Rennes-le-Château and the Tree of Life

Did Bérenger Saunière Turn His Estate into a Giant

The small village of Rennes-le-Château in southern France has been the center of an enigma ever since a century ago a local village priest, Bérenger Saunière, spent millions decorating the church and surrounding buildings. For decades, despite the skepticism of some authors, no one has been able to explain where Saunière got the money to pay for the extravagant building works, which have attracted millions of visitors to this small hilltop village—or, indeed, why he constructed them at all.

The history of the village, Saunière’s access to money, and the trial engineered by his bishop to learn the secret of his wealth, his veneration of Mary Magdalene, his links with esoteric traditions, the construction of his “Great Work” and the creation of a Kabbalistic Tree of Life are but some of the secrets of the village and the man.

So why did Saunière lavish a fortune on restoring the church and building the surrounding structures in the remote village of Rennes-le-Château. Dozens, if not hundreds, of books have been written on the subject. Amongst those, there are largely two trends. One is that Saunière discovered a treasure, to do with the origins of Christianity, and hence blackmailed or otherwise benefited from this knowledge. This knowledge is believed to be about the role of Mary Magdalene in the early Church, though some also add the heretical notion that Jesus Christ might not have died on the Cross and that he might have accompanied Magdalene to France. Most other theories rely on some form of sacred geometry, in which certain features in the landscape are used to draw pentagrams and other shapes. However, just how Saunière could have financially benefited from knowledge of a sacred layout on the landscape, has never been shown.

The answer is—as in many other cases—simple, yet at the same time, not easily explained in a straightforward way. Regardless of how he got the money, it is clear that when he deployed it in the building of his estate, he incorporated detailed knowledge and understanding of the Kabbalah. Indeed, it seems, he built a three-dimensional model of the Tree of Life.

Various cultures have “trees of life.” The one of interest here is the one in the biblical and Kabbalistic tradition. First of all, the Tree of Life is mentioned in both the books of Genesis—in which it grants immortality to Adam and Eve—and in Revelation, in which it is referred to as the Wood of Life. It is thus central to the beginning… and the end.

Within the Kabbalah, the Tree of Life takes the form of 10 interconnected nodes. The Kabbalah is perhaps most easily explained as a Hebrew form of yoga: a system in which the initiate is trained, and develops, following the steps/nodes as his training progresses on a path that will bring his awareness, his mind, closer to if not in direct contact with God. It is therefore a spiritual discipline.

As mentioned, the Tree of Life is made up of 10 spheres, with an eleventh invisible sphere—Daath. Twenty-two paths connect them. In Rennes-le-Château, the number 22

has always been considered significant, but has been mostly connected with Mary Magdalene, as her feast day is July 22. Instead, it seems to be more logically linked with the Kabbalah: there are 22 steps in the Tour Magdala and twice 11 steps on the path that leads up to the Belvedere. In short, Saunière linked the number 22 with “ascending stairways”—which is a direct reference to climbing up the Tree of Life.

These nodes are also referred to as spheres, or Sephiroth (singular: sephirah). They are stages in the emanations of the Spirit of God or man in his progress from noumenal existence to the building of a physical vehicle in the phenomenal world. Each sphere is a stage along the way.

The only form of unity is said to be found in the “Unmanifest,” a pure state of non-existence, symbolized by three veils behind Kether, the first sphere. They are also known as the “Veils of Negative Existence” and should be seen as the origin, and destiny, of the soul throughout its spiritual development.

Apart from 11 spheres, the Tree of Life is seen as consisting of three pillars, grouping some of these spheres. The two extreme pillars are comparable to “Yin and Yang,” negative and positive, two forms of “energy” that need to be combined and balanced within one person—visualized by the third, central pillar. At each step of the development, these two aspects need to be combined, whereupon one can move to the next stage.

In the Tree of Life, the “final” spheres of the left and right hand path are Netzach and Hod, followed by two “central states,” Yesod, which culminates in the “root” or destination of the voyage: Malkuth.

What has this to do with Saunière? Quite simply, Saunière built a Tree of Life in the ground plan of his estate, specifically his church, the small garden in front, and the cemetery behind. And, indeed, what better way to depict the Tree of Life—or at least a portion of it—than in a garden?

It is precisely Saunière’s triangular design in the Calvary garden in front of his church that overlaps exactly with a portion of the Tree of Life—spheres 7 through 10. The Calvary itself is Yesod, the Foundation. How “coincidental” to have the central aspect of Christianity, Christ Dying on the Cross, being depicted on the location of sphere 9, the foundation. Of course, it is no coincidence at all, but, indeed, is Saunière’s design.

We offered the above insight to Dutch Rennes-le-Château researcher Corjan de Raaf, asking him whether he could perfect and verify the overlay of the Tree of Life on Saunière’s estate. He did better. Rather than erring on the side of prudence and merely arguing that Saunière depicted the bottom section of the Tree of Life in his garden, de Raaf straightforwardly accomplished a total overlap: Saunière had not merely depicted a part of the Tree of Life: he had drawn all of the Tree of Life.

How did he accomplish this? First, it is clear that Saunière could play with some, but not other, aspects of his village. For example, the presbytery and the church were what they were and where they were and though they were totally refurbished, their dimensions or location were not altered; this would have required a complete rebuilding, which was outside of Saunière’s remit. The cemetery is where it was and though Saunière made alterations, he could of course not simply relocate it somewhere else. Amongst those items with which he could play was the design of the Calvary garden as well as the delineation of the cemetery, which he did by means of a wall.

Indeed, the wall around the cemetery is one of the greatest clues—never previously observed by any “Rennes researcher”—to one of the real mysteries of this priest. Building this wall around the cemetery is assumed to have been done so that Saunière had privacy, allowing him to do inside the cemetery whatever it was that he was doing. Some have accused Saunière of performing black magic, and it has been proven that Saunière illegally dug up some of the graves of his deceased parishioners.

What became evident was that what for a century had been seen only as an ordinary wall around the cemetery… was actually built in such a position that it would overlap with the outline of the Tree of Life!

This is how Saunière built the Tree of Life. Having projected spheres seven to ten on the Calvary Garden, we see that the line from sphere four to five runs along the northern wall of the Church. There is no direct overlap on the left hand of the Tree, to “anchor” sphere five, as he could not control anything there: the position of the presbytery and church were where they were.

The proof that the entire Tree of Life is depicted here can be seen, because the wall of the cemetery defines the right-hand path of the Tree, whereby the line between spheres two to three coincides with the northern wall of the cemetery. There seems no room for doubt: Saunière used the Tree of Life design to build this wall, as each part of the wall perfectly overlaps with the outline of the Tree of Life. This can hardly be a coincidence.

Sphere two, Chokmah, Wisdom, and Sphere three, Binah, Understanding, are seen as the first “duality,” created out of the unity—the monad—that is sphere one, Kether, the Crown. That region, as well as the “Unmanifest,” lies beyond the cemetery. It seems, indeed, that Saunière left it “unmanifest,” he did not anchor that other reality inside our earthly realm. This is once again obviously not coincidental but shows the level of detail and understanding Saunière possessed in the construction of his oeuvre.

It is therefore, I believe, right to conclude that Saunière was a master of symbolism, expertly using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in this architectural plan of the religious heart of the village. This requires intelligence, knowledge, insight, as well as an understanding of architecture. To this, we can add wit, for the area inside spheres two, three, four, and five contains a hidden part, Daath, the Abyss. We note that this “Veil of the Abyss” runs through the middle of the cemetery—the bailiwick of potential lost souls indeed!

Daath is the location where all 10 sephiroth in the Tree of Life are united as one. It is sometimes controversially described as an eleventh sephira. In Daath, all sephiroth exist in their perfected state of infinite sharing. The three spheres of the left column that would receive and conceal the Divine Light instead share and reveal it. With this eleventh sphere active, all spheres radiate infinite self-giving Divine Light, and it is thus no longer possible to distinguish one sphere from another. Thus they are one.

In Kabbalistic doctrine, the Divine Light is always shining, but not all humans can see it. Humans who become self-giving—like the Light—become able to see it, and for them the benefits of Daath’s Light are “revealed.” However, humans who remain selfish cannot see it, and for them its benefits seem “hidden.” How remarkable therefore to see this “Divine Light” to be also present in the cemetery, the realm of the souls! Though in the Kabbalah it was considered Man’s mission to achieve this state during life, in death, Daath was of course omnipresent. Surely, if there was the slightest of doubt left that Saunière played with the Tree of Life design, it should now be gone.

There is no room for doubt: Saunière can only have accomplished this consciously. The conclusion therefore reveals an unknown dimension to Saunière—that of a man well versed in Kabbalistic lore. As the Kabbalah is not part of the normal curriculum of a person studying for the priesthood, the question must be asked: where did he acquire this knowledge? If he did not achieve it purely through self-study, then who taught him?

The answer is that there is a clear track record of Saunière having been exposed to such doctrines. Specifically, study of the Kabbalah was popular at the end of the nineteenth century, even in religious circles. The Kabbalah was a spiritual doctrine and hence not at odds with the dogma of Christ and the Church. There is a large body of evidence from elsewhere that shows that priests were practicing or interested in the Kabbalah; and, therefore, to posit that Saunière did as well, should not pose any problem—in theory.

However, the next question then is whether he did so in practice. The answer is, yes. Evidence for this comes in the form of the knowledge that Saunière visited some of the leading Kabbalah specialists during his time in Lyons. France’s second largest city was also the home of Martinism, a spiritual discipline that incorporated teachings of the Kabbalah. In 1995, evidence was uncovered showing that Saunière had attended at least one meeting of a Martinist organization in Lyon. The records show that Saunière was identified as a member of a Martinist lodge, though the attendance records do not reveal where Saunière attended his regular meetings. One would assume it was closer to Rennes-le-Château, but, so far, no further information has become available. In 2008, evidence that Saunière was a member of a Freemasonic lodge was made public, clearly revealing a pattern showing that Saunière was a man with a deep interest in the esoteric. And this explains why he decided to incorporate such esoteric lore into the design of his estate, which was thus seen as a functioning alchemical Tree of Life. But he left it to those who would carefully map his estate, and who would have a detailed esoteric knowledge, to understand what his master plan was all about.

By Philip Coppens