers to the church at St Sulpice in Paris – an esoteric temple copied from the Temple of Solomon and finished by the time of the death of Marie de Nègre, built on the land of the abbey of St Germain des Pres, where the Merovingian kings were buried up until the construction of the basilica at St Denis. It encourages the person who deciphers the message to remain silent about the discovery until the year 1891.

This particular year is clearly referenced in Marie de Nègre’s epitaph. Since her death occurred in 1781, the relevant part of the inscription should have read

XVII JANVIER MDCCLXXI (i.e. 1781 in Roman numerals)

however Antoine Bigou intentionally engraved


replacing the second ‘C’ with a ‘O’ which does not exist in Roman numerals. If this character is ignored, the year 1681 is produced. Then, treating the ‘O’ (which reminds us of the “Zero Meridian” which passes through both Rennes-les-Bains and St Sulpice) as a pivot to turn the date around, the year 1681 becomes 1891.

This was in fact the year in which Bérenger Saunière made a discovery which was to dramatically change his life. In his diary it is recorded, simply, thus: “Letter from Granes – Discovery of a tomb – Rain”.

The clue to the location of the tomb was actually discovered by the verger, Antoine Captier, who had been ringing the angelus for the evening service. Descending from the belltower, he glimpsed something shining in the top of an old wooden baluster which had been thrown on its side during the restoration work. A niche in the wood contained a phial which itself contained a rolled-up parchment. He took it immediately to the curé.

On the parchment, signed by Jean Bigou, uncle of Antoine Bigou and his predecessor as parish priest, was written a clue which led to the site where the Visigothic pillar had been, not far from where the workmen had discovered the stone which had been turned face down by Antoine Bigou a hundred years earlier. It was certainly the same stone – the “Dalle des Chevaliers” – and in a hiding place beneath it the curé discovered a skull, pierced by ritual incision, just as carried out on the dead in Meronvingian times to let the soul escape to heaven … and the entrance to a vault. Clearing away the rubble, he discovered steps leading down beneath the church. Indeed the parish register of 1694 refers to a tomb of the “seigneurs de Rennes” which was supposed to be in the vicinity.

From this day onwards, Bérenger Saunière and his housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, lived a lavish and luxurious lifestyle as if they had access to an inexhaustable fortune.
The Two Parchments

The parchments found inside the Visigothic pillar could only be deciphered by a paleographer. The abbé Boudet recommended that Saunière saw the Bishop of Carcassonne, Monseigneur Félix Billard, who in turn sent him to the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris to have the parchments examined by religious scholars. He stayed there for 5 days during which he was introduced to the famous occultist Emile Hoffet who had authored many studies on freemasonry, and also the singer Emma Calvé, a disciple of Joseph Péladan who, in 1891, had founded the cabbalistic order of “la Rose+Croix du Temple et du Graal” (the Rose Cross of the Temple and the Grail). From then on these people would frequently be his guests at Rennes-le-Château.
The Paintings

Whilst in Paris the curé was apparently instructed (by persons unknown) to visit the Louvre museum and obtain copies of three paintings: Les Bergers d’Arcadie by Nicolas Poussin, The Temptation of St Antony by David Teniers the younger, and a portrait of Pope Celestine V, artist unknown. The first painting was by far the most famous, the second somewhat obscure since Teniers painted several works on this theme, and the third has to this day not with certainty been identified.

The significance of these paintings is still being researched and debated, however, since it is only the Poussin work which could be positively identified, concentration has naturally been on this. It is both the content and the geometry of the painting which is significant. In terms of the content, the mountainous landscape in the background is said to imitate the contours of the landscape around Rennes-les-Bains and Rennes-le-Château. Furthermore, the tomb depicted in the painting is considered to have had its exact counterpart in a tomb on a rocky knoll overlooking a bend of the River Rialsesse, near the hamlet of Les Pontils, just a few miles from Rennes. Today however, only the base slab of the tomb remains, since the owner of the land on which it stood, dismayed at the constant attempt by treasure-seekers to open the tomb, demolished it in 1988.

With reference to the geometry, since its identification by Henry Lincoln (‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’, 1982) much analysis has since been carried out, the most detailed of which, covering all three paintings, by Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger (‘The Tomb of God’, 1996). Essentially the geometry is pentagonal in structure and such ‘sacred geometry’ was by no means new, having been employed since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and by the hands of artists since the Renaissance, to both depict for the initiated and to conceal from the uninitiated any number of religious or sacred mysteries (ref. Robert Lawlor – ‘Sacred Geometry’, 1982).

What is particularly interesting in this case is that Henry Lincoln has been able to demonstrate the close links between the geometry employed in the paintings and that actually found when analysing the topographical geometry from the official IGN maps of the countryside around Rennes.
The Building Projects

Having returned from Paris, the curé, with the aid of his faithful housekeeper, began to hide some of their discoveries starting with the secret entrance beneath the “Dalle des Chevaliers”, then erasing the inscription on the tombstone of Marie de Nègre before moving it to an ossuary they had created for the bones they had already been digging up from the graves in the churchyard!

Meanwhile the curé started to travel within France and abroad, apparently to solicit subsidies and money began to pour in from all over Europe, much of it in the form of money orders from religious communities and made payable to the name of Marie Denarnaud, his housekeeper. The restoration of the church could therefore resume, with huge amounts being spent on it, enough to bring in a team of decorator-artists from Italy.

The restoration of the church was finally completed in 1897, and then began more building projects – on land in the village bought in the name of the housekeeper:

– the Villa Bethania, a Renaissance-style house which was to become his home.

– the Magdala Tower, a neogothic tower built on a semi-circular gallery constructed on the edge of a cliff, at the other end of which was built a second tower with a conservatory on top. The ‘Tour Magdala’ was his new library.

– magnificent gardens incorporating an orange grove, fountains and a menagerie.

The lifestyle of the curé and his housekeeper took on the grand style, regularly entertaining famous people in a very handsome way. But the local population and clergy, including the abbé Boudet, were scandalised by such an overt display of wealth. After 1903, however, after the death of his ‘protector’, Monseigneur Billard, and then the liberal-minded Pope Léon XIII – a friend of the Habsbourg family, his fortunes took a turn for the worse as the new Bishop of Carcassonne, Monseigneur de Beauséjour, and the new Pope Pius X, looked on the activities of this flamboyant priest less favourably.

Saunière had to fight numerous court cases – he was accused by the church of simony (trafficking in masses), unjustified lifestyle and excessive spending – even being obliged to sell his furniture, silverware and other collections to finance his defence. Finally, in 1911, the Vatican withdrew from him his priestly rights and a new curé was installed at Rennes-le-Château. The Bishop of Carcassonne offered to arrange his restoration if he were to return everything he had ‘misappropriated’, but it was not possible since everything was in the name of his housekeeper.

But rescue was at hand when a new Pope, Benoit XV, was installed at the Vatican – a man of similar liberal views to Léon XIII, and Saunière was able to appeal successfully for reinstatement. The work could continue with ever more extravagant projects!

On January 17th, 1917, Saunière was found by his housekeeper prostrate in front of the Magdala Tour, apparently having had a sudden severe stroke. It is a strange coincidence that it was the date January 17th which had been eradicated from the tombstone of Marie de Nègre, and that the very same date was also the feast day of St Sulpice. It is also suspicious that just five days earlier some visiting parishioners had declared him to be in fine health and yet, on January 12th, the very same day, Marie Denarnaud had ordered a coffin for the curé.

A priest, the abbé Rivière, was called from a neighbouring parish to hear his confession and administer the last rites. But it is told that he left the sickroom very quickly, one account even saying that so overwhelmed was he by the revelations that he was never to smile again. But one thing is certain, whatever was heard from the lips of the priest – he never administered extreme unction and Saunière died unshriven on January 22nd, 1917. The following morning his body was placed upright in an armchair on the terrace near the Magdala Tower, clad in an ornate robe with scarlet tassels and, one by one, a number of unidentified mourners filed past, several of them plucking tassels of remembrance from his garment. This strange ceremony has to this day remained without explanation.

The reading of the curé’s will was particularly uneventful since, to everyone’s amazement, he was declared to be pennyless. In fact he had transferred his entire wealth to Marie Denarnaud a long time before.

Following her master’s death, Marie Denarnaud continued living a comfortable life in the Villa Bethania until 1946. That is until after the Second World War when the new French government issued a new currency as a means of apprehending tax-evadors and wartime collaborators and profiteers – they were obliged to justify their savings when changing their old money for new. Rather than provide an explanation, Marie chose poverty and was seen in the garden of her villa burning sheaves of old franc notes.

For the next seven years she lived a life of austerity, supporting herself on the money obtained from the sale of the Villa Bethania to a Monsieur Noel Corbu and his wife, who she had in fact also made heirs to her estate. She had also promised Mr Corbu that one day before her death she would confide in him a secret which would make him both very rich and very powerful. Alas for Mr Corbu, this was never to be since, on January 29th, 1953, Marie, like her master the curé before her, suffered a severe and unexpected stroke, leaving her speechless on her deathbed.
The Treasure

To this day, despite research by writers, scholars, historians and treasure-seekers from around the world, the secret has yet to be revealed. This is not to say that more important information and clues have not been uncovered. The following is a brief list of some of the theories postulated as to what Saunière’s secret might reveal:

– Visigoth gold, which comprised much of the treasure of Solomon including the solid gold Menorrah, the seven-branched candelabra belonging to the Jews and of which all trace was lost after its arrival in Carcassonne.

– The treasure of Dagobert.

– The treasure of Blanche de Castille, being the ransom money for her son, St Louis, which she later hid in the Rhazès after learning of his execution at the hands of his captors.

– Cathar treasure, which was hurriedly removed from Montségur before the Cathar heretics surrendered to Simon de Montfort.

– An object of great religious significance such as the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant or the Menorrah.

– An important document, such as evidence of the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalen, implying that their descendants still live on.

As A strange tagline to this, Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire has a marble replica of the Shepherds of Arcadia and yet another coded message…….you will habe to form your own opinions



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