Relics of the Knights Templar - character and objective

A serie of three blogs, quoting freely from Gerrard and Borowski (2017), considers the extensive collections of religious relics accumulated by the military orders in general and the Knights Templar in particular

"Singled out by Jacques de Molay as a significant component of his order’s religious heritage, the last grand master of the Templars claimed that he did not know of “any other Order in which the chapels and churches had better or more beautiful ornaments and reliquaries relating to the divine cult and in which the divine service was better performed by its priests and clerics, except for cathedral churches.” (...)



Relics were actively deployed both to construct and to maintain social identities. (...) The relics range from the preserved remains of a saint or holy person (corporeal relics), to the objects with which they came into physical contact (secondary or contact relics), to bodily fluids such as blood, oil, or milk (effluvial relics), to, more rarely, the water or wine with which other relics were washed. (...)

The military orders were dependent on public support for both financial contributions and new recruits and the mere possession of relics was in itself a potent sign of their piety. This was well understood by the Christian faithful. On the one hand, it demonstrated devotion and divine support, on the other it implied a sense of continuing stewardship towards the relics on the part of the owner, which the military orders and others could exploit to their own advantage. (...)

Along the Christian frontier, relics took an active role in campaign and conquest. (...) The relic was perceived as a movable holy place; and thus all the Christians who assembled around it could be identified as pilgrims and, by extension, violence could be justified as a defense of the relic and a service to the Christian flock. (...) Relics, it might be argued, acted especially effectively in this binding role among the cosmopolitan Latin and non-Latin Christian communities so often inhabited by the military orders and transcended ethnic and faith boundaries at times of acute crisis.

The fragmentation and translation of relics was already a well-established custom by the later Middle Ages, and the military orders were willing participants. The looting of relics motivated by pious devotion was seen as commendable (furtum sacrum) and to be distinguished from common theft, motivated by greed and punishable by excommunication. Most relics changed hands peaceably, and some were certainly acquired in person by knights who visited the Holy Land. Being portable and light, they were easily moved over long distances. (...)

Relics could achieve the status of a diplomatic gift. The right arm of Saint John the Baptist, presented in 1484 to the Hospitallers by the Turkish Sultan Bayezid in exchange for a promise of support. The presentation by the Hospitallers and Templars in 1245 to Pope Innocent IV of a nail and a hammer from the Crucifixion and the hand of Saint Thomas is another example. (...) Relics were certainly accepted as pledges for loans, and this is probably how the Knights Templar obtained the bust of Saint Polycarp, which had been pledged by the abbot of the Temple of the Lord (on Temple Mount, Jerusalem, TN) and never reclaimed. (...)

A large silver reliquary containing the head of one of the martyred virgins (of Saint Ursula, TN) could be found on the altar of the Temple of Paris in the early fourteenth century. (...) The Templars kept a holy image of the Virgin Mary in the cathedral in Tartus (Syria), venerated by Christians and Muslims alike, from which holy oil was extracted for distribution to pilgrims. (...)"


Text focussing on the Templars selected from Gerrard, C.M. and Borowski, T. (2017) 'Constructing identity in the Middle Ages : relics, religiosity and theMilitary Orders.', Speculum., 92 (4). pp. 1056-1100. Illustration from the same source: Turkish Spokesman Presenting the Hand of Saint John the Baptist to Hospitallers, an illustration by Guillaume Caoursin.


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