Christmas: Virgin, child and two dragons

This was carved in the later Templar era in about 1280. It’s a German statue showing the Virgin and child enthroned – a very common Catholic image. Underneath the throne are two dragons. Nothing in medieval art is without allegory and meaning. This refers to the Book of Psalms that says:

“Thou shalt walk upon the asp and basilisk and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and and the dragon.”

Virgin and child and two dragons
Virgin and child and two dragons
Advertisements

Some more movies set in the Middle Ages

With an emphasis on some non-Hollywood movies this time – you may recall I did a top ten of medieval flicks before. I named some obvious classics but here’s some you may not have heard of. For example, the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made an epic about the Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, telling the story of how he repelled the Teutonic Knights – an order similar in many ways to the Templars. The film was released in 1938 and students of history will appreciate that Nevsky, the Russian hero, might have been intended to be Stalin while the evil Teutonic Knights could have been Nazi Germany.

You may have seen later versions of the story of Joan of Arc – the French heroine – but this 1928 silent French film is extremely potent and strangely modern. The actress has an incredibly expressive face.

Turning to Hollywood for a moment, there is a movie you may be unfamiliar with by Cecil B Demille whose movies were always on an epic scale and The Crusades was no different. The only problem – it was about as factual as Fox News. The Crusades invents some bunkum about Richard the Lionheart going on crusade to avoid an unwanted marriage and the woman he does get hitched to ends up being kidnapped by Saladin. None of that happened. Here is the Siege of Acre (which did happen).

Here’s a crusade you may not know much about – the attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor to stamp out the Hussite heresy in what’s now the Czech Republic. At the Battle of Vitkov Hill, a crusader army was beaten by the Hussites in a surprise defeat. This 1956 communist era movie captures that moment in technicolor.

Rutger Hauer playing the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, may not have lived up to its promise. Barbarossa was a Christian king who took a vast German army across what is now Turkey and posed a fatal threat to Saladin. Unfortunately and pretty inexplicably – he managed to get himself drowned in a river. His army then melted away – only 5,000 men making it to Acre. Here is Rutger trying on the role.

 

German Templars, Haifa and the Nazis

During my visit to Israel in March this year, I went to Haifa and came across the most extraordinary story…that of a group of nineteenth century Germans who called themselves Templars, built a town in Ottoman controlled Palestine and fell foul of the British decades later when many of them were entranced by the doctrine of National Socialism.

Georg David Hardegg arrived in a small town called Haifa in 1868 and began to build a community of Germans. They were members of an organisation called the Templar Society. This seems to have been a rather eccentric Lutheran split-off believing that the Jews were no longer entitled to inhabit the Holy Land as they had rejected Jesus – therefore, these latter day Templars decided they had to take over the holy places and rebuild the great Temple.

Truthfully, they had nothing to do with the original Knights Templar. They were industrious settlers and seem to have made a determined attempt to settle in what is now Israel, constructing houses, schools, farming, opening shops, etc. The houses they built can still be seen in Haifa and form part of what is now called Ben Gurion Boulevard.

There has been growing interest in Israel about these German settlers and an exhibition about them was organised in Tel Aviv back in 2006. The Templars arrived at the same time that the Zionist movement was taking off and idealistic Jews were arriving in the same region from Europe. But by the 1930s, the Templars began to fall out quite dramatically with their Jewish neighbours.

About 20% to 30%, according to different estimates, joined the Nazi party. The leader of the community at that time, Cornelius Schwartz, was allegedly a signed up Nazi. And rather provocatively, some decided to rally in full Hitler regalia in the streets of Jerusalem.

In faraway Brussels, a Jewish man was interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters and was astounded to find the officer asking him questions in Hebrew. It turned out he was a German Templar! The Jewish man was sent to Auschwitz but fortunately survived to tell this very odd story.

This Nazi activity came to the attention of the British, who ran what is now Israel from the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War – and a large influx of Jews in the wake of the Nazi holocaust – the British authorities came to the conclusion that the German Templars needed to be kicked out. So, after nearly a century in Haifa, they were deported en masse to Germany.

Israel achieved independence as a Jewish state in 1948 by which time the Templars had disappeared. Here are some photos I took in Haifa of their houses.