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Fulcanelli and the Mystery of the Cross at Hendaye

In 1926, a mysterious volume issued in a luxury edition of three hundred copies by a small Paris publishing firm known mostly for artistic reprints rocked the Parisian occult underworld. Its title was Le Mystère des Cathédrales (The Mystery of the Cathedrals). The author, “Fulcanelli,” claimed that the great secret of alchemy, the queen of Western occult sciences, was plainly displayed on the walls of Paris’s own cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-Paris.

Alchemy, by our post-modern lights a quaint and discredited Renaissance pseudo-science, was in the process of being reclaimed and reconditioned in 1926 by two of the most influential movements of the century. Surrealism and psychology stumbled onto alchemy at about the same time, and each attached their own notions of its meaning to the ancient science. Carl Jung spent the twenties teasing out a theory of the archetypal unconscious from the symbolic tapestry of alchemical images and studying how these symbols are expressed in the dream state. The poet-philosopher André Breton and the surrealists made an intuitive leap of faith and proclaimed that the alchemical process could be expressed artistically. Breton, in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, announced that surrealism was nothing but alchemical art.

Fulcanelli’s book would have an indirect effect on both of these intellectual movements. Indirect, because the book managed a major literary miracle-it became influential while remaining, apparently, completely unknown outside of French occult and alchemical circles. This is perhaps the strangest of all the mysteries surrounding The Mystery of the Cathedrals.


Jean-Julien Champagne
A youthful Jean-Julien Champagne

In the fall of 1925, publisher Jean Schémit received a visit from a small man dressed as a pre-war bohemian, with a long Asterix-the-Gaul-style mustache. The man wanted to talk about Gothic architecture, the “green argot” of its sculptural symbols, and how slang was a kind of punning code, which he called the “language of the birds.” A few weeks later, Schémit was introduced to him again as Jean-Julien Champagne, the illustrator of a proposed book by a mysterious alchemist called Fulcanelli. Schémit thought that all three, the visitor, the author, and the illustrator, were the same man. Perhaps they were.

This, such as it is, amounts to our most credible Fulcanelli sighting. As such, it sums up the entire problem posed by the question: Who was Fulcanelli? Beyond this ambiguous encounter, he exists as words on a page and, in some occult circles, as a mythic alchemical immortal with the status, or identity, of a St. Germain. There were two things that everyone agreed upon concerning Fulcanelli – he was definitely a mind to be reckoned with, and he was a true enigma.

We are left then with the mystery of the missing master alchemist. He is a man who does not seem to exist, and yet he is recreated constantly in the imagination of every seeker-a perfect foil for projection. We might even think it was all a joke, some kind of elaborate hoax, except for the material itself. When one turns to Le Mystère, one finds a witty intelligence that seems quite sure of the nature and importance of his information. This “Fulcanelli” knows something and is trying to communicate his knowledge; of this there can be no doubt.

Fulcanelli’s message, that there is a secret in the cathedrals, and that this secret was placed there by a group of initiates-of which Fulcanelli is obviously one-depends upon an abundance of imagery and association that overpowers the intellect, lulling one into an intuitive state of acceptance. Fulcanelli is undoubtedly brilliant, but we are left wondering if his is the brilliance of revelation or dissimulation.

The basic premise of the book-that Gothic cathedrals are Hermetic books in stone-was an idea that made it into print in the nineteenth-century in the work of Victor Hugo. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo spends a whole chapter (chapter 2 of book 5) on the idea that architecture is the great book of humanity, and that the invention of printing and the proliferation of mundane books spelled the end of the sacred book of architecture. He reports that the Gothic era was the sacred architect’s greatest achievement, that the cathedrals were expressions of liberty and the emergence of a new sense of freedom. “This freedom goes to great lengths,” Hugo informs us. “Occasionally a portal, a facade, an entire church is presented in a symbolic sense entirely foreign to its creed, and even hostile to the church. In the thirteenth century, Guillaume of Paris, in the fifteenth Nicholas Flamel, both are guilty of these seditious pages.”


Notre Dame North Side
The spires and gargoyles of Notre Dame’s north side
Photo by Darlene

Essentially, Le Mystère is an in-depth examination of those “seditious pages” in stone. Fulcanelli elaborates on the symbolism of certain images found on the walls and porches of architect Guillaume of Paris’s masterpiece, Notre Dame Cathedral, and its close contemporary, Notre Dame of Amiens. To this he adds images from two houses built in the Gothic style from fifteenth-century Bourges. This guided tour of Hermetic symbolism is densely obscure, filled with “green language” puns and numerous allusions. To the casual reader, and even the dedicated student, this tangled web of scholarship is daunting.


Eugene Canseliet
Eugene Canseliet near the end of his life

However, to the occult savants of Paris in the late 1920s, Fulcanelli’s book was almost intoxicating. Here, finally, was the word of a man who knew, the voice of the last true initiate. His student, Eugène Canseliet, informs us in the preface to the first edition of Le Mystère that Fulcanelli had accomplished the Great Work and then disappeared from the world. “For a long time now the author of this book has not been among us,” Canseliet wrote, and he was lamented by a group of “unknown brothers who hoped to obtain from him the solution to the mysterious Verbum dimissum (missing word).

Mystification about the true identity of the alchemist obscured the fact that credible people had seen his visiting card, emblazoned with an aristocratic signature. It was possible to encounter people at the Chat Noir nightclub in Paris who claimed to have met Fulcanelli right through World War II. Between 1926 and 1929, his legend grew, fuelled by café gossip and a few articles and reviews in obscure Parisian occult journals. Canseliet contributed more information: the Master had indeed accomplished transmutation, Fulcanelli hadn’t really disappeared, another book or two was planned, and so on.

After the war, Fulcanelli’s legend, and Canseliet’s career, profited from an upsurge of interest in all things metaphysical. By the mid 1950s, conditions were right to reprint both Le Mystère des Cathédrales and Dwellings of the Philosphers. Simply by having been the mysterious Fulcanelli’s student, Canseliet had become the grand old man of French alchemy and esotericism. But the fifties were not the twenties, and many things had changed. One of those things was the text of Le Mystère itself.


Original 1936 magazine article mentioning the Cross at Hendaye

The Fulcanelli affair would be of interest only to specialists of occult history and abnormal psychology, except for the singular mystery of the extra chapter added to the 1957 edition of Le Mystère. This second edition included a new chapter entitled “The Cyclic Cross of Hendaye” and a few changes in its illustrations. No mention of these changes appeared in Canseliet’s preface to the second edition.

With Canseliet’s use of everything else by Fulcanelli, how are we to account for the complete absence of reference to Hendaye in Canseliet’s works prior to the mid 1950s? If the chapter is the work of Champagne, then Canseliet must have known about it. This is not a trivial question. The Hendaye chapter is perhaps the single most astounding esoteric work in Western history. It offers proof that alchemy is somehow connected to eschatology, or the timing of the end of the world. And it offers the conclusion that a “double catastrophe” is imminent. If Canseliet had known of this, he would surely have used it, or at least mentioned it. Yet, the silence is complete and compelling.


Hendaye Cross
The top of the Hendaye Cross

“The Cyclic Cross at Hendaye” is the next to last, or penultimate, chapter of Fulcanelli’s masterpiece. After wading through thickets of erudition and punning slang in the rest of Le Mystere, this chapter feels awash with the bright sunlight of its Basque setting. The description of the monument and its location is seemingly clear and direct. Even the explanation of the monument’s apparent meaning is simple and virtually free of the Green Language code used throughout the rest of the book. Or so it appears on the surface…

We can date Fulcanelli’s visit to Hendaye to the early 1920s because of his comment on the “special attraction of a new beach, bristling with proud villas.” H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and the smart young London set discovered nearby St.-Jean-de-Luz in 1920 and by 1926 or so the tourist villas had spread as far south as Hendaye. Today, Hendaye-Plage, Hendaye’s beachfront addition, bustles with boutiques, dive shops and surfboard emporiums, having become a popular stopover for the young international backpack-nomad crowd.

Although Fulcanelli declares, somewhat disingenuously: “Hendaye has nothing to hold the interest of the tourist, the archaeologist or the artist,” the region does have a rather curious history. A young Louis XIV met his bride on an island in the bay below Hendaye, along the boundary between Spain and France. Wellington passed through, making nearby St.-Jean-de-Luz his base of operation against Toulouse at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Hitler also paid a visit during World War II; in 1940 he parked his train car within walking distance of the cross at Hendaye.

“Whatever its age, the Hendaye cross shows by the decoration of its pedestal that it is the strangest monument of primitive millenarism, the rarest symbolical translation of Chilaism, which I have ever met.” Coming from Fulcanelli, this is high praise indeed. He goes on to tell us “that the unknown workman, who made these images, possessed real and profound knowledge of the universe.”


St Vincent Church
The Church of St Vincent in Hendaye

The Cross sits today in a very small courtyard just to the south of the church. There is a tiny garden with a park bench nearby. Standing about 12 feet tall, the Cyclic Cross at Hendaye looms over the courtyard, a mysterious apparition in the clear Basque sunlight. The monument is brown and discolored from its 300-plus years. The stone is starting to crumble and it is obvious that air pollution-the cross sits a few yards from a busy street on the main square-is speeding its dissolution. The images and the Latin inscription on the cross have no more than a generation left before pollution wipes the images clean and the message disappears forever.

The base of local sandstone sits on a broad but irregular three-step platform, and is roughly cubic. Measurement reveals that it is a little taller than it is wide. On each face are curious symbols, a sun face glaring like some ancient American sun god, a strange shield-like arrangement of A‘s in the arms of a cross, an eight-rayed starburst, and most curious of all, an old-fashioned man-in-the-moon face with a prominent eye. Rising from this is a fluted column, with a suggestion of Greek classicism, on top of which stands a very rudely done Greek cross with Latin inscriptions. Above the sun face on the western side can be seen a double X figure on the top portion of the cross. Below that, on the transverse arm, is the common inscription, O Crux Aves /Pes Unica, “Hail, O Cross, the Only Hope.” On the reverse side of the upper cross, above the starburst, is the Christian symbol INRI.

In “The Cyclic Cross at Hendaye” Fulcanelli gives us a guided tour of this monument to the alchemy of time. He begins with the Latin inscription, which he interprets, in French from the Latin letters of the original, as: “It is written that life takes refuge in a single space.” Following this rendering, he casually suggests that the phrase means “that a country exists, where death cannot reach man at the terrible time of the double cataclysm.” What is more, only the elite will be able to find “this promised land.”

Fulcanelli moves on to the INRI, concluding that: “…we have two symbolic crosses, both instruments of the same torture. Above is the divine cross, exemplifying the chosen means of expiation; below is the global cross, fixing the pole of the northern hemisphere and locating in time the fatal period of this expiation.” His esoteric interpretation of INRI, “by fire is nature renewed whole,” goes directly to the issue of chiliasm and a cleansing destruction as a prelude to a re-created and Edenic world. Alchemy, according to Fulcanelli’s, is the very heart of eschatology. Just as gold is refined, so will our age be refined – by fire.


Tree of Life
Correspondences of Hendaye Cross and Tree of Life/Tarot images

Fulcanelli concludes the chapter with a series of metaphors: “The age of iron has no other seal than that of Death. Its hieroglyph is the skeleton, bearing the attributes of Saturn: the empty hourglass, symbol of time run out, and the scythe, reproduced in the figure seven, which is the number of transformation, of destruction, of annihilation,” Fulcanelli instructs us. “The Gospel of this fatal age is the one written under the inspiration of St. Matthew… It is the Gospel according to Science, the last of all but for us the first, because it teaches us that, save for a small number of the elite, we must all perish. For this reason, the angel was made the attribute of St. Matthew, because science, which alone is capable of penetrating the mystery of things, of beings and their destiny, can give man wings to raise him to knowledge of the highest truths and finally to God.

Because Fulcanelli so openly connected alchemy and the apocalypse, the true nature of a very specific Gnostic astro-alchemical meme emerged into public consciousness. This meant that the secret was no longer contained among the elect societies. For the first time since the age of the Gothic cathedrals, the meme had broken out of its incubational structures.

In a way, the cross and its message serve as proof that there are such things as secret societies. Found throughout history, these societies preserve and present the secret of the cross in various ways. The Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufic Islam, esoteric Christianity, Gnosticism, and the Hermetic tradition have been the keepers of these ideas. The central message of the three main Western religions, that of an eschatological moment in time, is the secret that also lies at the heart of the cross at Hendaye. The meme, the ability to understand the myth and its metaphors, seems to have survived only through the actions of these secret and insular groups.

The Cross at Hendaye stands today at the southwest corner of Saint Vincent’s Church, the busiest street corner in town. No one notices the ordinary looking monument with its message of catastrophe; perhaps it was intended to be that way. The secret hides in plain sight…

2003 by

About the author: Vincent Bridges is a historian, shamanic therapist, and author who has written extensively on gnosticism, alchemy, and unsolved enigmas. He lives in North Carolina. He is co-author, with Jay Weidner, of The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye

The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye reveals one of Western occultism’s deepest secrets: The alchemical transformation of base metal into gold is also the transformation of the current Iron Age into the Golden Age. Based on the work of the enigmatic 20th-century alchemist Fulcanelli, the book illustrates how the greatest alchemical secret is that of time itself and that coded into an obscure monument in the Basque country of southwestern France – the cross in the town square of Hendaye – is the imminent date of the apocalypse. The authors’ explorations of this symbolism lead them from the cross of Hendaye in the Pyrenees, and the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, to ancient Egypt, the secret origins of Atlantis in Peru, and finally to the hidden kingdom of Shamballah to reveal that we are indeed living in a “fatal season” and that this season is intimately connected to our solar system’s alignment with the galactic center. Due to be released in September ’03, you can preorder now from