Click to go directly to a question:
The Knights Templar, more formally known as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, were warrior monks in the Middle Ages. In 1118, 19 years after the First Crusade conquered the Holy Land, nine French knights took vows to protect pilgrims. After their monastic rule was approved in 1128, the new group developed into a formidable fighting force, enrolling knights, men-at-arms, and support staff. They became international bankers to handle the donations from that funded their campaigns in the East.
But when the Crusaders were driven out in 1291, the Templars became obsolete. Their wealth, and rumors of misconduct, led King Philip IV of France to arrest all his kingdom's Templars in 1307. Using evidence obtained after horrific tortures, Philip persuaded the weak pope Clement V--then resident in France--that the Order was guilty of blasphemy, sodomy, and idolatry. As many as 120 Templars, including their Grand Master, were burned at the stake. The king confiscated their wealth and the order was disbanded everywhere in 1312. Former members accepted pensions or joined other Orders.
Unlike the picture painted in "The Da Vinci Code," no reputable historian thinks that the Templars were idol-worshippers, participants in fertility rites, or dabblers in arcane heresies. The uncultured and often illiterate Knights did not invent Gothic architecture; they were not great builders nor were their few round churches evidence of secret paganism. The Order did not hide out in Scotland, much less survive another three centuries to found the Freemasons.
But because of their cruel and unjust fate, the Templars did become the focus of absurd speculations. They were imagined to be carriers of ancient wisdom handed down from Atlantis, guardians of the Holy Grail, discoverers of America, possessors of vast riches, plotters against tyranny. Their story is supposedly coded into Tarot cards (which were actually devised for a harmless Renaissance game). Eighteenth century occultists tried to refound the Templars, and "Knight Templar" became the highest degree in Royal Arch Freemasonry. The unfortunate Knights continue to inspire esoteric histories and speculative novels, enduring twice as long in fantasy as they did in actuality.
- On Beliefnet: The Knights Templar in America
- Book: Peter Partner, "The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth"
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was one of the greatest artists of the Western world. His paintings, especially the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, define what most people picture as Renaissance art. In addition, Leonardo's restless curiosity about nature, keen interest in mathematics, and his ingenious designs for mechanical devices made him the original Renaissance Man.
Leonardo was born near Florence, the illegitimate son of a prosperous notary. "Da Vinci" is the name of his birthplace, not a surname. Leonardo--like his younger contemporaries Michaelangelo and Raphael, known by his first name alone--spent nearly all his professional life in Florence and Milan but died in France.
His masterpiece "The Last Supper" shows Jesus dining with his Apostles the night before he died. Dan Brown claims that the figure seated at Christ's right is a woman, specifically, his alleged "wife," Mary Magdalene. But in the painting, this figure is actually the Apostle John, traditionally depicted as a beardless youth. We know this from iconography, from Leonardo's sketches for the painting, from the effeminate way he rendered young men (including John the Baptist), and from a labeled 16th-century copy.
The agitated Apostles in the Last Supper are reacting to Christ's statement "one of you will betray me" (John 13:21). The institution of the Holy Eucharist is not described here in the Gospel of John, although the position of the Savior's hands near bread and wine do convey a Eucharistic message as well. Leonardo was not mocking Catholic belief.
- On Beliefnet: Leonardo da Vinci: His Faith, His Art
- Book: Leo Steinberg, "Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper"
The Merovingians were the Kings of the Franks, a Germanic people who conquered what is now France in the late fifth century. Their dynastic name comes from their legendary ancestor Merovech, supposedly the son of a sea-monster. Merovech's grandson Clovis carved out a kingdom, married a Catholic princess, and converted to Christianity in 496. The Franks were the first barbarian invaders to accept the Roman faith.
But later Merovingian kings proved violent, lecherous, and lazy. The Merovingians were not adherents of esoteric Gnostic Christianity; they remained Catholics, though their behavior was hardly Church-approved. They let their officials do the hard work of governing until one of these, Charlemagne's father, deposed the last Merovingian in 751 and sent him to a monastery.
- Book: J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, "The Long-Haired Kings"