The Cathar Country and the legend of the Holy Grail

Matter is evil.

Montségur

Montségur

Emancipation comes through gnosis.

Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Gnosis is an esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the Gnostics to be essential to salvation.

“The Last Judgment”, Albi Cathedral

“The Last Judgment”, Albi Cathedral

The Cathars were the last Gnostics of Europe. They lived in the old Languedoc, the Cathar Country …

Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, Albi

Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, Albi

From 1209, for some 40 years, on the express orders of Pope Innocent III, an army of 30,000 knights and foot-soldiers pursued and killed almost the entire Cathar population of the old Languedoc region. Why? Because they were heretics.

Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, Albi

Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, Albi

That terrible fight was known as the Albigensian Crusade (called “Albigensian” after the city of “Albi”, because it was full of Cathars in the 12th and 13th centuries)

Albi

Albi

By the way, today Albi is a peaceful and really nice city. It has been included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list.

Palais de la Berbie, Albi

Palais de la Berbie, Albi

The Palais de la Berbie, in Albi, is home of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (160,000 visitors per year).

It is one of the top French museums outside Paris. Btw, Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864, and he was not a Cathar.

Palais de la Berbie, Albi

Palais de la Berbie, Albi

Cathars were sincere (they didn’t lie) people who led ascetic lives. For instance, they didn’t eat meat, because they interpreted the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” as referring to all animals.

Cathars

Fromagerie, Albi

Albi is full of charming corners, like the cloister of the Collégiale Saint-Salvi, which is the oldest church in Albi (12th century) …

Collégiale Saint-Salvi, Albi

Collégiale Saint-Salvi, Albi

Covetotop likes Albi very much …

Albi

Covetotop in Albi

In fact, Covetotop likes the whole Cathar Country very much. This mythic territory is entrenched in today’s Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon regions (South of France).

Puilaurens

Puilaurens

It is a land full of wonderful medieval towns …

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

… medieval villages …

Cordes-sur-Ciel

Cordes-sur-Ciel

… tiny villages perched on the rocks …

Cathar rocks

Saint-Cirq Lapopie

… middle-size charming villages …

Lagrasse

Lagrasse

… impressive Romanesque monasteries …

Cathar monastery

Moissac Abbey

… phantom castles …

Château de Foix

Château de Foix

… surprising nature …

water cave

Fontestorbes

… open air markets …

Le marché de plein air de Cahors

Le marché de plein air de Cahors

… boutiques …

medieval shop

Cordes-sur-Ciel

… vineyards (the Languedoc-Roussillon is the single biggest wine-producing region in the world, being responsible for more than a third of France’s total wine production. -AOP: Appellation d’Origine Protégée-) …

Vineyards, A.O.P. Corbieres

Vineyards, A.O.P. Corbieres

The Occitan cross is everywhere in the Cathar Country …

The Occitan cross

The Occitan cross

“Le Pays Cathare” (“The Cathar Country”) sign is also everywhere in the Cathar Country ..

Le Pays Cathare

Le Pays Cathare

The Cathar Country has been selected by National Geographic as one of their “2014 Best of the World List” (21 top destinations for 2014)

The Cathar Country, brochures

The Cathar Country, brochures

But the Cathar Country is not just a nice tourist destination in Southern France. It is an endless source of legends …

Moissac Abbey, tympanum of the south-west portico (detail)

Moissac Abbey, tympanum of the south-west portico (detail)

In an absurd book about a code of Leonardo Da Vinci, the author apparently maintains that the local priest of Rennes-le-Château discovered I don’t know what about Mary Magdalene and a treasure in the surroundings of said village. Thanks to that book, Rennes-le-Château receives tons of confused tourists every year … I didn’t read the book, consequently I cannot add anything more here, except a photo of Rennes-le-Château and its surroundings …

Rennes-le-Château

Rennes-le-Château

Not far away from Rennes-le-Château there is a mountain called Bugarach. It has been a source of inspiration for quite a few works of science fiction, from “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth” (Jules Verne) to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg). These days some people say that Bugarach is an alien space station. More about Bugarach in this article from the British newspaper The Telegraph.

But my post is not about Martians. My post is about the Cathars, the Cathar Country and the Cathar legends.

Let’s go on.

Abbey of Saint Hilaire

Abbey of Saint Hilaire

Some experts maintain that the legendary Romanesque sculptor known as Master of Cabestany was a Cathar. He worked in the Cathar Country in Cathar times … I have devoted a lot of posts to said outstanding artist in this blog.

Sarcophagus (detail) by Master of Cabestany (Saint Hilaire Abbey)

Sarcophagus (detail) by Master of Cabestany (Saint Hilaire Abbey)

There was another legendary Cabestany who worked in this very same area at the turn of the 13th century: the troubadour Guillem de Cabestany

As the legend goes, the troubadour was the lover of Soremonda, wife of Raimon of Castel Rossillon. When the angry husband discovered her infidelity, he fed Cabestany’s heart to Soremonda. At the end of that romantic dinner, when he told her what she had eaten, she threw herself from the window to her death. This lovely legend appears later in Boccaccio’s Decameron, in Stendhal’s De l’ amour … The eaten heart can also be found as a poetical metaphor in the sonnet “A ciascun’ alma presa e gentil core”, by Dante Alighieri (Vita Nova, III)

The old legend of Guillem de Cabestany goes on in “Written on Skin”, an opera composed by the British George Benjamin. It was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, and received its British premiere at the Royal Opera House in London, in March 2013.

Poor Guillem de Cabestany!

Talking about Cathar music, there is a stupendous work by Jordi Savall and his fellow musicians, called “The Forgotten Kingdom”. Gramophone magazine (arguably the best magazine of classical music) said about Savall’s “The Forgotten Kingdom”: “This epic project – nearly four hours of music and readings in Latin and Occitan (the Langue d’Oc), chronicling five centuries (c950-1463) – shines fresh light on the Cathars (dissidents calling themselves “good Christian men and woman”), who were hunted down and burnt at the stake – through the words and music of eye-witnesses. Their strophic sirventès, chansons and laments still touch us with their expressive power, authority and poignancy, especially when set alongside contemporary Roman texts.”

By the way, “The Forgotten Kingdom” was recorded at the Fontfroide Abbey. I blogged about Fontfroide in my post “The Fontfroide Abbey (Southern France)

Abbey of Fontfroide

Abbey of Fontfroide

Far away from the Cathar Country, and 250 years after the theoretical “end” of the Cathar heresy, three “neo-Cathars” met in Venice (Italy) …

In her book “The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch”, author Lynda Harris suggests that Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione and Hieronymus Bosch were Cathars, and that they could have met in Venice. The graphic account of that astonishing meeting would be this masterpiece: Three Philosophers, 1509, by Giorgione (Kunsthistorisches, Vienna)

(The “official” theory maintains that the three “philosophers” in the painting were Pythagoras (sitting) and his two teachers Pherecydes and Thales)

Lynda Harris argues that Bosch belonged to the Cathar faith. According to the book, while Bosch was carrying out commissions for his wealthy Catholic patrons, he was all the while coding his own inner heretical convictions in the hidden meanings of his paintings, as a record for posterity of the beliefs of the Cathars.

As far as these beautiful territories are concerned (the Cathar Country and the French/Spanish Pyrenees Mountains) my favorite legend of them all is the one that more or less begins this way …

“Scene 1: The Grail-Knight Gurnemanz and his esquires are praying in a forest near Montsalvat, the hidden Temple of the Grail. The countryside resembles the northern mountains of Gothic Spain …” (Parsifal, Act I, Scene 1)

(Btw, “the northern mountains of Gothic Spain” mentioned by Wagner are the Pyrenees Mountains, natural frontier between France and Spain)

In the opera “Parsifal”, Montsalvat is the castle where the Holy Grail is protected.

In Act III of the opera “Lohengrin”, also written and composed by Wagner, Lohengrin sings these words: “In a far-off land, inaccessible to your steps, there is a castle by the name of Montsalvat; a light-filled temple stands within it, more beautiful than anything on earth; therein is a vessel of wondrous blessing that is watched over as a sacred relic

In the English legend of “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table”, Montsalvat is mentioned as the home of the Holy Grail.

Well, at this point of the post, where is exactly Montsalvat?

Montségur

Montségur

Nobody knows … I am still looking for it around here, in Montségur, the last stronghold of the Cathars …

The ruins of the Castle of Montségur

The ruins of the Castle of Montségur

Behind the Castle of Montségur lies the so-called “Field of the Burned”, a peaceful meadow where the last 205 Cathars were burned alive 770 years ago, in March 1244, because they did not renounce to their creed.

Field of the Burned, Montségur

Field of the Burned, Montségur

As the legend tells us, a small group of Cathars could escape from Montségur and took with them their most precious treasure: the Holy Grail, which were never found by the crusaders (nor by the Nazis in the 20th century; for more about their seek of the Holy Grail in these mountains see Otto Rahn)

According to the legend, that little group of Cathars headed South, towards Spain. Today, there is a Long Distance Trail (GR 107) known as “Camí dels Bons Homes” (“Path of the Good Men”)  that can be travelled on foot, by horse or by mountain bike, following in the footsteps of said little group of Cathars (and the Holy Grail) over the Pyrenees. The path starts just at Montségur …

“Camí dels Bons Homes”, sign at Montségur

“Camí dels Bons Homes”, sign at Montségur

There is always a trekker or a romantic traveller looking for the Holy Grail in these wonderful mountains …

Montségur surroundings

Montségur surroundings

The legend of Parsifal and the Holy Grail is still alive. The Prado Museum (Madrid) is holding these days (up to November 23, 2014) a little art exhibition about a Spanish artist named Rogelio de Egusquiza and his obsession with Wagner’s Parsifal.

I am not obsessed with finding the Holy Grail, but I must leave you now. I have seen something shining just over there … in that mysterious castle called Montségur … What can it be? …

Road to Montségur

Road to Montségur

Ps: More in Covetotop’s “Romanesque churches in the Pyrenees

 

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About Covetotop

A Mediterranean blogger
This entry was posted in Art, Mountains & Valleys, Towns & Villages and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Cathar Country and the legend of the Holy Grail

  1. Thank you, Covetotop, for another wonderful account of your travels. I enjoy your blog very much and the photos too. Btw, have you read “Montaillou” by Leroy-Ladurie? It tells the story of the Cathars through accounts of the interviews by the Inquisition. Montaillou village is in ruins now, but when we visited, we saw that the family names of the ladies who arrange the flowers in the church are the same as in the time of the Cathars. So Catharism may have died out, but the people remain. Amazing country. Thanks again, and I look forward to your next adventure!
    Jane

    • Covetotop says:

      I am afraid that I have neither read “Montaillou”, nor have visited the ruins of said village, but it seems pretty interesting. I have something new to add to my to-do-list 🙂

      Thank you very much for the information, and for your kind comment, Jane.

  2. What a whirlwind tour! History, geography, architecture, painting, music… you got it all. Covetotop puts more research into each blog post than many authors put into an entire book. I don’t know how or why you do it, but i am glad you do.

    Also, being noon, i’m so glad for once you (mostly) left out the food photos 😉

    • Covetotop says:

      Oh my! How or why the hell I write this blog? That’s a too philosophical question. I don’t know! As a matter of fact, I started blogging in English just to force myself to practice and improve English in a creative and entertaining way. But at this point, with so little improvement, I am starting to think that it is just a creative and entertaining way of wasting one’s time … and making good digital friends (i.e: masters of b/w photography and so on) 🙂

  3. a ferreira says:

    Harsh entrance!
    Religion, history, art, music, architecture, tourism, … It’s amazing the diversity of information you manage to integrate in a single post. 🙂
    I’ve travelled through Languedoc-Roussillon years ago, but knew almost nothing about it and it’s really fascinating. Is that road going right to the top of Montségur? What a landmark! There must be quite a view from up there!

    • Covetotop says:

      Languedoc-Roussillon is certainly a surprising territory, full of art and legends. Writing about it is writing about a lot of things.

      The road in the last pic doesn’t go right to the top of Montségur. It passes relatively nearby, and there is a parking space just in front of the so-called Field of the Burned. In order to reach the castle, you have to follow (on foot) a painful trek that is usually full of crazy seekers of the Holy Grail and esoteric powers. The castle itself is a little disappointing. Nothing is left but the walls. But undoubtedly its surroundings are almost as amazing as its legends.

      Btw, in that last pic very few things are real …

      Thank you Ana, as always, for your kind comment and for your patience (reading this long post and commenting is something that I truly appreciate) 😉

  4. As always, a beautifully-photographed and narrated journey to one of my favorite French locales. Thanks for bringing this region alive on your blog!

  5. Aggie says:

    I am fascinated by our western mystical heritage, so this one was extra special. I have never been in the areas you show us, yet feel that it is home. Thanks once again. PS How nice to finally see your face 😉

    • Covetotop says:

      Thank you for your comment, Aggie. The Cathar Country is probably one of the most “mystical” regions of Europe. It is a land full of mystery.
      Ps: Yes, I don’t use to show my stone-made face to human readers, but this time I made an exception … 😉

  6. cristitol says:

    ¡¡¡Preciosas fotografías!!!

  7. harri8here says:

    C2T, It’s Christmas and with all the delicious food around I have become even more of a glutton. Gorging on your posts however is a much more pleasant way to stuff my face. (And my tiny little brain). Thank you as ever for your nutrition.
    I once toured this region on a narrow boat.
    HR8

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