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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"
The historic Priory of Sion, properly called the Prieure du Notre Dame de Sion, was a religious community founded in Jerusalem in 1099, immediately after the First Crusade. (It had no special relationship with the Knights Templar.) After their church was destroyed during a Muslim attack in 1219, the priests of the Priory withdrew to Sicily. In 1617 they joined the Jesuits and disappeared.
Nevertheless, the Priory still flourishes in fantasy. According to theories popularized in "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Biagent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln (1982), a book heavily mined by Dan Brown for "The Da Vinci Code," the Priory had a hidden mission--guarding the secret bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. According to this legend, Jesus' lineage, passed through the Merovingian dynasty of France and the crusader Geoffrey of Bouillon, still exists.
The idea of a still-existing Priory with a shocking secret was, in fact, invented by a convicted French conman named Pierre Plantard on the model of a 19th-century esoteric society, the Order of the Rose-Croix of the Temple of the Grail. The only modern Priory of Sion was a short-lived club registered by Plantard in 1956.
But Plantard and his accomplices later fabricated false documentation for the Priory, which claimed to have enrolled thousands of important people throughout the world under Grand Master Plantard, heir to the holy blood and the throne of France. These claims wilted under investigation, including a debunking by BBC in 1992. A French court forced Plantard to admit his hoax under oath in 1993.
According to medieval legend, the Holy Grail is the vessel of the Last Supper, afterwards used to catch drops of Christ's blood at the cross. Different versions depict it as a platter, a cup for the wine (chalice), a container for the bread (ciborium), a dish for the Paschal lamb, or a white stone on which a wafer was laid. Holy Communion is always the focus.
The Grail first appears in the 12th-century French poem "Perceval"as a mysterious serving dish containing a single Communion wafer. Robert de Boron rewrote the poem in 1200, turning the dish into a cup called the Holy Grail used at the Last Supper and brought to England by Christ's disciple Joseph of Arimathaea. The most mystical form of the story, the "Queste del Saint Grail" from the early 13th century, has King Arthur's three purest knights finding the precious cup after a long search. Christ himself appears and gives them Communion from the Grail, after which it is taken away to heaven. This account of the Grail quest was incorporated into Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur" (1470), the best version of the Arthurian legends in English.
Medieval stories about the Holy Grail reflect contemporary ideas about Eucharistic miracles, such as levitating Communion wafers or appearances of Jesus during Mass. They also appear to draw on pagan Celtic myths about ever-filled vessels of food and drink, cauldrons of regeneration, and adventures in the Happy Otherworld. But the pagan borrowings always serve a Christian purpose. The Grail does not symbolize Mary Magdalene as bearer of Christ's child, although it might possibly stand for the Virgin Mary, whose pregnant body did contain Christ himself.
On Beliefnet: Where to Search for the Holy Grail
Book: Roger Sherman Loomis, "The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol"
According to its American website, Opus Dei's mission "is to spread the message that all Christians are called by God to make Jesus Christ known and to seek holiness in and through their daily work, family life, and social relations."
Familiarly known as "The Work," Opus Dei provides spiritual direction, classes, talks, and publications. Members attend daily Mass, read the Bible, pray regularly, and do charitable works. About 98 percent of its 85,000 members worldwide are laypeople and the great majority of these are married ("supernumeraries"). Ordained members belong to a special association called the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. Celibate lay members who live at home are "associates," while celibates who live in Opus Dei residences are "numeraries." "Cooperators" are people of any faith who support Opus Dei's activities or enjoy its guidance.
Opus Dei ("Work of God") is what's known as "a personal prelature" of the Catholic Church. This designation denotes an organizational structure that provides Opus Dei with its own non-territorial bishop to oversee its specific activities. Members still remain under the authority of their own local bishops for ordinary matters. Opus Dei is not a religious order: Members make commitments, not vows.
Opus Dei was founded by a Spanish priest, St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-75), won papal approval in 1950, and was made a personal prelature in 1982. Escriva was canonized in 2002. Opus Dei has critics who consider it too powerful, controlling, and conservative. It has not quite shaken habits of secrecy acquired during the Spanish Civil War. But Brown's portrait of the group in "The Da Vinci Code" goes beyond these oft-cited criticisms. Unlike the book's description, Opus Dei's members are not monks and do not wear special garb. Their mortifications do not mutilate their bodies. They did not bail out the Church during the Vatican Bank Scandal nor are they in the assassination business.