Le Serpent Rouge: the Lost Relic of St-Germain-des-Prés
Philippe de Chérisey's most enigmatic work, Le Serpent Rouge, ends with a mysterious collage of peculiar old articles. We believe that this is why its contents have never been properly critiqued and why people have refrained from attributing any real significance to it.
In this, Part II of our thesis, we propose a unique theory, whose intellectual origin takes us to Spain, circa 543 AD; to the land of the Visigoths. Here, we learn that the Merovingian King, Childebert I, having penetrated deep into Spain, would return to Paris in possession of two relics: a cross of gold and the tunic of St Vincent, taken from the city of Saragossa. Around 550 AD, the Bishop of Paris, St Germain, anxious to provide these relics with a suitably appropriate home worthy of their magnificence, had convinced Childebert I and his wife to relinquish an area of land, upon which lay the foundations of an ancient temple dedicated to Isis. The monarch then financed the construction of the basilica of St Vincent and Ste Croix here, and this later became known as the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés.
If we question the veracity of the abbey's history, as recounted by de Chérisey, the link between the abbey, Spain and the affair of Rennes-le-Château becomes even more tenuous. This is nothing more than an impression, however, because the two previous proposals are perfectly accurate: let there be no mistake, the events described in the collages of Le Serpent Rouge are based on a solid historical foundation, which suggests that there really is a hidden link between the Rennes-le-Château affair, the intrigues that occurred in Girona and the founding of the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés.
Private chapel next to the Villa Bethania and statuary in Rennes le Chateau Church
As we attempt to lift a corner of the veil that covers this mystery, we must, first and foremost, return to its beginnings, with the Spanish trail left by de Chérisey in Le Serpent Rouge.
Joseph Lavallée, writing about this episode in his work Espagne, tells us that:
“Theudis the Ostrogoth had barely ascended to the throne, when he had to sustain a war against the Franks. Childebert had brought back too rich a spoil from his first expedition to Spain not to want to try a second time. He crossed the Pyrenees and, having ravaged the country, came to besiege Saragossa. He pushed the town so hard that the city's residents, believing that they did not have enough manpower to defend themselves, implored for heavenly help. The men, barefoot and covered with sackcloth, bore aloft funerary torches; the women, dressed in white, with their hair loose, made several turns around the city ramparts, carrying in procession the tunic and the relics of St Vincent. The Frankish King, surprised at the sight, at first thought it was a question of some magical conjuration. But a Spanish prisoner explained to him how, through the intercession of St Vincent, who had already performed many miracles, they were calling down the wrath of God against his majesty. In these times of ignorance, it was easy for the mind to be convinced by superstitious impressions and either Childebert was frightened by the fear of divine punishment, or he was swayed by other considerations, like fearing to see his army impoverished by the Goths who occupied the country, because he suddenly made a treaty with the people and demanded that they yield to him the tunic of St Vincent. He then headed back northwards through France, carrying the revered remains. [...] Childebert, on returning to Paris, erected a church and an abbey in memory of the events in Spain. This ensemble, once known under the title of ‘St Vincent and Ste Croix’, was later dedicated to St Germain, its first bishop."
Auguste Vitu seems to concur with the opinion expressed by Gislemar and proceeds to distinguish the first relic from the second. He also names Saragossa as the place of origin of the tunic of St Vincent and Toledo as the place of origin of the golden cross. We read in Paris: 450 Original Drawings from Nature:
"The church and monastery of St-Germain-des-Prés was dated, just like the cathedral of Notre Dame in the Cité and the collegiate church of St-Germain l'Auxerrois on the right bank, to the earliest epochs of the Merovingian monarchy; that is to say, to the time of Childebert I and Ultrogothe, his wife, who reigned in Paris from 511 to 558. Childebert, returning from an expedition against the Visigoths, brought back from Spain, as trophies of his victory, the tunic of St Vincent, a cross of gold and jewels captured in Toledo, along with vases that were believed to have belonged to Solomon. By the advice of St Germain, the Bishop of Paris, he built a church and monastery at the western end of the gardens attached to the palace of the Thermes to receive and house the holy relics. On the very day of Childebert's death in 558, St Germain dedicated the new church under the title St Vincent and Ste Croix, and he himself was buried there after his death in 576."
The Pax Symbol
The Serpentine Rod of Moses
Next, we will examine the location Childebert I intended for this cross, the basilica of St Vincent and Ste Croix in Paris. Long before the Abbey of Saint Denis, the royal necropolis of the Merovingian dynasty was situated in the Basilica of St Vincent and Ste Croix. Childebert I was the first to be buried there and his tomb was located in the place that came to be known as the ‘assembly of monks’. It is in this spot that the gold cross of Toledo was most probably kept. In fact, it seems to have played a significant role in the Merovingian funeral rites and worship of the dead, their ‘Culte des Morts’, because, according to what we are told, the bodies of Chilperic I, Clotaire II and Fredegund, as well as other less illustrious personages, were placed into a rather crowded ‘assembly of monks’, in order to benefit from the emanations of the precious relic. We must note that the importance of this object in the Cult of the Dead seems to distinguish it from the rod of Moses. Additionally, there are many instances where the Arians and, generally, the Manicheans had incorporated into their symbolism of the Cult of the Dead (during their recycling of Christianity) certain biblical elements, whose authenticity is indisputable.
Returning to the gold cross, it seems that Childebert I had entrusted the relic into the care of the monks of St Symphorien d'Autun, who followed the Rule of St Anthony and the Rule of St Basil, and whose congregation provided the abbey with its illustrious founder, St Germain (496-576). We can assume that the object in question remained there for a short while, concealed in the basilica, before it was removed to a safer place.
St Narcissus of the Flies
St Narcissus set high up into a church wall, Girona
'Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegonda VI', Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1862)
Radegonde enters monastic life
Due to his relative obscurity in more modern times, Fortunat’s work was not translated until the 19th century. Charles Nisard, who carried out the translation, gives us the impression that Fortunat is alluding to some strange mystery within the Merovingian line. He appears to have received the mission to portray, at the same time, a more Christian image of the sentiment of his masters, while digging deep into Virgilian sources, in order to paint, through the medium of his poems, a picture of a Merovingian Arcadia.
What an amazing person this poet must have been to strive to Romanise the Frankish aristocracy, and to use ‘Arcadian motives to honour and extol’ Merovingian society, even borrowing the virtues of these powerful people! After reading the poems, we come away with the inexplicable feeling that Bishop Germain and others made Fortunat put all his art into supporting the improbable Trojan origin of the Merovingians (as his friend Gregory of Tours also did). But, if Fortunat sings the praises of a Merovingian Arcadia, it is without doubt because the golden cross, returned from Toledo and given to St Germain, had once belonged to Constantine and thus could justify the imperial ambitions of the Merovingian dynasty; ambitions which continued into the Carolingian age.
The Life of Fortunat, Secret Meetings and the New Orpheus
Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus, to reference his full Latin name, was born in Italy around 530 AD. This profusion of names gave conjecture to some that he might have been from old Roman stock, given that this form of naming was the custom in distinguishing the ‘patricians’ from the ‘plebeians’. Other commentators assume, to the contrary, that he had added the names of Venantius and Fortunatus to his family name in reference to two saints; one originally from Bourges in Gaul, the other a martyr of the Church of Aquileia. According to Joseph Liruti, Fortunat's famous biographer, the name of his father and the original surname of his family was ‘Titius’. This is more or less what he assumes on the basis of Section 6 of Book XI of Fortunat's Miscellaneous Poems, in which the author says he had a sister named Titiana. Liruti also explains to us that among the Romans it was convenient to name daughters after their father.
The Legend of St Martin
Fortunat departed the comfort of Ravenna and travelled via Padua, Treviso and Germany to Gaul. His journey is faithfully reported in his letter to Gregory of Tours. Less well documented are the links between Fortunat and the Merovingians, particularly Sigebert and Radegonde. We are told that when he crossed the border into Italy, Fortunat received, at the request of Sigebert, a protector in the shape of Count Sigoalde. This presupposes that Fortunat's journey, although at first conceived with the sole purpose of visiting the tomb of St Martin of Tours, had also provided him with the opportunity to be of service to the Merovingians. Fortunat seems, indeed, to have come to Gaul at their request and hospitality.
Did Fortunat hold the key to a dark mystery or did he simply add to the Merovingian legacy? Nobody knows for sure, but from this moment on his behaviour became very strange. Fortunat was close to the Merovingian power base, which appeared to be in possession of a dynastic secret of some sort or another, and in a relatively short period of time he became a significant figure in their tradition. He also built a whole mythos around the Merovingians by referencing the golden cross of Toledo and by resurrecting Roman & Greek myths, like that of Orpheus. Criss-crossing Gaul, Fortunat described himself as a new Orpheus, initiated in the secrets of Hades, and in the process established the Merovingian dynasty as Constantine's successors.
'Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx' 1878
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Celebrated in Girona, the cult of St Narcissus seems to have spread quite early on to Bavarian Augsburg, where it was intimately linked to the Cult of St Afra. This is a unique religion, common to Catalonia and Bavaria, and although, in fact, there is no commonality between these two regions, it would seem that we should acknowledge an underlying Arian sub-stratum as the basis for some strange but demonstrable similarities between the two cities.
The commemorative tomb of St Afra can be found opposite the tomb of St Narcissus, both of which are situated in the church of St Felix in Girona. This tomb, though empty, signals, by its presence, that the towns of Girona and Augsburg are bound by a very ancient secret. Although in Germany, Augsburg appears to be the inheritor of the spirituality and religious secrets of Girona and Spanish Catalonia. The poet, Fortunat, became a link; a channel between his own epoch and the Gnostic and heretical heritage of Constantine. Many centuries later, a cult developed in Spain, and more specifically in Girona, dedicated to the ‘IHSV’ (‘in hoc signo vinces’) symbol of Constantine.
Fortunat had previously published in Augsburg certain "talismans" which represented this symbol. It is for this reason (or for other, more obscure reasons) that Fortunat held a singular place of honour among the saints of Augsburg. Furthermore, we know of the existence of a fresco in the town in which he is represented, accompanied by this inscription: ‘Saint Fortunat, Italian priest, later Bishop of Poitiers’.
The poet, Fortunat, lived in the sixth century and, although not Catalan by birth, is said to have maintained a pious devotion for St Narcissus. During his trip to Germany he visited the places where the saint had lived and, anxious to preserve and commemorate her missionary efforts, proceeded to write about the conversion, suffering and death of St Afra. In Augsburg, he visited the saint’s ashes and was accepted by the city’s most powerful men, due in part to his well-known scientific prowess. However, while Fortunat routinely impressed the great minds of his time, it seems that the modern world has all but forgotten his name. Nevertheless, we will examine the forgotten scholar and the remarkable status he held at this critical time in our story.
Fortunat was introduced into the court of Sigebert, the son of Clotaire I, King of the Franks and King of Austrasia, and he was able to capitalise on his talents as a poet; although he appears more clumsy and coarse when compared to the Latin writers, being born at a time when the spirits had become darker and more gauche and no longer shone with any of the genius they had once held. However, this fact notwithstanding, he made a great impression on Sigebert. The latter had seen him enter Gaul and, having invited him to Metz for his wedding to Brunhild, daughter of Athanagild, the King of Spain had the pleasure of witnessing Fortunat celebrate this union with a Latin poem which portrayed the newlyweds as a new Venus and Achilles. It was with such fawning and general toadying that Fortunat managed to inveigle himself into the private lives of the Merovingian kings. As a result of his esteemed position, he became one of two witnesses (the other being Gregory of Tours, who was his confidant) from that barbarous period and became the enigmatic arbiter of the strange bargains and secret meetings between St Germain, the Bishop of Paris, holder of the gold cross of Toledo, and Queen Radegonde and a procession of Merovingian potentates.
A curiosity indeed, this golden cross, which is said to have been fashioned by King Solomon's own hand and is thought to have been accompanied by precious vases or chalices of gold inlaid with precious stones. We must, however, curb our enthusiasm, because it would be wrong to entertain the idea that this cross of gold, to the exclusion of any other hypothesis, was a relic of Solomon's temple; the only one that has ever come to light. It would have been very strange indeed, had Solomon fashioned a conventional gold cross. Indeed, it is unclear how a ‘Latin’ or ‘Greek’ cross, or any other traditional type of cross, would have ever found its way into the temple of Solomon, given that the cross was a notable object of torture in antiquity. In the same way, we need to establish an exact parallel between this cross and the rod of Moses, upon which was hung a serpent of brass, although there is apparently some cause for confusion here.
Indeed, we cannot exclude the hypothesis that the gold cross of Toledo once had a formal relationship with the staff of Moses, according to some contemporary scholars, or, alternatively, that it was a creation of Solomon. Nevertheless, it is possible that the golden cross retrieved by Childebert I from Toledo, capital of the Visigoths of Spain, could have come from the temple of Jerusalem, whose treasure had been carefully preserved in Rome before the Visigoths plundered the city in 410 AD. Although we must exercise caution when considering that this object may be of Jewish origin, it is paradoxical to note that the uncanny similarity, both in appearance as well as provenance, between it and the rod of Moses, enables us to conclude two things that are more or less certain:
(i) that the object had a ‘serpentine’ aspect or form; that is to say, it was a kind of very unusual cross, closer to the shape of a caduceus, without actually being one; and
(ii) that it comes from the sack of Rome, from where the Visigoths would have taken it in order to bring it back to Toledo, their capital.
These elements, as contradictory as they appear in the opinion of many researchers, would suggest that this cross was only partially made of gold and it would have featured the symbol of Constantine the Great, the famous PAX, but in an archaic and non-Christianised form, since this was prior to the monarch's conversion. This object, a kind of sceptre-tiara, which belonged to Constantine, is the origin of the maxim: en touto nika, ‘par ce signe, tu vaincras’ (‘by this sign thou shalt conquer’). This point remains unsubstantiated, however, and may only be confirmed by the discovery of new information; documents which could, in fact, enable us to trace the cross and the traditions associated with it.
It was not uncommon in these times for Nordic tribes to wreak havoc on the region. These Nordic invaders could, in a day, reduce a once opulent and rich land into a wilderness, strewn with ashes and ruins. And so, the abbey was burnt in 861 by Viking invaders. We must again remind ourselves, by reading Louis-Sebastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris, of the brutal way in which these barbarians behaved when destroying the abbey. Certainly, this author has an immoderate taste for divine Greek thought and his fine pen strokes, far from regarding the vandalism to be that of the Vikings, attribute the impoverished arts and degradation of the area too easily to the coarseness of the Merovingians; and here we cannot resist quoting some of his ‘great words’:
"The Normans have looted, burned and ransacked the church and abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés several times; there now remain but empty graves and uncertain inscriptions. What is left of the ancient sculpture affords us an idea of the most revolting barbarity: the Christian religion was never pleasant, even from its inception; it is evident, too, in the debris of past centuries; ....unfortunate and bizarre centuries, marked by everything that error and ignorance have in the way of shame and disaster.
Those who are interested in visiting the tombs of Childebert and Altrogotte [Ultrogoth], of Chilperic and of Fredegund, his wife, can still do so. Chilperic's inscriptions beg the living not to remove his remains from the place where they rested; a prayer which seems to have been addressed with reference to these Northern bandits, who swooped down upon the realm and upon the abbey. [...] Former names without splendour, sad sarcophagi stripped bare, dark sombre images of no interest, made by a hard and coarse chisel; these are the antiquities that fill the churches. The genius of man seems overwhelmed by the empire of terror and man's trembling hand now only remembers how to trace dismal and monotonous images."
This is a sad picture indeed of the ravages perpetrated by the Vikings, who seemed to have found an effective way of stamping their indelible mark on the entire century. We can easily understand that the golden cross would have been quickly moved and that its trail was lost just as quickly as it had appeared, thanks to Childebert's Spanish expeditions. But if any trace of this cruciform talisman seemed to have been lost during the Merovingian age, Venance Fortunat has shone a light in the darkness, enabling us to pick up its trail.
Fortunat, the Underrated Cantor of a Merovingian Arcadia: From Girona to St-Germain-des-Prés
Leaving Girona and continuing to St-Germain-des-Prés, there is a trail which cannot be ignored, as it contains many clues, seemingly pregnant with intriguing promises. It is a solitary road, in truth, but we need to take it, as it is the only witness to a time and era that seems to be devoid of history, without a scribe to record it and populated only by its ghosts.
The trail begins in the collegiate church of St Felix in Girona. This edifice houses, in a massive sarcophagus within a chapel, the remains of St Narcissus. Here was preserved the tomb of the saint, famous for his acts of healing, but even more well-known for the incredible tale of the flies, which are said to have swarmed out of his tomb and whose venom decimated the army of Philip the Bold in 1286. It is this St Narcissus of Girona, who, having lived around the third century, preached as far as Germany, where his influence spread from Augsburg throughout the rest of Bavaria.
If this barbaric century has left us with an impression of Fortunat’s renown, the same cannot be said of his fatherland or the places he frequented. In Book IV of the Life of Saint Martin we learn, effectively from Fortunat's own lips, that he was born in Duplavilis. Located on the outskirts of Treviso in Italy, this place was, according to Joseph Liruti, a small but peaceful country estate owned by Fortunat's parents, who were citizens of the city of Aquileia. They had retreated there to escape the unrest perpetrated by the ravaging hordes of Attila. It is therefore natural that Fortunat was taught and baptised in Aquileia by the Bishop Paulinus, who was, seemingly, one of several confidants of the family.
Fortunat remained in Aquileia until the age of 28, when Paulinus initiated him into the secret doctrines, brought from Egypt by Rufinus of Aquileia, which prompted Fortunat to consider embracing monastic life. It appears, however, that this displeased Fortunat, who, far from agreeing to enter the monastery of Rufinus, chose to perfect his studies in the city of Ravenna. He settled there and, as we are told by one of his earliest biographers, Paul Diacre, he was "fed and trained [...] in the study of grammar, rhetoric, metre and rhythm [so that he became] very clever”.
It is generally agreed that Fortunat practised law in Ravenna and enjoyed a fine reputation of achievement and success. Christopher Brower seems, however, not to hold Fortunat in such high esteem and believes that Fortunat had only a veneer of education, concealing a man who was not as well read as he appeared. It is true that Honorius had, in 404 AD, promoted Ravenna to the rank of the western empire's capital city and, because of this, many learned men taught there. However, with the fall of the empire in 476 and the Ostrogoths’ (one of two branches of Goths - the other being the Visigoths) conquest of the territory, the ignorant, rude invaders once again mingled with the beauty of the ancient spirit.
It was around the time that Fortunat was concluding his studies that a very curious event occurred, which left an indelible mark on his life and greatly influenced his destiny. While in Ravenna, he and his friend, Felix (who went on to become the Bishop of Treviso), were afflicted with an eye disease which, apart from causing serious burns, gave him terrible anxiety attacks and a painful fever. Convinced that he would lose his vision permanently and fearful of becoming the living image of Tobit, the old blind man of biblical legend, he ran, dragging his friend with him, into the basilica of the martyred Saints John and Paul. Here, he noticed an altar dedicated to St Martin, the apostle of the Gauls. As he relates, it was here that a miracle occurred and the two young men found their sight restored:
"Under the highest vault of the basilica of Paul and John we see on the wall a picture of St Martin, a painting that deserves to attract attention by the charm of its colours alone. Under the feet of the saint the artist had created an opening, where there was a lamp, whose flame swam in a glass urn. And this is where I ran to one day, a prey to cruel suffering, dispirited to feel my eyes closed to the light. Hardly had they touched the blessed oil, when the mist of fire that burned my face vanished and the beneficent unction instantly snatched my pain away."
Fortunat and Felix, marvelling at their recovery, as complete as it was sudden, came to hold St Martin in the utmost esteem and, while Felix limited his gratitude to prayer and sincere devotion, Fortunat, driven by an ardent zeal, visited the burial place of the saint and vowed to dedicate himself entirely to him. According to Christopher Brower, Fortunat then left Italy; before the Lombards invaded the district of Treviso and shortly before Sigebert’s marriage to Brunhild in 565, the fifth year of Sigebert’s reign.
We have here, contained in this academic recitation, the essential core of the thesis developed by de Chérisey in the final collage of Le Serpent Rouge. Equally historic is his reference to a temple of Isis, whose scattered ruins served as the foundation for the new abbey. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in fact, relates in Le Tableau de Paris that the elders of his time regretted "...greatly, a statue of the goddess Isis, which, because of its antiquity, had been left standing at the main gate of the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés". The statue, a unique testament to past ages, could not escape a deadly fate, because “in 1514 a good woman took this figure to be that of the Virgin Mary and went there to burn a handful of candles”. The Abbé of St-Germain, in a righteous rage, had the statue "torn to pieces, to prevent idolatry" and had put up in its place "a large cross, which is still there to this day".
Regarding the content of the collage, we are presented with a number of interesting statements and seemingly historical facts. But if it is up to us to establish the accuracy of de Chérisey's statements, we must also focus our attention on the two relics, which he stresses are important and which, having been brought from Spain, would have provided the inspiration for constructing the abbey of ‘St Vincent and Ste Croix’ in Paris (today known as St-Germain-des-Prés). According to de Chérisey’s collage, Childebert I, whose soul was suddenly seized with a great liking for the sacred relics of the pious Vincent, returned to Paris, having obtained the tunic of St Vincent from the inhabitants of Saragossa. Thus, the temple of St-Germain-des-Prés was primarily intended "to house the sacred relic and, dedicated to St Vincent, it also received the name of Holy Cross in memory, we are told, of a cross of gold that the King had also brought back from Spain, which was reputed to have belonged to Solomon”.
If we are to confirm the accuracy of de Chérisey's sources, we must underscore the fact that the work lacks clarity and is rather ambiguous. There is an uncertainty as to the origin of the second relic - the golden cross - which one supposes, on first reading, to have come from Saragossa, along with the tunic of St Vincent. It is an easy mistake to make, especially as the historical texts describing the event are often incomplete. To fill this gap we have J A Dulaure of the Society of Antiquaries of France, who reports that Gislemar, the biographer of the first abbé of St Vincent and Ste Croix (St-Germain-des-Prés), gives us a brief description of the treasures removed from Spain by Childebert I. Gislemar tells us that the King "took a cross of gold from the church of Toledo, enriched with precious stones (which was allegedly made by King Solomon), along with thirty chalices, fifteen patens and twenty containers to house the Gospels. Childebert I, being a pious and devoted man, did not appropriate these objects for himself; instead he distributed them amongst the churches. He had one such church built in a suburb of Paris and designed its ground plan in the shape of a cross, like the one he had brought back from Toledo, which he presented to the church, along with several priceless ornaments”.
Isaac Ben Jacob