A few years ago, while guiding a hiking group through the land of the Cathars in southwestern France, I stepped inside St. Volusien’s Church in Foix, a city known for its atmospheric castle and heretical heritage. I had previously visited that medieval church (much of which was destroyed and rebuilt) to research my historical novel, The Fire and the Light, set during the brutal 13th-century Albigensian Crusade.
But on this second stroll through the church, I noticed a remarkable frieze under an altar bordering the right aisle. When I looked closer, I found a depiction of the Last Supper–with a woman seated next to Jesus. I called my fellow hikers over to share my discovery. They, too, were intrigued.
I was struck by several odd features on the altar. First, there seem to be only eleven Apostles shown, including the woman. Where is the twelfth Apostle? Has Judas already departed? And if the woman to Christ’s left is Mary Magdalene, which of the other traditional Apostles was left off?
Do you see the man seated in front of the table, third from the right? If you zoom in, he appears to have something cloaked hovering on his back. Are those legs and feet dangling behind him? There also appear to be two arms emerging from near the same left shoulder. If this was meant to be another Apostle, why is his face obscured? There is plenty of space between the second and third Apostles for another head. And would an Apostle really be depicted sitting on the table? That seems inappropriate, given the gravity of the occasion.
Under the chin of the second Apostle from the right, is that a furtive face turning away from Christ? Or merely a play of shadows?
What message is being conveyed by this scene? Is the Apostle with the draped body on his back preparing to carry it away? Is there some sort of conspiracy afoot here, even a switch of identities perhaps? I began thinking about some of the apocryphal traditions that claimed a substitute was made for Jesus before the Crucifixion.
Maybe the artist simply decided to cut corners by hiding one Apostle’s head behind another’s. Or, perhaps I need my eyeglasses checked and my imagination curbed.
One of our hikers was an elderly Catholic priest from Mexico, a wonderful man who endured with grace my commentary about the horrors inflicted by the papal armies and the Dominicans on the Occitans and Cathars. I led him to the altar frieze and, with an arched brow and sly grin, asked, “Well, Father? How do you explain this in a consecrated church?”
He studied the frieze for a moment. Then, he suggested, “Maybe it’s not the Last Supper.”
“Come on, Father,” I said in a good-natured taunt. “Do you really expect us to believe that somebody went to all the trouble and expense to create this beautiful tableau of a gathering that was merely similar to the Last Supper?”
He shrugged, and we agreed to attribute the strangeness of the altar to the mystery of God’s ways. Yet at the end of our journey, he had seen so many unorthodox symbols in Occitan churches that I suspect he went back to Mexico at least a little perplexed.
I returned to the States and tried to learn more about this altar, but its origins proved elusive and seemed lost to the mists of history. I had reluctantly abandoned my quest until this week, when Anneke Koremans, a travel guide who researches and writes books about Occitan mysteries, posted online the photograph below of a painting that hangs in the 13th century Eglise Saint-Vincent in Carcassonne, another city with a bloody heretical past. Bram Moerland, a Dutch author who writes and lectures about the Cathars and Gnosticism, followed up her post with a link to his photographs of the Foix frieze.
This painting in Eglise Saint-Vincent is subtler, but notice the unusually red lips and feminine hair on St. John? Maybe I’m just seeing things again, or was this artist also trying to convey a hidden message? There is a tradition in southern France that Mary Magdalene spent the last years of her life there. Koremans shares my suspicions about the altar frieze in Foix, but she said no one, to her knowledge, has ever identified the artist or the origins of the sculpture. And if someone so versed in Occitan esoterica is stumped, the significance of these features may well remain a mystery.
“Often, these friezes, statues and paintings—as soon as they contain some hidden clues—are donated to the church without revealing the artist’s name,” Koremans said.
One lesson I learned from my sojourns through Cathar Country: Nothing there is ever what it appears on the surface. While meandering one afternoon through the old basilica of Sainte-Nazaire in Carcassonne, I saw a sign announcing the church had been home to the “Roman Catholic Cult” since 1096. Was this a clumsy English translation, or did some unbowed Occitan docent—as perhaps did those unknown artists of the frieze in Foix and the painting in Carcassonne—insist on having the last word?
You can read more about Foix, St. Volusien’s Church, and the Albigensian Crusade in my historical novel, The Fire and the Light.
(Thanks to Bram Moerland and www.gnostiek.nl for the use of the St. Volusien frieze photographs, and to Anneke Koremans ( www.jeannedaout.com and www.panoccitania.com/annekeguide) for the Eglise St. Vincent photograph. More photographs can be seen at www.gnostiek.nl/MariaMagdalena/MMFoix)
For those interested in walking the ancient paths of Cathar Country, I assist Judy Colaneri and Spanish Steps with guided hiking tours of the region.