"In fact, the clearest evidence that the Templars were not all they seemed is largely unknown, even among Templar experts. But it is potentially extraordinarily important. It takes the form of an original Templar building, still standing, nestled in a quiet corner of green countryside. Inside, it contains an enigma that may yet cause experts to revisit the entire question of the Templars’ religious beliefs. It is not Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, which has no Templar connections at all, having been built a century and a half after the Order was suppressed. Instead, it is a small mid-12th-century chapel in the village of Montsaunès, set in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, on one of the principal medieval highways leading from France into Spain.... Montsaunès was on a strategic defensive line. Surviving medieval charters prove beyond doubt that the chapel was unquestionably built by the Templars, then occupied and maintained by the Order for 150 years. It was the heart of one the Order’s great European commanderies (fortified monasteries), although nothing else of it survives.
The reason for its importance to the question of Templar spirituality is immediately apparent the moment you enter the ancient building. The whole interior is painted, as most medieval churches and cathedrals were. But the Templars’ chosen decorations for this particular chapel were not saints, bible scenes, and the usual range of religious imagery. The surviving frescoes are a bizarre collection of stars and wheels, rolling around the walls and ceiling in some mysterious, unfathomable pattern. Interspersed among them are also grids and chequer-boards, painted with equal precision – but also with no apparent sense or meaning. There is nothing remotely Christian about it. The overall effect is calendrical and astrological, with a whiff of the Qabbalistic. It is like some strange hermetic temple, whose meaning is obscured to all except initiates.
The conclusion of the few experts in medieval art who have looked at the frescoes is that they are unlike anything else they have ever seen. They are "unknown esoteric decoration". Anyone studying the startling paintings quickly realises that they transcend the small French commune where they remain unnoticed, 850 years on. They demand answers. What did they 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?
We simply do not know the answers. But the chapel at Montsaunès is proof, in its own enigmatic way, that the religious life of the Templars was not as straightforward as we have perhaps come to believe.... The little-known chapel at Montsaunès reminds us that there is much we still do not know about the Templars, who increasingly baffle us the more we discover about them."
View this video on Montsaunès Chappel. Many more pictures of the frescos are presented here:
Text and illustration from a publication by Dominic Selwood on December 19th, 2013.