The Telegraph has an interesting article published yesterday by scholar Dominic Selwood, author of a 1999 academic study of the Knights Templar as well as a new novel about them, pondering why the medieval order of warrior monks has captured the modern imagination. His conclusions are more or less exactly what I’ve taken so much criticism for pointing out. Selwood, who holds a PhD in medieval religious warrior orders, sees in the Templars a convenient focus for two distinct threads of alternative thought, which are not completely severable.
The first is the claim that the Templars had “an alternate spirituality, perhaps even a slightly mystical one.” This is the Holy Bloodline, sacred feminine, Oreo cookie Jesus Tomb spirituality. This Selwood traces to a longstanding association between the Knights Templar and the supernatural born of the claims of heresy leveled against the order in 1314. The other thread I will let Selwood relate in his own words:
Darker interests focus on the Templars as the rallying point of a network of violent European white supremacism – a lodestar of racial hatred around which extremism can gravitate. The appeal of the Templars to extremists is probably inevitable.
Draw your own conclusions.
Selwood also discusses a fascinating aspect of Templar culture about which I know nothing but which really ought to be showing up in crazy Templar conspiracy theories if the speculators did anything close to real research. According to Selwood, a Templar chapel called St. Christophe at Montsaunès, near the French border with Spain, contains astonishing frescos unlike anything else in medieval art. The walls and ceiling are covered in stars and solar wheels, reminiscent of cabbalistic designs, the Hermetic rites, or astrology.
What you are looking at above is the chapel’s interior crossing vault; it gives a slightly distorted impression of the rest of the ceiling, which is plainer, with a simple star pattern. The six-pointed stars are typical of how medieval artists drew stars. Note the moon at top center and the sun at bottom center (in real life the two sides of the hall just above eye level), suggesting that the central panel represents constellations of some type or the brightest visible stars. This Goolge+ photo album will give you a better sense of the ceiling.
There is nothing remotely Christian about it. […] What did they [the symbols] mean to the Knights Templar? Why did they paint them so meticulously? And what prompted them to put them in their chapel, the building at the heart of their spiritual life, which they entered to pray in nine times a day?
Selwood has no answers, but I think he is exaggerating the difference between the chapel and other medieval art. And it’s rather disingenuous to claim that the ceiling is painted too well, as though neatness were suggestive of a hidden agenda. This isn’t Ancient Aliens!
Some of the symbols bear a resemblance to Near Eastern iconography, and the star-spangled vault recalls the star-covered ceiling of Unas’ pyramid in Egypt, though obviously there is no direct connection. If I were pressed to guess, I would think that the designs were inspired by geometric Islamic mosque decoration. Standard texts on Islamic art state that ceiling beams found near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Knights Templar had their Holy Land headquarters, were decorated with six-pointed stars. Several of these beams can be seen in the Al-Aqsa museum today. They may have been used in an earlier phase of the Al-Aqsa mosque, or perhaps another Islamic building. As I understand it, they are different from the wooden beams currently claimed to be from the first or second Jewish Temple.
Other medieval texts refer to ceilings, now lost or painted over, that contained a “panel of stars,” “the choir of stars,” or other astronomical symbolism, particularly in areas influenced by Islam, such as the Sicily of Roger II. Simon Cahn discusses them in Some Cosmological Imagery in the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, his doctoral dissertation. The floor of the Palatine Chapel, an Islamic-influenced medieval Christian church in Sicily, is covered in six-pointed stars much like the Templar chapel’s ceiling.
Given that the St. Christophe chapel was built near what was then the mountainous pass to the Spanish border as part of the Reconquista effort, utilizing and adapting Islamic motifs and “re-Christianizing” them seems to be a decent explanation for what is going on here.
It’s a fascinating ceiling that could support all sorts of crazy claim about the Templars and sacred astronomy, yet my review of the Templar conspiracy literature turns up nothing about the chapel. I am sure it will quickly take its place after appearing in the Telegraph. I’m always interested in seeing some historical oddity I’ve never seen before, and this ceiling is one of the more interesting puzzles I’ve come across recently. Better yet: It really exists and is actually a real Templar mystery!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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