As far as I can tell, the Templars became attached to the story of the Shroud of Turin through a coincidence. Since the shroud has become part of the lore of the Templars we’ll need to go over the history of it, as far as is known. I have no intention of exploring what the shroud is or how, when, and where it was made, only the way the Templars were brought into its orbit.
In the thirteenth century, the Church of St. Marie de Blakerne in Constantinople claimed to have the burial shroud of Jesus. I haven’t been able to find out how they got it or when but it was there in 1204 when the Fourth Crusade decided to bypass the Holy Land and conquer Constantinople instead. According to Robert de Clari, a chronicler and participant in the crusade, “There is another church that is called Madam Saint Mary of Blakerne, where the sydoine which Our Lord was wrapped in was. Every Friday it would raise itself upright so that one could see well the figure of Our Lord; but there is no one, not Greek or French, who knows where the sydoine went when the city was taken.”1
I must admit that this is the sort of information that makes a novelist’s eyes light up. A missing relic, stolen in the midst of war: where could it have gone? The possibilities are endless.
Robert de Clari also mentions the veil of Veronica, on which Jesus is supposed to have wiped his face on the way to Calvary, and a holy loincloth that a tilemaker loaned to Jesus for the same purpose. The image on the loincloth had miraculously transferred itself to one of the tiles, which was also kept. Along with these relics from Constantiople were the head of John the Baptist, some pieces of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the tunic Jesus wore while carrying the cross, two of the nails, and a vial of his blood.2 Some of these would later appear in France in the possession of King Louis IX. He built the Church of Ste. Chapelle to house them. But the holy shroud and the holy loincloth and tile seem to have vanished.
There doesn’t seem to be any mention of the shroud again until the middle of the fourteenth century, when a knight named Geoffrey de Charny may have owned it. He was an important figure in the early battles of what would turn out to be the Hundred Years’ War.3 He also joined a crusade to Smyrna in Turkey in 1345, an experience he did not enjoy.4 Later he became a charter member of the short-lived Company of the Star, a group of knights close to the king of France, John II.5 Charny was killed at the Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1356.6 In between his military exploits, he managed to write three treatises on chivalry. He also had a chapel built on his land at Lirey for the purpose of celebrating masses for the souls of his family and as a family cemetery.7
Now, in all his petitions to have his church built and in his own writings, Geoffrey de Charny never mentioned that he had a holy shroud. But, as soon as he had died, his son, also named Geoffrey, began to show the shroud to friends, neighbors, and paying guests as an object of veneration, always taking care not to say that it was the actual burial cloth of Jesus. The local bishop tried to get him to stop doing this, certain that the shroud was a fake. Eventually, he succeeded.
No one mentioned the Templars. There was no reason to. The Templars did not take part in the Fourth Crusade. They did not believe in fighting other Christians—at least, that was what they told the organizers of the crusade, and I think they probably meant it. They were far too busy at the time fighting the heirs of Saladin and must have been irked that the crusaders were looting the Greek Empire instead of helping them.
It’s possible that Geoffrey de Charny bought the shroud as a souvenir when he was in Turkey, not believing that it was genuine, but rather a full-body icon. Whether his son knew this or not is impossible to say.
So why are the Templars connected to the shroud? It all has to do with the coincidence that the Templar Visitor of Normandy, Geoffrey of Charney, who was burned at the stake just after Jacques de Molay, has the same name as the first owner of the shroud. The two Geoffreys may have been related but there is no evidence for this.
That didn’t stop a twentieth-century author, Ian Wilson, from deciding that, not only were the two men connected but that the shroud also originally belonged to the Templars.8 This is an example of taking one fact, that the two men have the same name, and then creating an entire scenario based on no evidence whatsoever.
There are several problems with Wilson’s theory.
I’ve already pointed out that the Templars weren’t in on the looting of Constantinople. That’s the first problem. However, if somehow they did get something that they thought was the sydoine there is no way they would have kept it a secret. As I have pointed out, the Templars were constantly short of cash and relics were big business. The relics they did have were displayed, such as the head of Virgin Number 58 at the Paris commandery or the cross made from a tub that Jesus had once bathed in.9
Wilson says that the shroud and the veil of Veronica were confused and they were the same thing.10 Then he says that the shroud, or maybe images of it, were what the Templars were accused of worshipping at their trial.11Considering the number of imaginative descriptions made by the Templars of the head they were supposed to worship, that doesn’t work. But also, if they had a genuine relic of the Resurrection, doesn’t it stand to reason that they would say so? The idea that this would be a secret makes no sense in the framework of the medieval world, or the modern one for that matter.
One of the more surprising theories that has grown out of connecting the shroud to the Templars suggests that the image on the cloth is actually Jacques de Molay.12 This was made, not surprisingly, by two Masons, neither of whom is a historian.
They base this conclusion on a series of suppositions.
The first assumption is that Jacques was tortured by the inquisitors in an imitation of Christ’s passion. Afterward, the bleeding Grand Master was placed on a shroud because, “like the Jerusalem Church before them and Freemasonry after them, the Templars kept a linen shroud to wrap the candidates for senior membership.”13
They did? I can’t find anything about this in the Rule or in the various records of the interrogations. I’d love to know where it says this but, unfortunately, the authors don’t cite their source.
The book presents a gruesome scenario, complete with illustrations, on how Molay must have been tortured. Oddly, this imagined torture corresponds exactly to the wounds on the image on the shroud. However, there is a problem with this, too. (Actually, there are a lot of problems but I’ll go with the most obvious.) First of all, there is no record anywhere of a person being tortured by the Inquisition in imitation of Christ. This would not only be blasphemy but it would also elevate the status of the accused, making his suffering seem equal to that of Jesus. More importantly, the authors state that Jacques de Molay showed the marks of torture when he came before the masters of the University of Paris. Jacques de Molay did not take off his shirt to show how he had been tortured, as the book says, nor did he make the speech the authors quote.14 They quote it, by the way, not from the records of the trial, but from a translation made in a book called Secret Societies of the Middle Ages. The author is that well-known figure Anonymous.
According to the records, Jacques never said that he was tortured. He said he had been starved and threatened with torture. When he rolled up his sleeve before the masters of Paris, it was to show them how thin he had become.15
That leads me to the most compelling reason to think that, whatever the shroud is, it’s not a portrait of Jacques de Molay. The image on the Shroud of Turin is of a tall and fairly robust young man with long hair and a beard. Now, after some time in prison, Jacques could have let himself go a bit, not trimming his beard or cutting his hair. But Jacques de Molay was in his late sixties, if not older.16 He had been starved. Looking at the image on the shroud, even with the best intentions, I can’t see that the man there is an emaciated seventy-year-old.
Finally, another theory on the Shroud of Turin that has received some notice is that of Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. At first it seems safely free of the Templars. They think that the shroud was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.17
But you know, they just couldn’t keep the Templars out of it, even though Leonardo lived over a century after the dissolution of the order. They base the Templar connection not on primary research but on another popular book, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. This book is based on, among other things, a hoax and forged documents. I have seen these documents and they are riddled with inaccuracies and mistakes.18
Again the authors add the Templars to the mix by continuing the assumption that the Geoffreys of Charney and Charny are connected and adding them to the family tree of the rulers of the Latin kingdoms and thence to the Templars again. There is no documentation for this and it doesn’t agree with known genealogies of the families.
I don’t really care what the Shroud of Turin is. I just think that it’s time we left the Templars out of the arguments. The poor guys have had enough.
Robert de Clari, “La Conquêt de Constantinople,” in Historiens et Chroniquers du Moyen Age ed. Albert Pauphilet (Paris: Gallimard, 1952) p. 78, “un autre des moustiers, que on apeloit madame Sainte Marie de Blakerne, où li sydoines là où Nostre Sire fu envelopés, y estoit, qui chascun vendredi se dressoit tous drois, si que on y povoit bien voir las figure Nostre Seigneur; ne ne seut on onques, ne Grieu ne François, que cist sydoines devint quant la ville fu prise.”
Ibid., p. 67.
Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charney: Text, Context and Translation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996) p. 5.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., pp. 14-15.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 38.
Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
Malcolm Barber, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud.”
Wilson, pp. 81-98.
Ibid., pp. 154-66.
Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah (Boston: Element Books, 1997) pp. 162-96.
Ibid., p. 165.
Ibid., p. 171.
Alain Demurger, Jacques de Molay: Le Crepuscule des Templiers (Paris: Payot, 2002).
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Turin Shroud: In Whose Image? The Truth Behind the Centuries-Long Conspiracy of Silence (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).
For a more complete discussion of the theories in this book, please see my previous book, The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code (New York: Berkley, 2005).