Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lost Graffiti Of The Templars

Could graffiti left by the Knights Templar in southwestern France be the missing link between the order and the Holy Grail?

The assumption that first-hand evid­ence of the Templars’ mysteries was erased along with the structure of their organisation has been perpetuated by so many books that most researchers, scholars included, entirely ignore the fact that the Templars actually did leave behind some startling indications of their thoughts in the form of stone-carved graffiti in prisons where they were held following the suppression of 1307.

There are Templar graffiti in the dungeon at Warwick Castle in England and at Chinon Castle in France, but by far the strangest and most intriguing examples are to be found at the guardhouse at Domme, in south-western France – traces of the order that have been unaccountably overlooked in the thousands of pages written about the Templars. These wall carvings are as close to first-hand Templar writings are we are ever likely to get, so when the opportunity arose to take a close look at them I seized my camera and sallied forth. Little did I suspect that what I was to find would leave me astonished and engulf most of my spare time in the following months as I became driven by the need to comprehend what the Templars had left behind on the walls of this terrible place.


High on a rock overlooking the green hills of the Acquitaine region of the Dordogne, on the road from Perigeaux to Cahors, is the ancient village of Domme, a gem of sponge cake-coloured buildings and labyrinthine nooks. During the arrest of the French Templars, starting on the infamous morning of 13 October 1307, 70 of their number were taken to the guardhouse, one of the town’s gateways, where they could serve the pleasure of ‘fair’ King Philip IV while awaiting trial in an area no larger than a tennis court.With only four slit windows to admit light from the outside world, the prisoners’ focus was turned inward, and to forms of expression that might, even today, reveal fragments of their psychology: in the cold and uncertain months and years which followed, the Templars carved graffiti into the walls.

My guide explained that, being denied possessions and food other than bread and water, fingernails and even teeth were used to scrape away the sandstone, although stones must also have been employed, as some of the carvings are deeply incised. It is some striking measure of their faith – as well as the anger and despair they felt in this place – that they were able to make these amazing graffiti so vivid and permanent.

The first carvings are found inside the entranceway: a large cross with a forked base, surrounded by four smaller crosses. Known as a Jerusalem or Crusader’s Cross, this emblem was adopted at the time of the First Crusade, and may have been the personal arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, first brief ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The emblem is surrounded by a circle, possibly representing the imprisonment of the Templars. The ‘stickman’ appearance of the large cross with its triangular base is repeated dozens of times all around the lower level of the guardhouse.

On entering the guardhouse, it becomes clear that its walls are filled with carvings, many of them familiar, some less so. My eye is caught by what my guide explains is a representation of the crucified Christ within a square – for the Templars this square was the symbol of the Temple Of Solomon. So far, this interpretation ties in with what is known. The Templars’ headquarters in Jerusalem was at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the south side of the Temple Mount, what they thought of as the Temple of Solomon. The guide continues with words that touch directly on the mystery of these carvings, describing the other symbols as “geometrical signs that may represent the Jewish seven branches of the candelabra called menorah”.

The menorah is one of the oldest symbols of Judaism, with its seven branches representing light, the seven days of Creation and, when lit, the seven planets, or the all-seeing eyes of God. Interpreting one of the strangest of the Templar carvings (I call it the ‘cross symbol’) as a menorah rests entirely on its having seven main branches. Yet these branches do not curve upwards to an equal height, as they should – four are at different heights, two of which are pointing downwards; the diagonal lines at the midway are different. Representationally, it is unlike the menorah, despite its seven ‘arms’ and triangular base. Seth Mandel, a menorah expert, has found no drawings from antiquity or mediæval times, either in Roman or Jewish sources, of the menorah with straight arms.At least one specialist I consulted offered a Cabbalistic interpretation of the tree symbol, but this requires a similar contortion to viewing it as a menorah.Having explored a number of avenues to find the source and meaning of the ‘cross symbol’, and although a precise correlation for it still eludes me, I believe its origins might now be within reach.


In 1097, the first crusader armies arrived at Constantinople. After taking Nicæa from the Seljuk Sultanate, they marched through Anatolia on their way to Jeru­salem. A guide sent from the principality of Armenian Cilicia to the east led Baldwin of Boulogne to the mountains of the Taurus, then to the Marash plain where he joined with the Armenian forces. He continued towards Edessa (modern Sanliurfa), and was adopted by King Thoros. Upon the assassination of Thoros, Baldwin became the new ruler, and the first crusader state was created. In 1215 (nearly a century after the formation of the Knights Templar), an ancient monastery close to Mount Ararat in eastern Armenia was rebuilt and renamed Geghardavank. The name means ‘monastery of the spear’, for it was here that the lance that pierced the side of the crucified Christ was said to have been brought by Thaddeus (also known as Jude the Apostle).

The walls of the shrine are covered with distinctive carvings of crusader crosses. And there are several of the same engraved cross formations that we find at the Templars’ prison at Domme: one large cross with four smaller crosses in each of the four quadrants. It is not difficult to see what fasc­ination the monastery held for crusading knights as the repository of the Holy Spear; the relic was clearly a huge draw, and is still kept in Armenia’s Etchmiadzin Cathedral (for other contenders to the Spear of Dest­iny, see FT70:35–37; 175:48–52).

Looking closely at early Christian sites in Armenia, another startling parallel leapt out from the numerous memorial stones, or khatchkars, that exist in their thousands in monasteries and ancient cemeteries. These carved stones, with their ornate branched crosses, reached a peak between the 12th and 14th centuries. If the khatchkar cross is reduced to its essential form – with the horizontal branches splitting off into two diverging branches, each finished with smaller crosses – it resembles the Domme complex cross emblem. There are, however, crucial differences: the five ‘digits’ of the Domme cross are extra elaborations, which may hint towards more ‘heretical’ inclinations; the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Professor Youssef Ziedan, emailed me with the opinion that the symbols are “pagan symbols and not Christian”.

Yet having trawled through hundreds of examples of mediæval Christian and Arabic art and symbolism, nothing comes anything like as close to the strange carvings at Domme as these Armenian crosses, inviting the supposition that at least one of the Domme Templars had been to Armenia and taken the khatchkar carvings as a precursor to the, possibly unique, versions at Domme. It could have been during the Templars’ presence in the country in 1298–9 under the orders of the last grandmaster, Jacques de Molay. Perhaps the inscribing Templar had even visited Geghard monastery and been deeply impressed. Situated as it is close to Iran’s northwesterly borders, with Syria to the south, Armenia (the first country to adopt Christianity as its official state relig­ion, in AD 301) appears to be something of an architectural and artistic ‘missing link’ between the advances of mediæval Islamic mathematicians and early Gothic buildings. Mediæval merchants’ and masons’ marks, for instance, also share characteristics with the Domme symbols, some having precisely the same triangular features. And there are mason’s marks from Chartres cathedral with exactly the same characteristics as the central motif of the ‘cross symbol’: a pair of bent horizontal lines linked by a vertical line. [8]  Other masons’ marks at Chartres could well derive from the same ‘root shape.’

“The great prevalence of these [masons’] marks, composed of mathematical lines,” wrote Robert Ingham Clegg, “is a strong confirmation of the truth of the opinion entertained by Paley, Lindsay, and many other writers, that the secret of the mediæval Freemasons was the application of the principles of geometry to the art of building.” These marks, I believe, are further clues to the obscure connections between Templars and Cistercian monks who facilitated the Gothic flourishing, and the nameless artisans who realised it using rules of form and structure derived from the Pythagorean and Eastern mystery schools.


This curious, octagonal-diamond-triangle emblem resembled nothing I nor any of the dozens of scholars to whom I showed it could find elsewhere, so I eventually went with the official interpretation and looked at Grail representations in the Middle Ages. The chalice held by Melchizedek on the north porch of Chartres cathedral has a good three-dimensional resemblance to the ‘Graal de Domme’. Melchizedek’s chalice contains a stone sphere, an unusual depict­ion echoed in the early grail romance Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170–1220), where the grail is the Lapis Exilis, the stone that fell from Heaven. And who are the guardians of the grail in Parzifal? Wolfram calls them Templeism, an unusual word taken by most to mean the Templars. The octagonal shape found in the Domme ‘stone’ was of special significance to the Templars. It links to certain strictures imposed on them after breaking the rules. Architecturally, the octagon is an ordinary shape for mediæval fonts and church pillars, and also underlies the Jerusalem cross. The intimacy between the Grail and the number eight is encapsulated by the theme of renewal, or resurrection. Might it be that the ‘chevrons’ within the octagon represent the wings of the phœnix, which also appears in Parzifal with the Lapis Exilis: “By virtue of this stone the Phœnix is burned to ashes, in which she is reborn”?

As might be expected, the stone-in-chalice motif has its alchemical tradition. It persists in architecture even down to the watered-down Gothic-revival houses that line England’s suburbs. The banister-ends in many homes, for instance, are topped with identical wooden sculptures. I had always assumed they were eggs in eggcups – but that’s probably a more bizarre idea than them being Holy Grails!

More disturbingly, a graffito at Domme in the niche overlooking the valley depicts Pope Clement V as a serpent being speared by the Archangel Michael. This is clearly an angry satirical swipe at the man who betrayed the Templars, equating the Pope with Satan (or Belial), the ‘old serpent’ and ‘Father of Lies’, throwing his arm aloft as Michael, the most divine of the archangels and commander of the Army of God, is about to defeat him. It might be said that this moment of cosmic drama stems from a fleeting mention in the Book of Revelation (12:7), but considering the importance of Michael in apocryphal documents such as The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, an apocalyptic prophecy and military manual, and other Gnostic and Rabbinic strands with a similar emphasis on Michael/Christ versus Satan, there is the possibility that some of the Domme Templars were influenced by pre-Christian ideas from the Holy Land.

There are other enigmatic motifs to be found at Domme, including a pentagram and several Suns and crescents. A mass of complementary evidence suggests that these relate to the symbolic meanings ascribed to them by the Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists. The Pentagram derived from the proportions of man, and indicated good health. The Sun and Moon were the “guarantors of immortality”. The Pythagorean traditions of numerical and geometric harmonies underlie a family of symbols that, in the developing intellectual centres of Western Europe, were converging with the Christian iconography embraced and espoused by the religio-political establishments of the late mediæval period and culminating in the cloud-piercing summits of Gothic architecture. Pythagoras himself was depicted on French and Spanish cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts. By the 13th and 14th centuries, adherents of the way of truth through enquiry and observ­ation were also indicating themselves via masons’ marks and English church graffiti, a wave of pictographic enthusiasm the likes of which was not seen again until “Kilroy was here” was unleashed across wartime Europe by allied soldiers. One of the very earliest feat­ures of Pythagorean sacred architecture, the oculus, can be found at Royston Cave.

The graffiti at Domme could prove signific­ant in providing extra insight into the members of the Templar order in southern France – it’s almost incredible to find such a place, entirely overlooked by English-language scholarship, and not much better known even in France. The motifs certainly deserve further enquiry (as do the markings at Royston, but for different reasons). A few academics to whom I showed the symbols denied they had any meaning at all, dismissing them as “doodles” or “the idlings of an inmate”. By trying to define a meaning for the symbols, I was, according to one assistant professor, engaged in a hopelessly outmoded way of thinking, since the new wisdom, in art history at least, is that even the word “meaning” requires careful definition. But those who think the symbols are merely doodles perhaps need to be reminded that to the mediæval mind everything was symbolic.

Stepping out of the guardhouse at Domme, I found myself unexpectedly shaken. Few artworks have ever affected me so powerfully; the sense of their presence, and of emotional contact with their creators is incredible – akin to the cave paintings at nearby Lascaux. But at Domme a combin­ation of intense devotion and an angry sense of injustice emanates from the walls like heat, challenging you to walk away without reflecting on how it all came about. There amidst the many carvings and inscript­ions – others include life-size hands, a Nine-Men’s-Morris board, a Madonna and Child, a Eucharist scene, numerous angels and dozens of crosses, with their curious dots and forked bases obsessively repeated – the situation of the Templars at their darkest hour is brought closer to us than anywhere else in the world. In considering these inscriptions, both familiar and mysterious, it’s imposs­ible not to imagine the prisoners scoring over and over their traces, reflecting on and sharing their deeper meanings, gaining knowledge and peace of mind and preparing themselves for the trials they must have known awaited them.

In the passageway around the side of the New Age shop on the main street of Royston in Hertfordshire is a doorway to another world. Step through into a descending tunnel, curving under the central crossroads of this mediæval market town, and you reach a cave unlike any other. The passage through which you have arrived is not the original entrance – that would have been by way of an old shaft, a vertiginous climb down footholds cut from the solid chalk.

Looking around the walls of this bell-shaped chamber, dozens of relief-carved figures are apparent, some of them arranged in groups or scenes. A few are easily discernible as Christian icons: crucifixions, St Christopher, St Katherine. Others are more contentious, and their ambiguity leaves a space of uncertainty into which some have allowed the Knights Templar to plant their flag. Indeed, so successful has the ‘Templarisation’ of Royston become (see also FT193:28–30) that the local museum endorses the view that the cave was a place where they gathered in secret after their suppression.

Scholars tread more caut­iously. Dr Helen Nicolson, a Crusades expert and author of several books on the Templars, tells me that, since the Royston carvings show a knight in full armour (a feature I am unable to make out, I have to say), they must have been made at least a century after the Templars were dissolved. She reminded me of the theory that the cave was used as a hermit’s cell in the late 14th or 15th century, and that this hermit made the carvings, but admitted her own preference for the idea that the carvings “were made by Catholics in the 16th century in the time of Edward VI or Queen Elizabeth, or in the 17th century, when Catholicism had been outlawed and Catholics had to meet in secret.” 

Where does this leave the Knight Templars in Royston? Is the Templar theory for the carvings at Royston Cave just another example of how these knights inexor­ably gravitate towards any mystery and are consequently embraced by those – like the present guardians of the cave – who welcome the extra tourists?

The cave was discovered by accident in 1742. Initially thought to contain treasure, it was rapidly cleared of debris, revealing a chamber almost 8m high and 5m in diameter. Intrepid visitors entered via ladd­ers, until in 1790 an enterprising bricklayer cut the 22m (70ft) tunnel and charged visitors sixpence to see the cave.

The first intensive academic study of the carvings was published in 1884 by Joseph Beldam, who assigned a pre-Christian or Roman origin for the cave and concluded that the carvings were made during the Crusades, when it was converted into a Christian oratory with a hermitage “probably attached”. No mention of Templars was made for almost another century, not until Sylvia Beamont suggested that the local knights were farmers and artis­ans, not fighters, and that they used the cave to store perishable foods and as an overnight lodging during market days. The lower part of the cave, she thought, could have been a chapel, poss­ibly used for initiations.Peter Houldcroft, who for many years guided visitors around the cave, went further in supposing the cave’s purpose was entirely ritualistic, coming up with a raised star-shaped platform on which the Templars performed their secret rites.Houldcroft’s notion of the platform derived from post-holes found in the floor and possible beam-holes on the walls, a disputed but interesting theory. Philip Coppens pushes the boundaries even further with his ‘sacred landscape’ argument, making Royston “the only fully-developed geomantic site in Britain, situated at the intersection of two straight roads orientated to the cardinal direct­ions”, a pagan origin reclaimed as a ‘creation myth’ by the later Christian imagery.Where esoteric matters are concerned, there are indeed no coincidences, yet this may be too close to a Foucault’s Pendulum-like master­plan for comfort. But who knows?

What most persuades this observer that the graffiti are linked to the Templars is the presence of the two figures being burned on woodpiles. One of them is beside a large St Christopher, an important Templar saint, the other, more memorable, one leads two rows of 31 figures (also heretics?) and wears a crown or mitre. The figure’s high status indicates that it could even be Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master. Tangentially, another figure with upraised arms is said to be King David rising from water, closely reflected in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge, library illustrating Psalm 69. Freemasons sympathetic to the Templar origins of their society might consider recognising this as one source for the Masonic Sign of Distress with its upraised arms.

Twelve metres above the floor, an oculus (“eye” or round opening) offers a glimpse of sky. This feature most strongly attests to the cave’s origins. Now that it is beyond question that Pythagoreans, mystic-scientists known for at least 500 years before Christ, met in secret, sometimes in the kind of underground temple discovered under Porta Maggiore in Rome, where the roof would have required an oculus for illuminating the living symbols of the sun (Apollo), light, the circle – the first causes of the Pythagorean perspective from which all else stems: number, harmony, geo­metry, music, the spheres and everything on them. Hadrian, one of the more inquisitive emperors, had Pythagoras’s mathematical discoveries expressed within the Pantheon, one of the great ventures into the relationship between the sphere and the cube. This is Pythagoreanism at its most glorious and showy; the religion is essentially practised and disseminated under varying conditions of secrecy. Royston’s echo of Pythagorean rules keeps to the basic essentials for a shrine. It is underground, has an oculus, and an entrance that expresses the tenets of “descending to the divine”, making it difficult to estimate one’s orientation to the surface. Thus the Pythagorean learns that by going underground you find the light.