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Painter and Priest

The Holy Tub Revisioned

BELLEGARDE SURVIVED the French Revolution, but not quite as well as it had the Protestant incursion. Again the Cathedral was saved but this time the Chateau was burnt down, though Don Yago did manage to save his precious fossils. But the town languished as a forgotten backwater for much of the Nineteenth Century. Then, finally, its fortunes began to turn around with the arrival of a worldly priest to serve as rector.

Canon Michel Dupre was short-tempered with an powerful appetite for all things of the flesh, with a hawk nose and bristling white mutton-chops. Through his canny promotion of the Scolding Madonna he revived the town – and made himself quite rich. He was even responsible for the town fathers changing the name of the town to “Bellegraal” after a French term for the Maundy Grail, and the Cathedral to “Notre Dame de la Réprimande” after the Scolding Madonna.

Starting in 1890, he began to oversee the restoration of the Cathedral. The artist responsible for the work was as remarkable as the priest. In many ways his direct opposite, Silviano Alfini was a high-strung and highly spiritual young and talented artist. Despite bitter disputes with his employer, the Italian quickly fell in love with the place and Heronimo’s tricks.

Together, artist and cleric would fix up the place and remodel the dilapidated South Transept, and in so doing take a prominent place in the mystery. Alfini being the last person ever known to see the Vision would be enough. But the real possibility that he not only solved the puzzle but left clues encoded into his artwork has intrigued tubbers and pothunters ever since. The grim fate of the priest later on seemed almost a confirmation.

Dupre and medals

A sketch of Canon Dupre and his housekeeper Antoinette by Silviano Alfini, along with both sides of the medal he designed of the Scolding Madonna and The Vision.

Diary of Silviano Alfini
Entries for 17-20 June 1894

Along with the repairs came improvements, expensive ones. Alfini’s famous painting, The Ascension of the Sacred Reliquary, that covered up the worm-eaten altar screen, is huge. The lovely ironwork so-called “Birdcage” or “Orangery” to protect the Tomb from further damage strained resources. Funds reached such a point that the tile floor, so worn it was actually hazardous, had to be covered by linoleum.

In 1900, around the time Alfini finally succumbed to tuberculosis shortly after finishing the painting, Dupre conceived the notion of promoting the Scolding Madonna. He changed her from a grim apocalyptic figure to the patron saint of harried caregivers.

With novenas, holy cards, medals, even ceramic statues made in his own factory, Dupre advertised in the Catholic press all across Europe to nuns, schoolteachers, and mothers. But though he promoted piety, the man was not pious at all.

Addicted to many vices, he encouraged Alfini’s absinthe habit. He’d moved his “niece” Antoinette into the rectory as housekeeper, and with his new funds rebuilt the place into a glittering social heart of the town. In 1912, a light was seen on the image of the Maundy Grail in Alfini’s painting, and religious pilgrims returned. Dupre also took up a new hobby, treasure hunting.

The good times were brief. The day after the First World War began, the priest was found brutally murdered in the South Transept. Bludgeoned to death, his body was arranged ritualistically and the painting spattered with black paint. Later, a single medieval gold coin was found in his room, hinting that perhaps he had deciphered the code and paid the price.

Antoinette’s alibi was unimpeachable, however; and she soon quietly left for Paris where she became a popular club owner and benefactor of the troops until she died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

Behind her, however, the memory of the priest and the painter lingered. Were there invisible powers protecting the Holy Tub and its treasures? Throughout the Twentieth Century, many people – including both the Nazis and the Allies – wondered as every effort was thwarted. The answer would come from a surprising combination of events. And a family from the Southwestern United States known as the “Clan MacLantis” would be at the heart of it.

Document Still to Come:

  • “The Miraculous Image Can Be Yours”
    – Abbé Michel Dupre, Advertising Brochure, 1913

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Canon Dupre arrives in Bellegarde to oversee restoration work by Silviano Alfini on Cathedral.
On June 18, Silviano Alfini becomes the last person to behold the Vision.
Dupre brings “niece” Antoinette in as housekeeper, begins promotion of cult of the Scolding Madonna.
Alfini finishes his masterpiece and dies. Dupre gets town’s name changed to “Bellegraal.”
Mysterious glow seen on Alfini’s painting.
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