As soon as the opening speeches were finished, a throng of tubbers swarmed out of the hotel, up the hill and the worn stone steps into the open doors of the South Transept. Skip seemed resigned to find a camera in his hands, and Gus was quiet also.
Inside, their moods rose, for there was indeed much to marvel at. Like many side wings of Gothic cathedrals, this south-facing extension was the size of a small church but twice as tall. The high vaulted ceiling was festooned with silver stars scattered across a dark blue sky. Four large pillars with statues of saints upon pedestals at their bases supported it, spreading beautifully patterned ribs like tree limbs across the lofty vault.
Few looked upwards at first because beneath their feet was something more marvelous and rare. The original floor had not seen daylight in a century. The recently-revealed restored pavement grabbed everyone’s attention. Much of it was a plain checkerboard pattern of black and white marble. But around the Templar’s Tomb, the bases of the pillars, and near the door large circular areas glistened with bright and colorful stones.
These weren’t just decorations but filled with cosmic symbolism. Around the base of the tomb, they were artfully cut, intricately arranged to depict the heavens with symbols of the stars and planets. In the circle near the door, the semi-precious stones represented the Earth with more terrestrial devices. A wide white pavement was laid between the circles. Dead north along the center of it ran a thin red stripe – the world-famous Rose Line of the Meridian of Bellegarde.
“My stars,” Skip breathed, “just like they said – a carpet of gems.”
“Incredible,” Gus agreed, almost as slack-jawed. “It’s one of the biggest such pavements outside Italy, nearly as big as the Cosmati flooring in Westminster Abbey. Allie has got to see this.”
Skip nodded, already snapping away with a still camera which appeared to be mostly lens.
After a year of painstaking cleaning and restoration, the paving had been finally unveiled. Ages of traffic worn the colored stones unevenly so much the floor had become treacherous. Around the pillar bearing the seated image of St. Horrig, the pavement was pitted and broken where someone once took an old prophecy at face value and attacked it with a pick axe.
After these insults, the flooring had been preserved for a century beneath the most modern material available – linoleum. Now the precious mosaics shone again as if new, protected against future wear or assaults several inches below a thick, clear walkway of sturdy glass. Only the two large open roundels and the central stripe running across the floor between them were exposed beyond the handrails.
Their host was a lean, ascetic-looking priest with a small goatee and a habitual expression of slight disapproval. Dressed in a smart French-cut violet soutane and red silk sash, he waited there, hands piously folded before spreading them with a wide gesture of welcome. “Bonjour, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs. Welcome to the South Transept of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de le R�primande! I am Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Galliard, the rector of the cathedral for our ordinary, Cardinal Archbishop Toussaint Mortens. Today, I am your host. It’s my honor to introduce you to this unique sanctuary today. Around you are visible signs left by the most crucial events involving the Pelluvium Sanctissimum. Please look around freely but remember, this is a sacred site, so please show a proper reverence.” He folded his long-fingered hands across his satin sash and waited for the people to settle.
“Here the Templars holed up,” the prelate began his lecture once a reasonable decorum reigned, “when they learned of the arrests of their brethren by King Philip the Fair. Blocked ahead, pursued close behind, here they made ready their last stand.
“The transept did not have a roof by 1307, nor most of the flooring. But you can see how it might have looked, here in Alfini’s masterpiece.” He gestured at the huge canvas behind him which Gus and Nigel glimpsed the previous evening.
The Ascension of the Sacred Reliquary was an immense oil painting almost filling the far end of the room. It depicted the crucial moment at nearly life-size scale. On it, twin angels flew upwards carrying the Inner Reliquary between them by its golden rings, the Virgin Mary awaiting it in Heaven with open arms. The men-at-arms below gaped, frozen in their startled poses, a few kneeling in prayer. Past the scaffolding and defensive piles of stones the men had assembled stretched the distant countryside of Maureven.
“No,” the bishop answered an unheard question. “The decorative pavement came later. At that time, just a small portion of the Rose Line had been laid.” The cleric gestured at the white band of marble which ran the length of the room. Starting from the circle near the door, it extended past the mosaic around the tomb to disappear beneath the painting.
In the middle ran a narrow red strip, the actual “Rose Line.” A few inches wide with small brass astrological and calendrical markers and thin black lines marking the days, this unimpressive carmine stripe was the first meridian ever laid north of Italy. “Just think,” Galliard said, “if the French nobility were half as keen on astronomy as tournaments, it could be Bellegraal the world measures time from rather than Greenwich.”
He explained how Friar Lorenzo and his student Heronimo built it as a sundial and calendar, to determine local noon and religious feast days by a spot of sunlight from a small round window high above the rose window above the door. Like the majestic rose window just below it, this smaller, clear aperture was also known as an “oculus” or eye. Every day its beam crossed the Rose Line at the moment of noon, showing the day of the year.
“It is unfortunate the transept is actually too short,” he said. “The Rose Line would have to extend all the way across the sanctuary to indicate the entire year. However, this was unacceptable. So a wooden altar screen was built for the sunlight to climb instead during the last days of the year. The line ended at the winter solstice, just before Christmas, below a relief of a Nativity scene, as the old illustrations show. Above the gilded manger is mounted a small silver disk representing the Star of Bethlehem.”
Skip took close up pictures of the saints’ statues as Allie had requested so Gus whispered, “Be sure to get a few shots of this, too.”
“Your Excellency, would it be possible to get a look at the altar screen?” he asked loudly.
“Ah, Professor MacLantis, good to see you here. To answer your question: I fear it is impossible,” Bishop Galliard replied. “The wood is in terrible condition – worms and neglect have left the screen terribly fragile. Both screen and painting are mounted upon an iron trellis. They are the last things yet to be restored, for it will be rather expensive. When it is done, the painting will have to be moved somewhere else, as yet undetermined.”
While the rector launched into a well-rehearsed pitch for donations, they peeked behind the picture. A sturdy iron frame shaped like a Gothic arch discreetly supported both the screen and the painting. A space held the picture safely away from the worm-holed wood.
By now, attention focused on the most revered spot, the battered white tomb of the Templars. It sat across the Rose Line so it was illuminated at noon through the season of their martyrdom. But less than half of the marble sarcophagus remained. Most of the side facing the door had been bashed away, the edges chipped and worn all around. The hollow interior held vases of roses and lilies, a row of candles lining front and sides.
“The Grand Inquisitor, Jehan D’Laval,” the cleric declared, “was outraged that the executed Templars were revered as martyrs. He ordered the tomb destroyed. Bones and ashes were dumped in the river. The demolition had not gone far when the Gracious Lady intervened. But sadly, pilgrims continued his work in years since then, greatly reducing it through the ages.
“However, Alfini also solved this problem, too.” He indicated the graceful Art Nouveau wrought iron cage surrounding the Tomb. The pitched roof of the enclosure held hundreds of gleaming glass pieces arranged like tiles. “We call it ‘the Birdcage.’ It protects the marble from vandalism but an opening still allows the stone to be touched by the devout. The Birdcage is Silviano’s final artistic wonder. Around midday at Christmas, the prisms fill the space with glittering rainbows and sparkling stars, an effect rivaling the best creations of Heronimo.”
The bishop spread his long hands apart before the remaining blank white marble side of the tomb which faced the altar. “Here, my friends, is where the Pelluvium Sanctissimum appears, glowing in mid-air,” he said in a reverent, low voice. “I say ‘appears’ although I regret to say no apparition has graced us for a hundred and twenty years. Great gaps between visits have happened before, but no one now living has seen it. Why and wherefore no mortal can tell, and so we faithfully await its coming every year with prayer and self-denial. Let us pray to the Blessed Virgin to send her Sacred Basin to bless us with an appearance again soon,” Galliard said with due piety.
With more energy, he concluded, “But now, if you will come with me, it’s almost noon. It’s the best time to see the Monumentum Mirabilis, even a week before the feast. You will also get a chance to stand where the Lady herself stood. This way, please.” He strode past the painting, around the corner, and into the cathedral’s echoing nave, followed by a swarm of tubbers.