Feature Articles –   Rennes-le-Château: Building the Tree of Life
Is there a hidden meaning to the work that Saunière carried out in the small village of Rennes-le-Château? Can one see the tree of truth through the forest of theories that have been created in recent years? And is the answer… a tree itself?
by Philip Coppens

Saunière spent a fortune on restoring the church and building the surrounding structures in the small village of Rennes-le-Château. Why? 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 her to this part of 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, how Saunière could have financially benefited from knowledge of a sacred layout on the landscape, has never been shown.

The answer is – as is often the case – simple, yet at the same time not easily straightforward: irrelevant of how he got the money, it is clear that once he used that money to build his estate, he incorporated a detailed knowledge and understanding of the Kabbalah into his estate. Indeed, he built a three-dimensional model of the Tree of Life. Various cultures have “trees of life”. The one of interest here is the Tree of Life of 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 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 ten interconnected nodes. The Kabbalah is perhaps most easily explained as a Hebrew form of yoga: a system in which the initiate is trained, develops along the steps/nodes as his training progresses, on a path that will bring his awareness, his mind, closer if not in direct contact with God. It is therefore a spiritual discipline.

As mentioned, the Tree of Life is made up out of ten spheres, with an 11th invisible sphere – Daath. 22 paths connect them. In Rennes-le-Château, the number 22 has always been known to be popular, but has been mostly connected with Mary Magdalene, as her feastday is July 22. Instead, it seems to be more logically linked with the Kabbalah: there are twenty-two steps – steps – in the Tour Magdala and twice eleven steps – 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, symbolised 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 – visualised 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 – then 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 to 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 Saunière who did this by 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. Instead, 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 play with 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 he could play with, were the design of the Calvary garden, as well as delineating the cemetery, which he did by means of a wall.

Indeed, the wall around the cemetery is one of the greatest clues – never 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 is definitely proven that Saunière illegal dug up some of the graves of his deceased parishioners.

What became evident was that what for a century had only been seen as a normal 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 7 to 10 on the Calvary Garden, we see that the line from sphere 4 to 5 runs along the northern wall of the Church. There is no direct overlap on the left hand of the Tree, to “anchor” sphere 5, 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 both the right-hand path of the Tree, whereby the line between spheres 2 to 3 coincides with the northern wall of the cemetery. There is 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 cannot be a coincidence.

Sphere 2, Chokmah, Wisdom and Sphere 3, Binah, Understanding, are seen as the first “duality”, created out of the unity – the monad – that is sphere 1, 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 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 understanding of architecture. To this, we can add wit, for the area inside spheres 2-3-4-5 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 ten 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 11th 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, this should not 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 needs to be asked: where did he acquire this knowledge? And if he did not achieve this knowledge purely through self-study, 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 19th 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 much, should not pose any problem – in theory.

However, the next question than 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 of 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 that showed that Saunière had attended at least one meeting of a Martinist organisation 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 normal 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 that shows 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.