The church of Couiza
Keeping up with the neighbours
Sitting in the shadow – sometimes literally – of the hill on top of which Rennes-le-Château is based, one might have the false impression that Couiza is less important than Rennes-le-Château. In fact, it is the other way around. Even today, every inhabitant of Rennes-le-Château needs to descend the 4.5 kilometre road to arrive in Couiza, where all purchases, whether it is bread, meat or a newspaper, needs to occur. Couiza was – is – also the town nearest to Rennes-le-Château that has a train service – and hence a key location for Saunière, who is known to have enjoyed travelling, as well as welcoming visitors later in life to his Villa for, judging from the menus, extravagant banquets.
Larger and largely identical, the church of St John the Baptist of Couiza, has been largely overlooked by the Rennes-le-Château researchers. As late as 1995, the church remained open and could be visited at any reasonable time of day. Today, the building remains closed and you need to ask a representative of the association of the friends of the church for the key. There is a very good reason for this: some years ago, when the church was still open, some visitor decided to leave certain bodily excretions on the altar.
Saunière arrived in Rennes-le-Château, we know that Gélis
prayed for the community of Coustaussa and Cassaignes and Henri Boudet led
the flock of Rennes-les-Bains. No-one ever mentions who was priest of Couiza,
but it was the abbé Calvet.
He was in charge of this church which had for thirty years, slowly taken on the form in which we find it today. On December 30, 1855, a statement was made underlining the primary importance of reconstructing, and enlarging the church. In fact, the restoration was so extensive that almost the entire church was taken down to ground level, and reconstructed. Stones came from quarries in Alet and Rennes-les-Bains.
In 1868, the stained glass window of the axial window was put in place, depicting St John the Baptist, the patron saint. By the time Saunière began the construction of his church, he could have looked towards Couiza (and the further afield Brenac) for inspiration. But it is clear that Couiza seems to have served as his major inspiration for his oeuvre.
original church of Couiza dates back to the 6th century, when Christianity
was spreading its wings. According to Louis Fedié, it was the abbey
of Lagrasse that founded the priory of Cuvicianus. Some, however, argue
that Cuvicianus could also have been Cuize, in the heart of the Corbières
With massive conversions occurring throughout Western Europe, a lot of churches were dedicated to John the Baptist, the man who baptised Jesus. In the case of Couiza, there may be more symbolism present. The church sits close to the river Sals and Aude. The former, as its name indicates, is salty, whereas the Aude is fresh water. John the Baptist baptised in the river Jordan, on a spot where fresh and salt water met. Is it mere coincidence, or is there an added layer of symbolism in the choice of location for the church of Couiza?
A place of prayer
Rather than a parish church, the church was originally part of a convent. It was popularly known as “le couvent de la Force”. It is known that this was a priory, where normally five people lived. When it was precisely founded is somewhat unclear, but by 1347, Vatican archives do mention “Couizamum” – in 1320, there is another reference to a “Couzamum”. An earlier trace may be found in the list of villages given to Pierre de Voisins in 1231 – in the wake of the Cathar crusade, by Saint Louis: Cousanum.
In 1576, the convent was closed and the church became the parish church, under the initiative of the local lords, the de Joyeuse family, whose family sat on the other side of the river. In 1578, local lord Guillaume de Joyeuse started work on the current nave of the church. He was helped by his family member, Cardinal Francois de Joyeuse, the future archbishop of Narbonne (1582-1599).
the various works on the church, as everywhere, certain things were lost,
and certain things were found. In the 17th century, registers indicated
that there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Raimon de Penafort, a Spanish
Dominican and friend of Thomas Aquinas, who founded the order of Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci.
A century later, the church required its first series of restorations, which was carried out by Claude de Rebe, whose wife, Jeanne d’Albret (1656), is buried in front of the baptismal font. The church contains other tombs, including that of the last prior (it is believed). In the 19th century, three Merovingian tombs were discovered under the church.
infamous as Rennes-le-Château is, there is little of any real value
inside Saunière’s church. In the case of Couiza, the altar
is a historic classified monument, coming from the chapel of the old bishops
The decoration of the church as a whole is impressive, more so than Brenac, where the walls remain largely undecorated. In Couiza, like Rennes-le-Château, the church is entirely and colourfully – imaginatively – painted; but the church of Couiza is far larger than Rennes-le-Château’s.
Over the past decade, extensive restoration has occurred in the church, to restore it to its original glory. This has brought out the contrast in fresh colours, which has largely vanished from Rennes-le-Château. Both churches have a blue, star-spangled ceiling.
The Monument to the Dead
ordered his statues from the Giscard family business in Toulouse. A lot
has been made about how Giscard was also the one who was responsible for
the “Monument aux morts” that sits inside the church of Couiza.
The central depiction, as well as the two statues on each side, one of St
Joan of Arc, the other St Louis, were indeed from Giscard’s atelier.
Gérard de Sède altered the photograph of this monument to make it adhere to a preconceived theory he had, but it should be noted that it is rather bizarre that various researchers desire to incorporate this monument into the mystery.
Commemorating as it does the victims that fell in the First World War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, when we add that Saunière died in 1917, it is hard to see what could be the relevance of the Monument in the core enigma. Furthermore, the Monument to the Dead in Couiza was erected as late as 1933, thanks to the generosity of 168 families, and was inaugurated on November 11, 1933, the date reserved for the commemoration of World War I. It thus falls far outside of Saunière’s timeframe. At best, we could argue that the people of Couiza, in need of a monument, remembered where Saunière ordered his, and placed their order there.
The Stations of Cross
Stations of the Cross in Saunière’s church have been subjected
to an extraordinary amount of analysis – for no specifically obvious
reason. Yes, true, in colouring the stations, Saunière often opted
for a somewhat eccentric design, such as depicting one figure in a kilt
– a type of dress quite uncommon in 1st century AD Jerusalem.
Why so many people have become obsessed with the Stations of the Cross is nevertheless unclear. Many have argued they are unique. Sceptics have argued that the stations are not unique at all, and add that the Stations of the Cross at Couiza are identical, except for their finish: whereas Saunière coloured in his stations, those at Couiza were painted silver.
observation, as mentioned, put forward and often repeated ad infinitum by
sceptics of the enigma, is however a total lie. The truth is that a comparison
of the individual Stations of the Cross between Rennes-le-Chateau and Couiza
show they are not identical at all.
Of course, there are some basic similarities: there are 14 of them, but that is the custom. Each equally depicts the same theme, but that too is proscribed by Church Doctrine. It is only in their mould that they could be identical, and they are not.
Rather than compare all fourteen, we will merely compare station V and XIII, as they are typical of the differences found: some are easily deduced, some are blatantly obvious. Station V underlines the easily deduced to be different category: Couiza’s has a tower in the background; it has an extra person on the left; the style of clothing worn by Jesus is different, etc.
The blatantly obvious that they are different is visible in Station XIII: in Rennes-le-Château, a person is hanging from the cross, which is completely absent from the Couiza station. In Couiza, Jesus is already on the ground, whereas in Rennes-le-Château, the figure is still being lowered. In short, station XIII could not be more different, given that they had to depict the same event!
is typical of churches in the area that stretches from Limoux to Quillan:
their interior walls were often painted with imaginative and highly stylised
designs. Still, places like Brenac conform more to Notre-Dame-de-Marceille
than for example Couiza. In this context, the church of Rennes-le-Château
is not at all a one off. There are clear parallels in decoration between
the two neighbouring churches of Couiza and Rennes-le-Château, but
these are not at all on the details that some sceptics have claimed; instead,
they are focused on the choice to paint the walls in bright colours, sitting
within a more general trend of statues which were dear to the local community
– and the region.
So when Saunière was faced with the reconstruction of his church, he only had to look towards Couiza to see what had been accomplished there in the recent decades – work which Saunière, as a man born in that very area, may have even seen carried out first-hand.