Feature Articles – The French Rosslyn? St Bertrand de Comminges has what is popularly called “The Cathedral of the Pyrenees”. But you could also argue it is France’s answer to Rosslyn… predating it, and with a potentially genuine Templar link.
by Philip Coppens
Mix one enigmatic cathedral, the Knights Templar, stories about their survival. Result: Rosslyn. Add one pope. Result: St Bertrand de Comminges. Its cathedral, known popularly as the “Cathedral of the Pyrenees”, is a major tourist attraction. Like Rosslyn, it does not need an esoteric dimension to shine. It has a magnificent organ, which has been labelled one of the three beauties of the Gascogne region. It has an enigmatic crocodile hanging from the wall. Popular opinion has it that it crawled up the river, beached itself and that St Bertrand (from whom the town takes its name) killed it with the power of his prayers. More likely, the crocodile was an ex voto, brought back from the Middle East by a pilgrim or a knight, as a gift to the church. There is beautiful tomb of St Bertrand, as well as extraordinary wood carvings. St Bertrand de Comminges What is so special about this place that made it one of the oldest churches in the Gaul – France? The answer is hiding in the latter part of the town’s name first: Comminges. Under the Roman occupation, the town was called Lugdunum Convenarum. It is believed that in 72 BC Pompey, a Roman General, was victorious in Spain, and upon his return, established a town here. The local tribe was labelled “the Convenae”, “the assembled ones”. Lugdunum shared its Latin name with Lyon (perhaps why it received Convenarum attached to it), which is largely accepted to mean “Fortress of Lug”, the sun god.
The Roman presence is attested by numerous finds. It was obviously an important centre, equipped with an aqueduct to bring water from the spring of Tibiran three kilometres away. In “The Templar Revelation”, the town is mentioned as it is believed to have been the place of exile of Herod Antipas, the man from the Bible, whose daughter Salome requested the head of John the Baptist – and got it on a platter. It was the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote that Caligula punished Herod and sent him to “Lugdunum”, which was a city in Gaul. In another text, Josephus added that Herod went into exile to Spain, but ended his life in what everyone accepts is St Bertrand de Comminges. Though we do not know where he may have been buried, or lived, the claim is largely undisputed. It is therefore of interest to note that the town had one of the oldest churches in Gaul – though the present cathedral was not the site of the first church. In fact, it is possible, after archaeological considerations of the substructure of the cathedral, that it may have once been the location where a pagan temple stood. The original church was near the Chapelle Saint-Julien du Plan, at the foot of the hill. There are records from 409 AD confirming the presence of a “Christian basilica”. A basilica is a specific term, arguing for the conclusion that the site held a precious relic. As archaeologists have found no further evidence for this, they argue that the term may have been loosely applied. If this was Rosslyn, Herod’s presence, its status as an old church, the possibility of a precious missing relic… someone would conclude that relic could only be the head of John the Baptist, taken here by Herod himself. But this is not Rosslyn. St Bertrand de Comminges sits on a 515m outcrop in a valley, with the Pyrenean mountains beginning to rise nearby. Often described as sitting by the river Garonne, it is actually more than a kilometre removed from the river itself. The fortress on the top of the hill is furthermore not a singularity. In the valley below, much closer to the river, sits the basilica of Saint-Just de Valcabrère. This church is constructed with numerous remains of previous sacred – and pagan – structures. It is accepted that the location was once the site of “a privileged necropolis”. The church once had a relic of the True Cross and is linked with the martyr Saint Just. It is most remarkable for the martyr’s relics stored in a stone sarcophagus. This sarcophagus sits at the far end of the church and pilgrims could walk and stand underneath the sarcophagus, which was a novel custom of the time, whereby pilgrims believed that close proximity if not actual contact with the tomb of a martyr was the most powerful method for the pilgrim’s prayers to come true. Hence why the tomb was raised and pilgrims could pass underneath.
The old pilgrim’s route would have taken the pilgrim from this basilica past the Chapelle Saint-Julien du Plan, the original church of St Bertrand de Comminges, up to the hill, to reach the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral is the work of three people. St Bertrand de l’Isle, in the 12th century; Bertrand de Got, the future pope Clement V, in the 14th century; and Jean de Mauleon, in the 16th century. With the first one, we can explain the first part of the name of the town.
Bertrand was the local bishop, a cousin of Count Raymond IV of Toulouse, nominated in 1073, canonised in 1218. Apart from giving his to the town, he was responsible for the first and now oldest phase of the cathedral.
Tourist guides direct the visitor’s attention to the decoration about the entrance porch, showing the twelve apostles, surmounted by the adoration of the Magi, presenting their gifts to the Virgin Mary. The consensus is that the figure in the background is Bertrand – even though at the time, he was not yet canonised – and he is indeed depicted without aureole. Today’s tourist steps in the footsteps of the pilgrims, who began to visit the site on the way to Santiago de Compostela. Trevor Ravenscroft would have drawn a parallel to Rosslyn here too…
It are the decorations in the cloister that awards the site its first notion as the French equivalent of Rosslyn. The numerous pillars here depict a profundity of Green Men; foliage, plants, leaves abound everywhere. Even the “entrelacs”, non-specific decoration of columns, resembles that of key pillars in Rosslyn. Speaking of pillars: Rosslyn may have its three enigmatic pillars, but this cathedral’s narthex ends by two huge pillars, with a circumference of no less than 11,45m. They are gigantic, so much so that most tourists will fail to spot them. The second man linked with the town is another Bertrand – Bertrand de Got. He was Bishop of Comminges from 1295 to 1299. In 1304, he became archbishop of Bordeaux, but continued to have a specific devotion to his former residence: he made sure that the foundation stone for a series of extensions – the current cathedral – was executed. In 1305, Bertrand de Got became Pope Clement V, the first pope of Avignon, though he was elected in that other Lugdunum, Lyon. It could be a coincidence… In 1309, he went on a pilgrimage, on January 16-17, 1309 visiting St Bertrand, where he “elevated” the relics. A papal bull explains the details of the event.
In 1307, of course, Clement V consented to the arrest of his Knights Templar and in 1312, he officially abolished the order in Vienne, just south of Lyon. He would soon die and the Gothic church of St Bertrand de Comminges was completed in 1350, under the authority of Hugues de Castillon. The third man in the story of the cathedral was Jean de Mauleon. He built “the church of wood in the church of stone”, executed in the Renaissance style and inaugurated on Christmas 1535. The central area of the church is fenced off by a majestic wooden rectangle. Inside of this is the “church of wood”: a smaller church, for the privileged, made up out of 66 stalls, on two levels (38 on top, 28 on bottom), each and all supporting some of the most magnificent wooden carvings. Here, again, we find depictions of angels, Green Man and other enigmatic features. There is a depiction of Jesse’s tree; more remarkably still, are the depictions of various Sibyls, pagan oracles that the Church was able to weave into its mythology, but which are totally a totally unexpected – though highly welcome – sight at the foot of the Pyrenees. As in Rosslyn, you will expect to see an enveloping theme, but like Rosslyn, you leave the cathedral what that story could be.
Though this wooden church (mostly oak and walnut wood) was commissioned by Jean de Mauléon, because of a lack of documents, the artist is unknown, though it is assumed to be the work of Nicolas Bachelier and his school, which worked with artists from France, Spain and Italy – very much like William St Clair used a foreign workforce to construct his chef d’oeuvre, Rosslyn. Three men, all of importance, but one more important than the other two. Bertrand de Got was born in 1264 in Villandraut, Aquitaine. He was a canon and sacristan of the church of Saint-André in Bordeaux, then vicar-general to his brother, the archbishop of Lyon, who in 1294 was created Cardinal Bishop of Albano. He was then made bishop of St Bertrand de Comminges, and apparently and specifically wanted to be assigned to this site. Why remains unclear, though it is known that at the time of this assignment, he was equally elevated to be chaplain to Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), who made him archbishop of Bordeaux in 1299 – a required step if de Got ever aimed for the papacy.
He was elected Pope Clement V in June 1305, after a year’s interregnum occasioned by the disputes between the French and Italian cardinals, who were nearly equally balanced in the conclave. Bertrand was neither Italian nor a cardinal, and his election might have been considered a gesture towards neutrality. But according to the contemporary chronicler Giovanni Villani, there were rumours that he had bound himself to King Philip IV of France by a formal agreement previous to his elevation. It puts Clement’s agreement to disband the Templars a few years later in a different light, each having desires and ambitions with which the other had, or wanted to agree.
At Bordeaux, Bertrand was formally notified of his election and urged to come to Italy, but he selected Lyon – the other Lugdunum – for his coronation instead. He is recorded as the first pope to be crowned with a papal tiara, but it seems that the coronation did not go as planned – some believing it was a curious omen. During the papal parade through the town, a wall collapsed, injuring and killing several bystanders. Some in the papal parade were injured too; the pope himself lost his balance and a precious stone loosened from his tiara – to be lost forever. Rosslyn lacks a pope. It also lacks miracles, unlike St Bertrand de Comminges. St Bertrand’s canonisation was supported by a document detailing a list of no less than 31 miracles. One of these involved the corn of a unicorn, today still on display in the treasury of the cathedral. In truth, it is a tusk of the Arctic Narwhal (monodon monoceros), a species of whale. Though the object may seem to be without too much interest, it is reported that Bertrand de Got had a veritable fascination with it; and so, it seems, had the larger community, as the object was used in a festival that commemorated one of the miracles performed by St Bertrand.
Such horns had become an obsession amongst the nobility and even among the higher clergy. Unicorn horns were said to sweat in the presence of poisoned liquid or food; it was also believed that they could detect heresy. As such, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold.
Central to the intrigue of Rosslyn, before The Da Vinci Code, was its place in history as the possible location where the Templars deposited certain knowledge, protected by the St Clair family, who later might have passed it onto Freemasonry. The evidence for this claim is tentative at best. At least, St Bertrand de Comminges has something in writing: one document, known as the “Rubant document”, dating from the 18th century. It claims that Clement V was so obsessed with this unicorn that he worked it into his papal cross. He instructs three Templars form the nearby commandery of Montsaunès to guard over the relic. But, the text continues, when the Knights Templar were arrested and afterwards abolished, Clement V made a special dispensation for these three guardians. He informed them that if they continued to guard this relic, they would not be arrested, nor interrogated, definitely not thrown in prison, or killed. In return for this exceptional clemency, all they had to do was guard the relic – and apparently after their and the order’s demise, had to elect and prepare their successors to continue to safeguard the relic.
Here, we are therefore confronted with a clear example of Templar survival and continuation, though the Rubant document should not be considered as primary evidence – but at least there is one document, unlike Rosslyn where there is none. One question should be asked: is it possible that the guardianship of this “unicorn” was but an excuse? Could it be that the Templars instead guarded something far more precious? Perhaps… And no doubt, someone could conclude that this precious relic may have been the Grail… or Baphomet? And when we “know” that Baphomet, the idol apparently worshipped by the Templars, was “apparently” a bearded head… the head of John the Baptist? It does make sense, doesn’t it?
All that is missing, is a link to the story of Rennes-le-Château. And we do not even need to invent one. The story goes that in 1285, one Pierre de Voisins, lord of Bézu, just south of Rennes-le-Château, required the arrival of a group of Knights Templar, who come from the Roussillon. Why he chose to have Templars sent from so far whereas there were other commanderies nearby is not known. Officially, they were there to protect the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella, but the rumour goes that they were there to exploit, bury or survey a treasure – or secret. Like the Templars in St Bertrand de Comminges, this contingency is not arrested. It is also known that at that time, they were under the command of a lord known as “de Goth” – the same surname as the pope. If you need to work a bloodline into this story, we should know that “de Got(h)” was derived from Visigoth, the tribe which various authors have already identified as being of the bloodline. But we won’t go into that direction.
Instead, genuine amazement is required when we learn that the mother of Pope Clement was Ida de Blanchefort, of the same family of Bertrand de Blanchefort, grandmaster of the Knights Templar from 1156 to 1169. Is it therefore not rather remarkable that a descendant of a grandmaster of the Knights Templar would be the one who is responsible for the abolition of the order, but that we have at least two locations where for rather unclear reasons, certain arrest warrants were not given, likely through the direct intervention of Clement V, whom in the case of Bezu seems to have had a family member in charge and whom in the case of St Bertrand de Comminges appears to have had a personal desire to protect precious relics? And this is where the parallels with Rosslyn end. In fact, whereas Rosslyn is believed to have been the receptacle of Templar knowledge, it is clear that if there ever was any secret in St Bertrand de Comminges, the Pope himself made sure that it remained – or came – in his possession. So where did he take it to? The Scottish Rosslyn?
In 1306, the family de Got took over the château de Duras. Pope Clement V had a nephew with the same name of Bertrand de Got – perhaps the commander in Bézu? Perhaps. In 1306, with Clement in charge of the Knights Templar and a year to go before their arrest, the de Got family expanded the chateau and made it into a veritable fortress, in the years 1308 to 1310. The nephew Bertrand de Got was responsible for the works, which resulted in a 3000 m² fortress complete with eight round towers. It was a war machine, well equipped to defend the valley and its produce, and the roads passing. The money for this operation apparently came from the Knights Templar. The question, therefore, is whether this castle is perhaps a possible location where a “precious Templar relic” was hidden. And that might make it not only the “French Rosslyn”, but the “real” Rosslyn. This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 9 (2007).