The Knights Templar were believed to be attracted to the gnostic variant of Christianity which in turn draws from pre-Christian beliefs with a heavy influence from Plato. Crudely put, the material world is a sham and through a deep knowledge attained through intense meditation and a life of good, we can open the curtain to reveal the true spiritual world beyond. OK – that’s very, very crudely put. But essentially, the gnostics viewed God and the Christian story in philosophically dualist terms – there is the human story played out here in a world of material shadows, but hidden from view is the true nature of God that we must strive to discover.
Some early gnostics venerated the figure of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. He was born when Adam was 130 years old (remember that everybody in the book of Genesis lives to a crazily old age). Adam, incidentally, would live another 800 years after the birth of Seth. This son was given by God to Adam to replace Abel who you will recall had been killed by biblical bad guy Cain. In chapter five of Genesis, you will discover that it’s through Seth’s lineage that we arrive at Noah and given that every other human being is snuffed out by the flood, that makes Seth the father of humanity.
Seth has been worshiped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – he is seen as the originator of the Kabbala to many Jews and to Islamic Sufis, he was a prophet possessing great wisdom passed on to him by his father Adam. Up to the Middle Ages, there was a branch of Christian gnosticism now termed the Sethians. Needless to say this adoration of Seth is believed to have been passed down to the Knights Templar.
On BBC Four this week, historian Alastair Sooke tackled the vexed question of how the devil got his horns? Did he always look as we imagine him? Well, if we go back to the start of Christianity – there are some surprises in store.
Sooke starts in Ravenna, the Italian town that was the capital of the western Roman empire in its final declining years. Christians in Ravenna were still deliberating about the nature of Christ’s divinity – let alone the devil’s physical appearance. But in one church, there is a depiction of the devil in a mosaic. Christ is seated in purple like a wealthy Roman in a toga. On one side is an angel in red and on the other side is one in blue. Strangely, it’s the angel in blue that is the devil – because in the 6th century AD, blue was viewed as a more sinister colour than red (not everybody agrees with this analysis – though if it was true it would be the first image of the devil).
The devil is an angel in early writings – beautiful Lucifer who was cast out of paradise. He’s not mentioned in Genesis and details of him are scant in the rest of the bible. Yet we have a huge artistic tradition showing Satan as a diabolical tyrant ruling over hell. So where did this imagery come from? Off to Venice then – where Sooke is mesmerised by the huge 11th century Byzantine influenced mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta.
Heaven and hell are depicted. A blue figure with flowing white hair sits at the centre – a grotesque figure. Is he the devil? Well, maybe. But on his lap is a much smaller figure in a toga with his hand raised in benediction – who is he? Possible Judas? Sooke is convinced the blue figure is the devil – but he’s a custodian of hell acting on God‘s behalf, not an enemy at war with the Almighty.
Finding human-like depictions of the devil challenged the early church but eventually they settled on previously worshiped pagan deities. For the first millennium of Christianity, the church was still engaged in mopping up pockets of paganism. How better to discredit pagans than turning their Gods into the devil. The imagery of the Egyptian god Bes – a lucky amulet for centuries – became a hideous Satan. The Greek satyr with hairy legs, pointy ears and mischievous faces was transformed into the Lord of Evil.
A figure that was previously a marginal figure in the bible, often there to test and accuse – a kind of bureaucrat acting on God’s behalf – now becomes a monstrous figure acting in his own right. As the Middle Ages progressed, the devil transformed into the master of a realm distinct from heaven – and in hostile opposition to it. The Winchester Psalter in the mid-12th century showed the devil with a vast mouth swallowing up kings, queens and great secular figures. At Lincoln Cathedral, there’s an orgy of sado-masochism over the porch leaving little to the imagination as to what hell would be like for sinners.
Mystery plays, originating in France 900 years ago, took the idea of Lucifer to new extremes as lay people let their imaginations run riot. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the mystery plays that rapidly evolved what we visualise today as the devil. At a time when plague or hunger could wipe out whole populations, the hand of evil was seen everywhere by ordinary people. All the woes serfs suffered had to be a torment inflicted, not something random without a cause.
In the Baptistry in Florence, a 14th century mosaic of Satan is still blue in the face with a green body and there are two huge horns and animalistic ears, created by the artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. In Padua, Sooke views the fresco of Giotto bringing the last judgment to life – painted just a few decades later. His devil is eating and excreting victims while around him, sinners are being skewered and nearby, Judas Iscariot is hanging from a tree.
But Giotto’s devil is not his finest accomplishment – in fact, it’s rather mediocre compared to the amazing naturalistic depictions of other biblical figures. Around the same time as Giotto, it was the poet Dante who really took the concept of the devil forward. In the Divine Comedy, hell is a series of concentric circles with a giant devil embedded in ice at the centre. Dante’s devil is a three dimensional figure who is the father of sorrow and pained by his fate. This fallen angel of Dante would go on to inspire Milton and Gustav Dore more than Giotto’s comic book figure.
Siena is then visited by Sooke, which has several images painted by Luca Signorelli of devilish activity including a very eerie painting of Anti-Christ active on earth. A false prophet on a podium being advised by the devil. It’s believed this Anti-Christ was the 15th century preacher turned dictator of Florence, Savonarola, whom Signorelli despised. The demons are brightly coloured including the painter’s self portrait as a blue devil with a single horn protruding out of his forehead.
Sooke concludes that the devil appears to have gone on a journey from beautiful angel cast out of heaven to a vile demon. The historian concludes that if god is western culture’s superego then the devil is our id.
Here is a roadside shrine I came across in the town of Ancora in northern Portugal. Behind bars is a painted and carved depiction of sinners amidst flames and above them the triumphant figure of the archangel in what I’m guessing is a vague idea of Roman dress though the cap is curious. These kinds of shrines can still be found all over Europe and would once have offered travelers a place to pray while en route. Many have rotted away, made of perishable materials, others would have been destroyed as idolatrous in Protestant Europe while some have survived.
Plague. The silent killer of the Middle Ages terrified people and rightly so. Medicine was rudimentary and in the face of a viral assassin like the Bubonic Plague – largely useless. Prayer was a common recourse but if you were wealthy, another avenue was presented by simply running away.
This is what the heroes of The Decameron – a fourteenth century book – do. Seven women and three men flee to a villa outside plague-ridden Florence and tell ten stories each – 100 stories in total – as they wait for the plague to abate.
The Decameron was written by an Italian writer called Boccaccio who saw the Black Death with his own eyes – and like many of his class and standing, the pestilence made him question the authority of the church and Rome. There is a very disrespectful and sarcastic attitude towards priests and friars that might surprise a modern reader.
Boccaccio knew the plague had originated in the east but in his writings supposed it might be the result of God being hacked off with human behaviour or, more curiously, “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies“. This was a common view that astronomical movements in the heavens had a direct influence on us down here – something that survives in astrology.
Despite refusing entry to sick folk and cleaning the city of “impurities”, Florence succumbed to the Black Death “where an issue of blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death”. Boccaccio goes on to describe “the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg.”
It then seemed to take a hold of the whole body and soon the victim was dead within three days. Boccaccio pointed to the emergence of men and women who claimed to be doctors but were complete charlatans taking advantage of the situation. Contagion seemed rampant and unavoidable.
“The virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the devil went further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.”
Boccaccio claimed he had seen inter-species infection with his own eyes. Two hogs wandering the streets had started chewing then fighting over the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague. They then went into an instant spasm and fell down dead.
The movie ‘Black Death‘ came and went faster than the plague itself and some critics thought it stank just as bad. However, I haven’t seen it and I’ll confess to being curious. Here is the trailer.
I’ve been asked by many of you – where are today’s Knights Templar? Well, here is an interview with Sir Mark Borrington – Grand Master of The Grand Commandery of Knights Templar and he explains the organisation and the work that it does:
> Tell me what The Grand Commandery is, for those who don’t know?
I probably don’t need to do any more than point you to the foundation statement I wrote for our Rules & Constitution which states: The Grand Commandery of Knights Templar is a chivalric order of like-minded individuals who demonstrate seven core principles: Chivalry, honour, integrity, humility, courtesy, wisdom & charity. Members take their inspiration from the highest ideals of the medieval Order of Knights Templar, originally founded by Hugues de Payens and eight fellow noblemen in Jerusalem circa 1118. These core principles have strong correlations to the Latin Rule of Templars, adopted by Hugues de Payens and others under the guidance of St Bernard of Clairvaux and Council of Troyes on 13th January 1129. It is expected that members commit themselves to these core principles at all times.
> What charitable work are you currently involved in?
We have numerous projects on the go at any one time. Currently, we are raising money for Cancer Support Services, UNICEF, Water Aid and pretty much anything that fits in with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Some of the senior members of the Order are currently undergoing training in readiness for a 26 mile hike to raise money for the MacMillan Cancer Support charity in the UK. In situations like this, we tend to set targets with all donations being sent direct to the charity. So far we’ve raised £840 out of the £1000 target. As a chivalric order, members tend to get involved with our ARK project – that’s Acts of Random Kindness. These endeavours can be as diverse as donating financial aid to a member’s local hospice, donation of food to food banks, clothes to clothes banks or toys to orphanages. Members also volunteer time and energy to local projects around the world such as helping in cleaning off graffiti from public places, marshaling and supporting charitable events, handing out sleeping bags & blankets to the homeless or just baking in Medieval Templar Armour at summer fayres whilst collecting money on behalf of numerous worthy causes.
>What is your relationship to the original Knights Templar?
We don’t claim to have any relationship to the original Knights Templar other than what has been mentioned in our foundation statement. Just like Hugues et al., the founding members of the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar came together for a specific purpose whilst wishing to live by a certain code. Compared to our medieval Templar brothers who ended up with over 650 rules by the turn of the 14th century, we narrowed these down to our modern seven core principles which means, quite simply put, doing the right thing, by yourself and others, and seek the truth at all times. We founded a new Templar Order to try to show that convictions such as chivalry and honour, commitment and dedication still have a place within the modern world – following exactly on the same principles the original nine noblemen had back in 1117. Thankfully, however, gone are the days when Templars were charged to take up arms and fight in Holy Wars. The world is packed full of diversity, different ideals, philosophies, good and evil. Our battles today are not military in nature against those who do not happen to follow the same religious beliefs. We are no longer told that it is God’s will to kill our fellow brothers or sisters. Our modern day battles are more spiritual in nature and we actively fight against hatred, intolerance and prejudice within the world whilst helping our fellow mankind by promoting peaceful co-existence and acts of humanitarian work and aid.
>How does one become a member?
Individuals can join the Order by completing an initial enquiry form online at www.knightstemplar.gckt.org/apps/initial. Once we’ve reviewed an applicant’s resume and agreed an application in principle, references are sought from someone of professional standing to vouch for the applicant’s character and suitability in joining the Order. If everything is acceptable, the applicant is granted entry into the Order at Preceptor level. Normally after two years of proven merit and charitable action, the member is promoted up to the rank of Knight Templar.
I’ve never understood the hostility that this movie generated when it came out in 1999 – it seemed that once the critical slating got underway, everybody jumped on board to throw rotten tomatoes at it…and you can go to the Rotten Tomatoes movie website to see that plenty of people still hate The 13th Warrior.
But I’ve got a soft spot for certain movies that have been put through the critical mincer but still retain a certain historical fascination and are actually very watchable – and The 13th Warrior is not a dull movie. It’s rather violent and its take on the relationship between the emerging Arab/Islamic world of the east and the so-called Dark Ages in the west is if nothing else, picturesque and spooky!
And to be blunt – it’s certainly not down there with the unintentionally hilarious Ironclad and pretty dreadful Season of the Witch – two recent historical and hysterical offerings from Hollywood.
The 13th Warrior was based on a book by Michael Crichton – the man who brought you great horror sci fi movies in the 1970s like Coma and Westworld and then went on to conjure up Jurassic Park. The 13th Warrior was based on his book Eaters of the Dead and the movie originally adopted that name but when he was called in to direct it, it changed title.
In short, the year is 922CE and an Arab emissary (Antonio Banderas) leaves his beautiful homeland to go to the barbaric west where he falls in with a bunch of uncouth Vikings. He learns their language and fights battles alongside them against a mysterious creature that is threatening to wipe them out. A Viking prophecy stipulates that a foreign man must be present if the beast is to be vanquished – and along comes our Arab friend. I won’t spoil the plot any further!
The movie cost far more than it made back at the box office and Omar Sharif – who had a bit part in the film – slated it and then the critics gave it a good booting. But I think for those trying to understand the cultural clashes of the very early Middle Ages – it’s a good watch. Time, I suspect, may be kinder to The 13th Warrior than the critics were – I hope you agree!