The Vatican has pulled off its customary Holy Week stunt of outdoing The Da Vinci Code by publishing an article which claims the Knights Templar were the custodians of the Shroud of Turin for 100 years, and were accused of heresy for their pains.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's inhouse newspaper, published an article by researcher Barbara Frale, which claims to have uncovered Vatican documents which suggest the shroud - reputedly the cloth used to wrap the body of the crucified Jesus Christ - was the iconic item used by hostile prosecutors to accuse the Knights Templar of heresy.
During their trial, the Knights were accused of various heresies and blasphemies, including sodomy and arguably inventing international banking. One of the clinchers, it seems, was worshipping idols, particularly a mysterious bearded figure.
In her researches on the trial, Frale says she uncovered a deposition from one Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who had entered the order in 1287. Sabbatier describes how he was brought into a sanctuary during his initiation into the order, where he was shown a long linen cloth which bore the image of a bearded man, and was told to kiss the feet of the image three times.
It doesn't take the imagination of Dan Brown to note that the linen cloth sounds extremely similar to the shroud of Turin. Frale also notes that the shroud, originally in the keeping of Constantinople, disappeared during the unfortunate sacking of that particular outpost of Christendom by the crusaders intent on protecting Christendom. It then disappeared for a century, before popping up again in Europe in the possession of a former Templar family.
Frale speculates that after the sacking of Constantinople, the shroud found its way into the keeping of the Templars, who relied on its power to help protect them from the heresies rampant in Europe at the time. In particular, she argues, they were fearful of the Cathars, who believed that Christ never had a human form, and therefore could not have died and risen from the dead. A decidedly unorthodox position, which of course the shroud, with its detailed depiction of the effects of scourging, crucifixion and rigor mortis, elegantly countered.
Unfortunately for the Templars, but fortunately for 700 years worth of conspiracy theorists, the shroud didn't do the order much good. They were accused of heresy, blasphemy, sodomy and pretty much everything else an unholy alliance of Pope Clement V and Philip IV of France could throw at them.
Frale has previously uncovered trial documents in the Vatican archives which showed the Pope never accepted the order was guilty of heresy. Nevertheless, the order was broken up, key leaders burned at the stake, and fighting monks cast out into the wilderness.
Unless, of course, you accept that any of the current Templar organisations are the legitimate heirs to the medieval order. One of these has threatened the Vatican with the Spanish inquisition - or at least a civil court case in the Spanish Courts to recover the assets confiscated back in the 1300s. The Vatican is unlikely to acquiesce, especially now that the wanted list could now include one its most prized relics. ®