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Templars and the Shroud

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Tomasz Graff
Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków, Poland

There are many ideas in the scholarly literature explaining what happened to the Shroud after the armies of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 and transported it to Athens. Some of this conjecture, based on sources from the 13th and 14th centuries, links the history of the relics to the Templar order. This hypothesis was attempted on a scientific basis by Ian Wilson in his publication The Shroud of Turin (1978). It was also promoted by the Polish medievalist Idzi Panic, author of Tajemnica Całunu [English: The Secret of the Shroud] (2010). This idea has been most fully developed recently by Barbara Frale in her books Templari e la sindone di Cristo [English: The Templars and the Turin Shroud] (original ed. 2009; Polish ed. 2011; English ed. 2012) and La sindone di Gesù Nazareno [English: The Shroud of Jesus the Nazarene] (original ed. 2009; Polish ed. 2012).

Frale was convinced that she had proved the fact that the Shroud was kept by the Knights Templar, although she did not point to a single source that states this unequivocally. The researcher assumes that the Shroud could have been seized by the Templars several decades after the Fourth Crusade, i.e. in the second half of the 13th century. The Order will have been afraid of revealing the fact of possessing such a valuable relic: after all, accusations of theft could have been made, which would have entailed trouble, not excluding excommunication. According to proponents of this theory, during the rituals accompanying the admission of new members of the order, some of them would have experienced the honour of seeing either the entire precious cloth or the part showing the bearded head. During the trial of the Templars, this may have given rise to accusations of worshipping a bearded idol.

The bearded head to which the Templars paid homage was explained by Frale in three ways. She assumed that the Templars spoke of three different things during their interrogations. The bearded head may have been an ornate reliquary of Hugo de Payens, the first Grand Master of the Templars. The second explanation was that the bearded head should be identified with a representation of the Holy Trinity: contemporary medieval art often depicted God with two heads (the bearded Father and the Son) in combination with the image of a dove. A third explanation would be that what the Templars were referring to during the trial was the head of the Saviour depicted on the Shroud. The monks of Saint-Denis, who were active in the declining period of the Templar order, noted that the Templar idol was either of human skin (which may be a reference to Hugo’s head) or was in the form of pure linen (toile polie): in him the Templars put their extremely wicked faith and believed in him blindly (Frale 2011, p. 94). Frale maintains that the Templars testified about the Shroud mainly during interrogations taking place in the south of France, that is, where the Cathar heresy persisted for a very long time. Frale drew particular attention to the testimony from Carcassonne in the autumn of 1307. At that time, the Templar William Bos, who had been received into the Order in 1297, saw a peculiar thing, i.e. a monochrome drawing on a light-coloured cloth:

And he was immediately led to the same place and shown something like a drawing on a cloth of cotton canvas. When asked whose figure it represented, he replied that he was stunned to such an extent by what he was ordered to do that he could barely see it, nor was he able to distinguish who the person depicted in the drawing was. It seemed to him, however, that it was made up as if of black and white, and he worshipped it.

(Frale 2011, p. 90)

Another Templar, Jean Taylafer, who testified in Paris between 1309 and 1311, remembered seeing a similar drawing, painted as if in reddish, with the characteristic head of a man that was most prominent. Arnaut Sabbatier, on the other hand, remembered the image of a man on a linen and that he was instructed to kiss his feet three times (quoddam lineum habentem ymaginem hominis, quod adoravit ter pedes obsculando—Frale 2004, pp. 81–82). Frale emphasised that the different descriptions of the figures on the lonen were due to the properties of the Shroud: when one stands before it, depending on the distance, the image appears to the eye of the beholder or disappears. Those who only spoke of the head may have seen the folded Shroud in the reliquary. Frale believes that most of those who testified had no idea what was shown to them. The researcher noted that the seals of the Templar preceptors in the Reich showed a bearded male head. Many copies of the Shroud were in Templar commanderies that were scattered throughout the world at the time. The representation of a man on it was called the Saviour by some of the testifiers.

Even before the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, the Templars were in the habit of rubbing the linen cords they wore against the stone of Christ’s tomb. They were a powerful relic and a keystone linking their monastic destiny to the passion and death of Jesus. Their acquisition of the Shroud in unexplained circumstances in the second half of the 13th century would change this custom: since they had lost access to the stone in Jerusalem, they began to rub the linen cords against the venerable cloth.

Faced with the threat of infiltration of the order by the Cathar heresy, which rejected the humanity of Christ, the traces of blood and martyrdom on the Shroud were to be sufficient proof of the falsity of Cathar theology. The linen cords worn by the Templars began to be rubbed on the sacred cloth even before the loss of Acca (1291). There was a rumour among members of the order that it was in Acca that their bearded idol had been kept for a time, according to the testimony of those tortured.

That there was a cult of the Shroud in the Holy Land, probably even before it was taken to France, may also be indicated by an event in 1268, when Sultan Baibars captured the fortress of Safed, located in Galilee. At that time, he found a carved head with a beard in the main meeting room of the Templars. In addition, an image very similar to the head known from the Shroud has been preserved, found in England, in Templecombe, County Somerset, painted on a wooden panel, dating from the end of the 13th century. This type of representation of the head, without the neck, is known from Eastern art showing the Mandylion (Mandylion of →Edessa; →The Shroud and the Convention of the Mandylion). A head of this type can, moreover, be seen in many places around the world, including St Peter’s Basilica. According to B. Frale, the Shroud was acquired by the Order of the Templars in great secrecy, probably between 1260 and 1265. At that time, the French Templar Amalric of La Roche, trusted by Louis IX the Saint and holding the influential office of commandant of the temple in the Middle East, possibly a relative of the commander at the time of the Fourth Crusade, i.e. Otto of La Roche, was to become an intermediary with the La Roche family, thanks to which the Shroud could reach Athens and then possibly France. In this way, the Order was to acquire the cloth for a huge sum of money, but since the trade in relics was forbidden, as emphasised, among other things, by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, this was done in secret, in that the participants to the deal resorted to a form of pledge for security. Apart from excommunication, the Templars were also said to have feared that if the Pope found out about their storage of the Shroud, he would demand its surrender, which, after all, could not be refused. Finally, according to I. Panic, in connection with the arrests of the Templars in 1307 and the commencement of their interrogations, the admission of the possession of the Shroud could have strengthened the arguments of King Philip IV the Fair of France aiming to liquidate the order. This historian has stressed that the Templars’ resistance to allowing the French king’s guards into their Paris headquarters in 1307 was to gain time to hide the Shroud.

Among the proponents of the hypothesis linking the history of the Shroud to the history of the Templars, attempts are also made to use the case of the tragic fate of the Norman preceptor Galfrid (Godfried) or Geoffroy de Charney, who was burnt at the stake with the last Templar Grand Master, James de Molay, in 1314. According to I. Wilson, he was a relative of the knight Galfryd (Geoffrey) de Charny, the founder of the church of Lirey, where the Shroud exhibitions took place in the 1450s. This hypothesis has a serious weakness, for so far, despite extensive genealogical research being carried out, no kinship has been proven between the lord Galfryd (Geoffrey) de Charny executed jointly with James de Molay and the founder of the church of Lirey.

Other scholars, however, have found genealogical links between Otto of La Roche (Otho de la Roche) and Joanna de Vergy (Jeanne de Vergy), wife of Galfryd (Daniel C. Scavone, Alessandro Piana), indicating that the shroud came into the hands of the de Charney family by another route, which undermines the conjecture of I. Wilson, B. Frale and their followers. The theories concerning the Templars’ acquisition and storage of the Shroud have received wide attention in the scientific world. There is a preponderance of voices strongly criticising it (e.g. Malcolm C. Barber, Andrea Nicolotti, A. Piana, D.C. Scavone) or outright rejecting such a possibility on the basis of the arguments presented by I. Wilson and B. Frale’s argumentation. They rightly point out, among other things, that none of the sources cited by the proponents of this hypothesis contain unequivocal information about the possession of the Shroud by the Templars and that they are over-interpreted, which has led to the formulation of a hypothesis which, although theoretically partially explaining the question of the so-called missing years after 1204 in the history of the Shroud, has no solid scientific basis.


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Sources of Images

1. Wikimedia Commons, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plik:Armoiries_Hugues_de_Payens.svg (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

2. Wikimedia Commons, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/11_maja#/media/Plik:Templars_Burning.jpg (public domain)

3. Wikimedia Commins, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Execution_of_Jaques_Demolay.jpg (public domain)

Tomasz Graff

Professor of the Pontifical University of John Paul II (UPJPII), medievalist and historian of the early modern period, graduate of the master’s and doctoral studies in history at the Faculty of History of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Since 2008 professionally attached to the Pontifical Academy of Theology, now the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow. From 2012 to 2016 – deputy director of the Institute of Art History and Culture; from 2016 to 2019 – deputy dean of the Faculty of History and Cultural Heritage; currently he is head of the Department of Modern History at the Institute of History and head of the History Department at UPJPII. He is the author of approximately 200 publications, mainly on Church history and the biographies of ecclesiastical, intellectual and political elites. He is a member of the Central European Commission of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Workgroup of Czech History and Polish-Czech Relations of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Historical Commission of the Polish Academy of Sciences branch in Krakow, the Polish Historical Society, the Polish Syndonological Centre, the Society of Lovers of Krakow History and Monuments, as well as the editorial boards of the journals: “Husitský Tábor”, “Wadoviana”, “Przegląd Historyczno-Kulturalny” and “Folia Historica Cracoviensia”.

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