Have been quite interested by the recent news of the reidiscovery of the body of Richard III, under a car park in Leicester, the site the old Greyfriars convent. The extraordinary circumstances of the discovery, which was the first thing found when the diggers tore up a section of the car park, under a painted letter 'R' was rather reminiscent of medieval accounts of miraculous discoveries of saintly relics- almost too good to be true, yet the evidence stacks up in favour of the identification. This evidence includes genetic, a match was found with a descendant of Richard's sister.
The body was found to have curvature of the spine, so the king was a hunchback after all. It seems fans of Richard III have egg on their faces in that regard, as they have long insisted that Richard was not a hunchback, and that this image was part of hostile Tudor propaganda. One suspects that the group, whose instinct has been to stick up for the underdog, has led to them somewhat idolising Richard, and assuming that he has been over-vilified and caricatured.
I am not so keen on the Wars of the Roses, which seem internecine and regrettable. However the wounds evidenced by the skeleton seem to confirm the impression that the king died bravely in battle. As one of the last real warrior kings, and one who gained battles in vain despite a physical handicap, he deserves a certain new respect. In this regard he may also be compared to Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. (This example also goes to show the presumptuousness of assuming that a medieval king had to be entirely able-bodied in order to be effective on the battlefield.) I hope Richard's reburial is with suitable pomp.
Monday, 4 February 2013
Thursday, 26 January 2012
I have enjoyed watching the first two of three episodes of the new BBC series The Crusades. The presentor is Dr Thomas Asbridge, under whom I studied in the past. Clearly he is having to simplify the narrative for the sake of airtime and to appeal to a general audience, but he's doing a good job of telling the story, nonetheless, and covering the key issues.
Wednesday, 5 May 2010
I was alarmed to read about here about the deteriorating state of Royston Cave, even if it's link to the Templars may be more debatable that many sources make out. (I personally think the case for a Templar connection is quite strong, even if it was just a temporary place of incarceration for Templar prisoners being transported to trial.)
Sunday, 25 April 2010
The religious ban on figurative art starts with the Aten cult in Ancient Egypt. The old gods were swept away by the Pharaoh Akhenaten's radical decree. A monotheistic cult was introduced, the deity of which could only be symbolized by the sun disk- sometimes with radiating rays terminating with human hands. Images of other gods were destroyed during this period, one of the earliest known examples of iconoclasm. The cult of Aten was soon repudiated, and for a long time was totally forgotten. The pagan gods of Egypt would ultimately have their images effaced by iconoclastic followers of another monotheistic deity, the God of Abraham. This same God was supposed to have blighted Egypt with plagues in order to secure the release of his Chosen People, at the time of Moses. In the course of the Exodus from Egypt to the promise land, God delivered instructions to Moses, face to face, we are told, making it clear, among other things, that he did not wish to be given a face.
The Old Testament records two quite different versions of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue, the first found at Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, and the second at Exodus 34, 11-27. Both versions, however, prioritize a ban on idols and graven images. The Deuteronomy version insists that the chosen people are forbidden to make 'any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.' This was intended primarily as a stricture against idolatry (it goes on to forbid bowing down to these images) but it could be taken as forbidding any kind of figurative art in any context. Other parts of the Torah require the chosen people to impose their laws on their servants and travellers in their midst, and threaten death by stoning to those who break the commandments.
The Old Testament refers to there being cherubim figures on the Ark (wherein the ten commandments were kept). It also refers to Moses elevating a bronze serpent as a precaution against snake bites (Numbers 21:7-9) and later mentions bull figures in the Temple of Solomon. These incongruities aside, however, ancient Judaism seems to have retained a horror of idolatry and to have identified figurative art closely with this perceived sin. The Jewish King Hezekiah, indeed, inaugurated Iconoclasm within his domain and is credited with destroying the brazen serpent.
The New Testament does not repeat the ban on images. (According to Jesus, the only commandments were to love God and to love one's neighbour). The old attitude against images seems to have been passed to early Christianity, however. Dogmatic opposition to idolatry and refusal to partake in state-sponsored cults is a recurring theme in the early Christian story, and for centuries there is an absence of representative Christian art. (Jesus was originally represented by the Chi-Rho monogram- XP- or by the abstracted fish symbol). St Paul's attack on the cult of Artemis at Ephesus is recorded in the New Testament. There, makers of figures of the goddess, whose trade depended on pilgrims to the goddess's shrine, stood to lose out if Paul's condemnation of the practice gained headway, and rioted against the new preaching. A desire for images of the divine eventually overcame strict observance of scripture. In time it would become quite usual for Christian pilgrims to buy souvenir figures of the Christian saints and martyrs they came to revere at various shrines. Churches would be filled with images and carvings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saints, even of God the Father, represented as an old man with a white beard, either as part of the Holy Trinity or in the context of the creation. Saints were sometime portrayed in the act of destroying pagan idols (and with not a hint of irony).
There were two major internal reactions against religious art in Christian history leading to widespread destruction. The first occurred in the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium. The use of painted icons had become an important part or religious devotion in Eastern Orthodoxy (only three-dimensional forms were shunned). The practice of icon veneration came to be condemned in the aftermath of Islamic military victories over the Christian empire. The loss of Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land prompted much soul-searching in the Byzantine Empire, which was reduced to the Balkans and parts of what-is-now Turkey. It was observed that God seemed to favour the Muslims, whose faith made religious images taboo. Emperor Leo III forbade religious pictures in AD726, ushering in the age of Byzantine iconoclasm. There were various other theological arguments relating to to the merits or otherwise of representing Jesus. Feelings ran high on either sides of the divide. Violence was done both to those who destroyed icons and who persisted in creating them. The use and honouring of icons was justified and the practice was reaffirmed in AD 787 at the second council of Nicaea. Since then figurative art has retained a prominent place in Eastern Orthodoxy. Much of it, however, was destroyed or obliterated after the Muslim Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, when many Byzantine churches were converted into mosques.
In Western Christendom, meanwhile, religious art was consistently upheld and promoted by the Roman Church. Paintings, statues, stained glass windows and decorative reliquaries proliferated. Pope Gregory the Great justified religious images as 'books for the illiterate', but it wasn't long before these images became more than instructive material, turning into objects of devotion in their own right. The practice was criticised throughout the middle ages, for example by heretical groups such as the Cathars and Lollards, but there wasn't widespread destruction of religious artworks until the Protestant Reformation.
Religious art also became a source of contention during the Crusades. The crusaders (sometimes with Byzantine co-operation) produced much sacred imagery. Jewish visitors to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron considered these pictures profane intrusions. Saladin, on re-conquest of Jerusalem, took a similar view, and made a point of purging the Christian imagery that had been introduced to the mosques on Temple Mount, when he restored them to Islam. Crosses were torn down and statues smashed. The Christian cause made headway in the Iberian Peninsula as it waned in the East. As former Churches were stripped bare and turned into Mosques in Palestine, Greece and Cyprus, former Mosques in southern Spain were filled with sanguinary crucifixes and richly becrowned Madonnas.
The iconoclastic process began in England with the break from Rome under Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. Here Catholicism became a persecuted and hunted faith. Monuments such as the shrine of St Thomas Becket were smashed. Protestantism was more vigorously enforced during the reign of Edward VI, when many churches were stripped of images by Royal decree. There was a brief reversal of the situation under Mary I, which came to a halt with the accession of Elizabeth I. The royal arms was to take pride of place in churches where once carved crucifixes on rood screens and medieval doom murals had presided. Religious art made another brief come-back with the reforms under Charles I and Archbishop Laud, but was stamped out again under Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Zealous Parliamentarian commissions toured the counties obliterating any remaining Catholic images in the parish churches.
The Church of England took a softer line on the matter from the Restoration period, and statues of saints made a prominent comeback on the Wren's St Paul's Cathedral, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. 'Low Church' Anglicans and dissenting protestants continued to take a dim view of religious imagery. The 'High Church' Oxford Movement, the Catholic emancipation and the Gothic revival of the 19th century, however, saw the production of much new figurative religious art.
In Europe, there was widespread iconoclasm in the Protestant North, where monasteries, saintly cults and pilgrimages were likewise suppressed. The Catholic counter-reformation, however, affirmed the place of sacred art and the veneration of the saints. The Council of Trent affirmed the validity of images. Being mere representations of holy individuals, the devotion being paid to the image was actually being paid to the saint in question. The Council, however, ruled that no fripperies or impious details should be included in paintings, nor should there be 'beauty exciting to lust'. A little later the Italian artist Paolo Veronese had a run in with the Inquisition when his painting of the Last Supper failed to conform to the sober requirements. Spanish conquests in the New World, meanwhile, brought those lands into the Catholic fold. The bloodthirsty gods of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas were done away with, their statues destroyed and Catholic churches raised over their pyramid temples, sharing the fate of the pagan Gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
There is also a secular tradition of attacking religious art, especially in places where the religion in question came to be politically associated with a reactionary regime overthrown in a violent revolution. Examples of this are found in the history of France, Russia, Spain and China, although in most case the roots of religion held firm. In Western Europe a primarily secular mindset prevails, coupled with an appreciation of religious art, still culturally relevant and cherished although very often divorced from its original devotional context.
In all three Abrahamic traditions there has been a tension concerning the legitimacy of the use of figurative religious art. In some cases an avoidance of the representational has led to the development of beautiful and abstract forms of decoration, such as the intricate designs and ornate calligraphy adorning many Islamic manuscripts. The intolerance of idolatry encouraged by scripture, however, has often led the religious to acts of vandalism, presuming the right not only to destroy their own heritage but that of other cultures. Islam began with iconoclasm, the purging of the Ka'ba in Mecca of all but the black stone. Religious iconoclasm has most recently been associated with Taliban hard-liners in Afghanistan, who destroyed the giant rock carvings of Buddha that had stood for 1800 years in Bamiyan. This was part of a general purge of pre-Islamic artefacts. It is hard to grasp the mentality of people who would take torches or sledgehammers or explosives to unique and beautiful works of art. Over the centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims have done this very thing believing it to be the will of God. The same God, that is to say, as the art was often created to honour in the first place.
Friday, 23 April 2010
Today is a nice day and it is St George's Day, England's patron saint. In All-Saints Little Kimble near here there are some medieval wall paintings, including an archetypal St George, looking just like a crusader knight. In the background is the princess whom George chivalrously rescued from the dragon, according to the tale which is recounted in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend includes the detail of the lottery held to determine which maiden would be the dragon's next sacrifice).
The paintings in Little Kimble date back to the early fourteenth century. The princess behind George holds a thread, a possible reference to the portion of the story account in which after George's victory the tamed dragon is lead through the streets by the princess's girdle (before meeting an end that would not satisfy modern conservationists).
It is strange how St George took on the image of a crusader, or more specifically a Templar, with his white mantle and red cross. Even after the suppression amid spurious accusations the image clearly maintained pious and heroic overtones. The semi-mythical saint was originally more famous in the Byzantine East, and grew in popularity as a result of the Crusades. (George was originally supposed to be a Roman soldier and Christian martyr, born in Lydda in the Holy Land.) Little Kimble Church is slightly later than the era of the Templars, yet bears an architectural similarity to the Order's church at Temple, Midlothian, far to the north, which is now ruinous.
Thursday, 22 April 2010
I went to the Dashwood Mausoleum and the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe a couple of weeks ago. The weather was a bit stormy at the time, so it was more than usually atmospheric, if rather slippery on the way up to the monument. The hexagonal Dashwood Mausoleum and the Golden-Ball topped church stand on the hill overlooking West Wycombe Park. Further down, another folly, resembling the facade of an abbey, rises above the entrance to the caves, which wind into the hill.
Due to the inclement weather, I had the whole place to myself. My dog insisted on coming, which was unfortunate for him as he had to wait tied up outside the caves, (unfortunate also for the back of the car). The caves in question were once the meeting the notorious Hellfire Club. They consist of deep artificial passages with Gothic arches, and various chambers and cells carved out of the chalky rock. Very spooky, echoing to the crunch of one's footsteps on the gravelly floor, sending the imagination into overdrive about the dark doings that may have gone on there during the heyday of Hellfire Club in the mid eighteenth-century. The Club was a founded by the roguish aristocrat Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781). At its meetings, the 'great and good', including members of the government of the day, indulged in debauchery, tomfoolery and blasphemous ritual, along with local wenches.
The Club mockingly styled itself after a religious Order. Its other titles were the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe (1708-1781), the Monks of Medmenham and the Order of the Knights of West Wycombe. The females who attended were called nuns, but vows of chastity were hardly the order of the day. The club met first in a former Cistercian abbey at Medmenham and then in the caves. It is said Dashwood he has the caves dug out in order to provide work for unemployed tenants. This, however, strikes me as an attempt, on the part of more recent Dashwoods, to put a positive gloss on his motives of their notorious ancestor. Sir Francis was a prankster and apparently a dabbler in the occult. When in Rome, he reputedly sprang on the faithful at prayer in the darkened Sistine Chapel, during the Good Friday Mass, whipping left and right. He was encouraged to continue on his travels without delay. His other grand tours took him to Turkey and Russia, making a splash everywhere he went. (He retained a taste for Turkish costumes).
The club adopted from Francois Rabelais' Thelema the motto Fay ce que voudras (Do what thou will), which would become also the motto of Aleister Crowley. Sir Francis Dashwood was also an MP and many powerful men were part of the club. He was also said to have been a Jacobite, and an initiate of Rosicrucianism and of Freemasonry. The Hellfire club was primarily an excuse for theatrical tomfoolery and possibly blackmail, but it may also have absorbed elements of the Templarist mysticism that was starting to surround Masonic circles in Europe. (Coincidentally the medieval Templars had possessed land at Wycombe.)
Another prominent member of the secret society was the Earl of Sandwich, who apparently received a shock when another member unleashed a baboon at him, which the earl mistook for the actual Devil, come to claim his soul. The artist Hogarth was also said to be involved, as was the political radical John Wilkes. Even Benjamin Franklin dropped by... Naturally there is a lot of talk about the caves being associated with the occult and the supernatural, but I didn't see any ghosts when I was there. The passages culminate in a chamber called the Inner Temple, reached after crossing the River Styx, now containing some slightly dodgy modern waxworks of Dashwood and his carousing cohorts.
The castle of Baghras in what is now South Eastern Turkey, was one of the first major fortresses donated to the Templars in the Latin East. They renamed it Castle Gaston and greatly extended it. It lay within the Crusader principality of Antioch, in the mountainous Amanus Marches. It guarded the strategic Belen Pass, on the road between Aleppo and Antioch and the ports of Alexandretta and Port Bonne. The castle was built on a high, rocky crag, and from there the Templars could control the border with Armenian Cilicia.
The Templars lost the castle to Saladin in 1188, and it was subsequently occupied by Armenian King Leo. The Templars took it back in about 1216, in alliance with Bohemond IV of Antioch, though it seems the Hospitallers sided with the Armenians against the Templars at this time. In the 1230s, the Templar garrison withstood a siege by the Muslim army of Aleppo.
The Catalan Rule of the Templars (a set or military regulations) contains various case studies for how breaches of Templar discipline have been dealt with. One of these accounts (in clause 180) sheds light on how Baghras was finally lost to the Mameluks (a Muslim warrior caste, based in Egypt, who were called 'Islam's Templars' by one Arab chronicler).
The loss of Baghras happened soon after the fall of Antioch to the Mameluk Sultan Baybars in 1268. When the Mameluks were marching on the northern Principality, the Templar Brother Geraut de Saucet, Preceptor of Antioch, based in Baghras, knew that the castle had inadequate provisions to make much of a defence. He appealed to Thomas Berard, the Grand Master, 'for the love of God to send supplies and reinforcements'. No reply was forthcoming and the garrison grew nervous about the prospect of encountering Baybars in their parlous state. One of them, Gins de Belin, turned traitor. He mounted his horse while the others were eating and rode to deliver the castle keys to the Sultan. Meanwhile the rest of the garrison decided that they could not defend the castle and so decided to destroy its contents before withdrawing to la Roche Guillaume, farther north. This as it happened was exactly what the Grand Master issue orders for them to do, but they went ahead with the evacuation before the orders arrived. Subsequently the garrison were charged at Chapter with abandoning the caste without permission. Geraut de Saucet and his brethren faced expulsion from the Order, but argued that as they had correctly anticipated the Grand Master’s command, they should escape punishment. (If they had waited for the order to come they might have died waiting.) The Chapter at Acre decided that under the circumstances the deserters of Baghras should be allowed to retain their Templar mantles.
The ruins of Baghras may still be seen. A steep winding track leads up to the massive walls of the lower bailey. There is a gaping hole in the courtyard resulting from the collapse of part of the ceiling of the great vaulted undercroft.
A Turkish friend of mine, a distinguished surgeon, visited Baghras in August 2008, and I am in his debt for the photos included here. He was told by the local villagers that the Templars used slave labour in the construction of the castle. Evidently the knights are not well remembered. He also mentioned the presence of sinister tunnels leading below the ruins. Apparently not long ago some local boys were playing in the ruins ; two, aged aged 15 and 13, went into these tunnels and were never seen again.
'Two of them said to the other two that they will enter the tunnles. They all were in second floor. And they leaved from second floor. Two of them were in second floor still... then... they waited... but nobody came back. Then they went to village maybe their friends came back to village... but no... they were lost.'
'This story (the slave labour) was told to me by local villagers. I dont know more... but I saw deep tunnels, tunnel entrances... but not their exits. It was very terrible... There are 2 buildngs also one of them is a bath... villagers said me that soldiers in here dont permit to good foreign people before they get a good shower. But they said me that maybe this bath buildng was built by seljuks...not templars.'