Authors: Barbara Frale
The commissioner bishops took the statement and immediately ordered a check; it was thus found that the Temple of Paris really did hold a reliquary with the bones of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, but that far from being monstrous; it was handsome and represented a perfectly normal young woman’s face.
At that point, the designated guardian of the Order’s goods after the arrest, a certain Guillaume
Pidoye, who held the crates containing the relics found in the Templar mansion of Paris, was called to the hearing. The guardian was ordered to take to the
trial every object shaped as a head, whether of wood, or metal, that was found in that building; he then handed over to the Commissioners a large, handsome gold-plated silver reliquary that represented a girl. Inside they found bones that seemed to be part of a skull, sewn in a white linen cloth and then placed in another red cloth. Along with the cloth there was a small ticket that said “testa LVIII M”: the head seemed to belong to a girl child and some said they were relics of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Since the guardian stated that there was no other head-shaped object, the Commissioners summoned Guillaume
d’Erreblay and showed him the reliquary: but the Templar said it was not the same, and that he doubted he had ever seen that one in the Temple’s mansion.
To discover that the Templars’ mysterious head was in fact a silver reliquary weakened the prosecution’s structure of accusations, since it roused suspicions that the other charges against the Templars could be the result of similar distortions. It is however true that the commissioners noticed that the order had peculiar liturgies and cults which the brothers did not clearly understand. Sergeant Pierre
Maurin had been inducted into the Order by Grand Master
Thibaut Gaudin in about 1286, in a room of the great Templar mansion of Château-Pélerin in the Holy Land; on that occasion he was shown no simulacra of any kind, but he became very curious when he was handed the little linen strand, which he had the duty never to take off although nobody seemed clear on just what it was for. When two or three years had gone, one day, while he was in Château-Pélerin he found out from fellow brother Pierre de
Vienne that a mysterious cult object was preserved in the central treasury of the Temple in Acre, and that this object was in the shape of a head; all the Templars’ linen strands were consecrated by touching this head. The reliquary was said to contain remains from the head of
St. Blaise or of St. Peter; but from that day on he started feeling strong unease and no longer wanted to wear the strand on his body.
On the other hand, the treasurer of the Paris Temple, Jean de la Tour, saw a portrait painting on a board that was hung in the Order’s chapel near the central crucifix. He could not find out who the person represented was, and he thought that it must be the image of some saint: he was however certain that the man could not be a Templar, for he did not wear the typical Templar dress. Anyway it was certainly not monstrous, and though he refused to worship it, the sight of it caused no kind of fear.
The trail of the male portrait, with the figure of a man whose identity was unknown to the Templars themselves, is surely the most interesting; it seems to point straight to the notion of a most sacred figure, worshipped by the Templars with the highest devotion, even though only a very few among them know who he is, and in fact he is not easy to recognize: those who saw him have trouble describing him. What is it?
A man’s image on a cloth
The records of the interrogations carried out on the Templars jailed in
Carcassonne in the winter of 1307, that is a few months after the arrests, has survived in a single document kept in the Paris National Archives: a copy on paper made to be sent to
Philip the Fair. The material is much darkened and is not in a good state of preservation, but it is perfectly readable to anyone who is familiar with the sources of the
trial against the order of the Temple. Early in the 20th century, Heinrich
Finke tried to publish it, but found it exhausting and finally made a somewhat questionable decision to transcribe into his edition of Templar
trial documents only the few passages he had identified. These were bitten-off chunks of sentences, stitched together with dotted lines to indicate the many things he had not managed to read. These brief gobbets of Latin in the middle of a flow of academic German form a bizarre linguistic patchwork: the whole thing is most remote from the norms of today’s historians and really quite enough to confuse anyone. That may be why this has been so far practically ignored by historians as a source. I have presented and discussed this source, along with many others, in my doctoral thesis in history at the University of Venice (1996-1999), when I was collecting all surviving evidence from the
trial to make a systematic analysis of the data and compare them with each other. Its content struck me immediately as of immense interest, because I think that, together with so much other data, it proves that the mysterious
idol of the Templars was a very famous object with a well-defined identity. It was effectively a portrait, but the least that can be said is that it was not just any portrait.
The Templar brother Guillaume Bos, received about 1297 in the Templar command of Perouse near Narbonne, was shown an “
idol” of peculiar shape, a very different image from the others, which were mostly reliquaries worked in bas-relief. It was a kind of monochromatic drawing, a dark image on the light background of a cloth that seemed to his eyes like cotton cloth (
and immediately a kind of drawing on a cloth was taken to the same place and spread out in front of him. Asked whose figure it represented, he answered that he was so astonished at what he had been told to do that he could hardly see it, nor could he distinguish very well what person was represented in the drawing; it seemed to him, however, to be made of white and black, and he paid it worship.
Jean Taylafer, heard in Paris during the long inquiry of 1309-1311, saw the same kind of object: it also was a kind of drawing with an ill-defined shape, made of a tint that seemed reddish to him, and he could only distinguish the image of a face that had the natural dimensions of a human head. Like Guillaume Bos, he could not be sure whether it was a painting or not, but in that case too it was an image made from a single colour. Another Templar called Arnaut
Sabbatier, on the other hand, said explicitly that he had been shown the whole figure of a man’s body on a linen cloth, and the was ordered to worship him three times, kissing his feet (
quoddam lineum habentem ymaginem hominis, quod adoravit ter pedes obsculand
The document is authentic, and, in spite of its less than perfect condition, the passage can clearly be read. Unless we reject the reality of the historical source, it shows that some Templars in southern France were shown an “
idol” identical to the Shroud of Turin, which is exactly a linen cloth showing a man’s image. Nor can there be any doubt that the figure contained the entire body, not just the head; the witness says in so many words that the Templars worshipped him by kissing his feet. Nobody can deny that the Shroud, if seen for the first time by someone who has no idea what it is, will seem just like some kind of imprint or large, ill-defined stain over a long piece of linen, a clear imprint with no holding line or contour, showing the features of a man’s body. It is a characteristic of the image that it becomes visible or invisible according to the distance from which it is seen, which immediately reminds us of Templar witnesses who remembered that the
idol “appeared and disappeared” suddenly. There really are many clues to suggest that the various descriptions of the Templar
idol are nothing but an account of the Shroud of Turin, rendered in an imprecise and fragmentary manner by persons who could only look at it for a short time, most often in a container that only showed its head; we should not forget that the Templar ceremonies took place in the earliest hours of the morning, before the Sun had yet risen; so this object was seen, practically speaking, in dark rooms, and above all without the faintest idea of what it was. Arnaut
Sabbatier’s evidence, on the other hand, describes explicitly an obstension (a religious exhibition or display) of the actual Shroud, when the cloth was fully unfolded to show the image of the whole body. It also describes a precise liturgy of worship which involves a threefold kiss on the mark of the feet; curiously enough, the same gesture, offered with the highest devotion, by St. Charles
Borromeo and his company of priests during their famous pilgrimage on foot from Milan to Turin to see the Shroud in October 1578. The Jesuit
Francesco Adorno, who went with St. Charles and wrote an account of events, knew perfectly well what he was going to see, and yet stated that he was completely astonished and as if dumbstruck before the cloth: the same kind of emotion described by so many Templars in the
trial. Indeed, the Jesuit had already seen a fine copy of the Shroud, made by order of its owner, Duke Emmanuel
Philibert of Savoy. Yet the original was something else: the picture on the cloth of Turin left the impression of a living, suffering man giving up his last breath.
The Templars worshipped the Shroud in the same way as St. Charles
Borromeo did three centuries or so later, at least those among them who had the privilege to contemplate the original relic and not one of the many copies scattered around the commands of the Order. According to
Adorno, St. Charles and a few others also kissed the wound in the side, besides those of the feet; and by the regretful tone easily felt in his words, one can guess that he did not have that great privilege. As of now, we don’t know whether the Templars used to kiss the side as well; the monk who left his account of this cult was fairly low in Templar hierarchy, and everything leads me to think that the privilege of kissing the wound in the side would be, if anything, kept for the highest dignitaries.
The wounded side of Jesus, from which according to the Gospel of John had come blood and water, has moved Christian emotions deeply from the most ancient times. They were certain that it had an immense value, and that it was in some way a mark of the divinity of Jesus: some scholars argue that the evangelist himself who tells the story also ascribes to it a strong theological significance, since in his culture water is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Christian tradition claims that the Church itself had been born from that wound, just as a child is born from the pain and the love of a mother. Most monks were ignorant, but among the dignitaries there were some educated persons; we can mention, for instance, the poet Ricaut
Bonomel, who wrote a poem on the fall of the Holy Land that became and remained famous; or the chaplain
Peter of Bologna, an outstanding legal expert who struggled to defend his Order during the
trial. At any rate it took no great intellectual to understand that that wound on the side was the source of the Eucharist, which the priest celebrated on the altar exactly by mixing wine and water in memory of that Gospel passage.
For several reasons I will explain comprehensively later on, the Templars were deeply fascinated by that wound through the ribs, and in their eyes it had incomparable value. Perhaps they thought it too holy for anyone to dare to touch it, at least anyone who was not a Templar of the modest rank of the man who had left his witness to the
The information that the Templars worshipped the image of a man on a linen cloth clearly spread and ended up rousing the curiosity of the commons, perhaps much more widely than the sources would let us know today. In fact, it was even recorded in the
Chronicle of Saint-Denys, the vast book of memories written by the Parisian abbey that was particularly bound with the Crown of France. The monks of St. Denys did not see the Templars’
idol either as a likeness of the Devil or as a portrait of Mohammed, but rather described it in essentially two different forms:
And shortly after they began to worship a false
idol. According to some of them this
idol was made from a very ancient human skin, that seemed embalmed [
une vieille peau ainsi comme toute embasmeé
], or else in the shape of a washed cloth [
]: in it do the Templars place all their most vile faith, and in it they believe blindly.
In the end, the matter of the notorious Templar
idol was a real fiasco for the prosecution, especially when they tried to colour this object with the dark tints of sorcery.
Nogaret had felt it from the beginning: during the first interrogation, carried out in Paris by the Inquisitor of France, the ground had been tested, but Templars who knew anything about it were too few and gave wildly confused descriptions. So the royal lawyers had decided to pass over the matter and aim instead for charges that nearly every brother would be ready to admit. The inquisitors of the Midi, true professionals of the witch-hunt, gave the Templar
idol the connotations of incarnate evil according to their own peculiar mentality: maybe they acted in the most complete bad faith, or maybe they had themselves somehow fallen under the spell of their ghastly profession, prisoners of the spectres created by their minds even as they heard out the confessions of unfortunate victims. At any rate, the
idol as an image of the Devil or a portrait of Mohammed did not travel very far beyond the grand inquiry of
Languedoc, which was beyond argument the most bloodthirsty in the entire
trial. Later on, when, after the summer of 1308, Pope
Clemens V managed to hand the investigations over to commissions made up of local bishops, the
idol’s nature grew clearer, an increasingly detailed compound picture of two liturgical objects: the first was a reliquary in bas-relief containing the remains of some saint or other, the other a very strange linen cloth which bore the mark of the whole figure of a man in monochromatic drawing, a kind of imprint with ill-defined features.
The power of contact