The story of England’s heroic King Arthur and his arch enemy Mordred has been a popular tale since the medieval era. It has been told and retold and been the subject of paintings and films as well as a succession of books. There are many differences between the narratives. For instance, sometimes Mordred is depicted as Arthur’s illegitimate son from his half-sister, or he might be portrayed as the son of the King of the Orkneys. He is also sometimes described as a member of King Arthur’s court who rebelled against him. However, the conflict between these two warriors and Mordred’s death in battle with Arthur are subjects of general agreement.
From the British Isles the legend of Arthur was carried to the European Continent and later to other English speaking countries around the world. The popularity of the first name Arthur in so many countries can also be traced to the fame of this legendary hero monarch. Today it is going to be hard to find someone educated in one of these lands who has not heard of King Arthur and is also able to name a few other of the characters and places featured. Although parts of the story are so well-known, its history and significance are not so widely appreciated.
The Origins of the Legend
Historians continue to speculate if King Arthur, Mordred and the other scenes and players in the legend have any historical basis. For the most part the story is associated with fifth or sixth century Wales. If a prototype for Arthur did exist he might have been a Celtic chieftain rallying his forces to fight off the Saxon invaders. References have been found to figures that might have been the model for King Arthur in some of the scare writings that survive from the Saxon period in British history, but none of the associations made are conclusive. Two Medieval writers share the responsibility for publicising the tale and incorporating in it many of the elements familiar to us today.
In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history of the Kings of Britain. Many allege that he drew more on his imagination than on any older records that had come to his notice. Others claim that some of what he wrote corresponds with information in earlier documents that have now come to light. Whatever the authenticity of his facts, Geoffrey introduced his readers to a King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin the Wizard and of course, King Arthur’s arch enemy Mordred. In this version of the tale King Arthur goes to fight against the Roman Empire in Gaul (France of today). The evil Mordred takes advantage of the opportunity to usurp Arthur’s throne and take Queen Guinevere as his wife. The news reached King Arthur on campaign. He returns to his kingdom and fights a fierce battle with Mordred at a place called Camlann, Mordred is killed but Arthur is mortally wounded.
In the late medieval period Thomas Malory published a revised and comprehensive version of the Arthur stories, entitled “The Death of Arthur” (Le Morte d’Arthur). The publication of this work coincided with the introduction of the printing press. Malory’s work became one of the first books printed in England and standardised many aspects of the Arthur legend, for example, the idea of Arthur and his knights sitting at the Round Table dates from this publication. The bitter enmity between Arthur and Mordred continues to form a key part of the story but in a key change from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative Queen Guinevere remain loyal to King Arthur.
Why have these tales survived the years?
The fact that the reader of this article is likely to be familiar with tales of Arthur and Mordred is a testimony to their enduring power. Yet they are more than simple stories. The Arthur tales have contributed culturally to the shaping of Britain’s identity. Over all these years they continue to serve a useful purpose. People are attracted by the idea that there was once an age when chivalrous knights rode about the British countryside fighting treacherous enemies like Mordred, or even supernatural dragons and other monsters. During World War Two, tales of Arthur’s bravery against the country’s enemies provided a rallying point for resistance to German aggression. Today the interest is probably largely of an escapist nature. Regardless of whether or not there is a basis in history, it seems that tales of Arthur and Mordred still serve a purpose in our hi-tech age.
By: Jane Richardson in newhistorian.com
In 1087, a joint Pisan and Genoese force attacked the North African town of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia. Christian forces returned to Italy triumphantly and used their spoils of war to construct commemorative churches.
A number of Arabic and Latin sources from the time testify to the events surrounding the raid of Mahdia.
One of the most important Latin sources is the poem Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum, ‘Song for the Triumph of the Pisans’. The Carmen, written by a Pisan cleric only months after the raid, commemorates the expedition.
It has often been argued that the raid on Mahdia – conducted under the banner of St. Peter against a Muslim ruler – was a direct precursor to the First Crusade which followed eight years later. The Carmen is often viewed as providing context for the development of a crusading ideology in the eleventh century.
A pioneering new study has taken a fresh look at the Carmen. Matt King, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the Carmen as a means of understanding Christian perceptions of Islam.
“An examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade,” King writes in his article, published in Hortulus, a graduate journal on medieval studies.
It is usually suggested that Pisan interests in North Africa were primarily commercial, with military activities receiving less attention. King argues that there was a certain level of coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and Islamic states, while the Carmen reveals a different side of the story where religiously-charged rhetoric could be applied to justify violent ends.
The Mahdia raid can be located in a wider context of Pisan military activities in North Africa. Pisa had been involved in military actions against Muslims throughout the eleventh century; briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.
“The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean,” King notes.
Importantly, the Carmen makes frequent Old Testament references in an effort to locate Pisan activity in a Biblical tradition. Within this framework, the inhabitants of Mahdia take the form of Old Testament villains who feel the wrath of God. In contrast, King argues, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favour of God, are able to defeat their adversary.
“Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story,” King notes. “In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient narrative.”
The portrayal of Islam in the Carmen is a multi-faceted one. Pisan attacks are understood as an epic confrontation, similar to the Old Testament and classical tales. Further, the doctrine of the Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia is portrayed as a form of heretical Christianity. Taken together, these depictions of Muslim Africa reveal a medieval Latin understanding of the area as a place and people of the utmost evil.
King notes that the Carmen is, however, a triumphant poem. The author is consciously contextualising the Pisan-Genoese raid in a tradition of God-willed triumph. Simply taking the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam at face value, therefore, may misrepresent the Latin understanding of Islam.
“If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa,” King concludes, “we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifriqiya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims.”
For more information: www.hortulus-journal.com
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: DrFO.Jr.Tn
By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com
Os tempos do rápido consumo das coisas mundanas levou ao rápido consumo das coisas que valem mais que o mundo. Num ápice, passamos por elas sem as experimentar verdadeiramente e sem nos determos o tempo suficiente para nos deixar seduzir nem pelo seu encanto, nem pela voz que evidenciam e não ouvimos. A vontade de ter e de chegar cobre e oculta os aromas suaves que só se experimentam no passar largo.
Muitos ramos das Ordens que derivam do reavivar dos valores Templários nos séculos XVIII e XIX desconhecem os graus de Noviço e Escudeiro. Entra-se na Ordem por cima. Da rua a Cavaleiro em poucos minutos. Passe de ilusionismo, capa na mão. Flup! Já está! Muitas vezes até ouvimos “Sr. Fulano é uma pessoa extraordinária e já era Templário ante de o ser”. Mas como é que se pode ser antes de ser? Estaremos a cumprir o nosso desígnio ao passar a Cavalaria com a facilidade de quem passa uma constipação? É que muitas vezes a vontade de “ser Templário” assemelha-se a uma febre rápida, mas passageira, que se apanha com os amigos. Um espirro aqui e ali: “Sim, juro! Sim, prometo!”, mas depois de passar só ficam para trás os lenços de assoar. Entrou e saiu com a velocidade de um tiro. Ala que se faz tarde. Templários quê? Já tenho… Já sou! Já fui…
Por isso, é de destacar a tenacidade daqueles que procuraram com igual curiosidade e desejo, mas em vez de se deixarem seduzir pela Via Rápida, se mantiveram atentos à Via Dolorosa, mais lenta mas, por ventura, mais segura. Hoje, pedir a alguém uma cifra elevada em Euros para o fazer rapidamente “templário” é mais fácil do que pedir a alguém mais de um ano de estudo e formação para (talvez…) chegar a ser Cavaleiro. Ninguém quer esperar meses para eventualmente ter o que, tudo indica, ser a mesma coisa, mas muito mais depressa. Ninguém quer perder tempo a estudar o que já leu nos livros que tem sobre a Ordem. A Via Rápida é ampla e sem obstáculos, com arrojados viadutos sobre o vale (nem é preciso lá descer), três faixas de rodagem e Via Verde. Já a Via Dolorosa, é longa e não se sabe mais nada. Só se sabe que demora muito tempo. Poucos vêem a necessidade de começar como Noviço. “Noviço, eu? Já ando a estudar isto há tanto tempo! Então agora é que vou ser Noviço?”. Poucos vêem no Escudeiro uma progressão. A poucos interessa a Via Dolorosa porque o que procuram não é ser, mas parecer (assumir a similitude, esperando que assim se dê a ilusão, literalmente que “o hábito faça o monge”). O que é instantâneo na Via Rápida é incerto e longínquo na Via Dolorosa. Ou, sendo porventura caridoso, tudo é longínquo e incerto na Via Delarosa ou Via De la Rosa.
A Ordem dá por isso os parabéns aos novos Escudeiros e Escudeiras, reconhecendo neles e nelas a dedicação e o desejo de progredir um pouco mais no seu trabalho de instrução e despertar espiritual. Não será demais dizê-lo: pelo serviço, a recompensa é certa.
Luis de Matos
For nearly two centuries, the Knights Templar plundered the vast riches of the Near East while marching under the banner of Christ in the Crusades. In addition to the silks, bullion, spices and other valuables the Templars claimed as spoils of war, the wealth of countless dukes, barons, viscounts and other lords flowed into the Order’s coffers as the flower of European nobility rushed to join the ranks of the holy warriors. The massive fortune collected by the Templars generated awe, jealousy and—in the centuries after their disbandment—hope for a payout.
“It’s fantastic treasure,” says Marty Lagina, who along with brother Rick stars in History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island. The show follows the brothers’ quest to uncover a vast store of riches long rumored to be hidden on its titular Nova Scotian island. What exactly that treasure is (and who hid it) eludes clear-cut definition. Theorists and treasure hunters speculate it is anything from lost manuscripts of Shakespearean plays to Marie Antoinette’s jewels to a sunken Viking ship. But the Laginas have seen enough evidence to convince them the treasure could be part of the lost Templar riches. “The connection with the Templars has always been there, since the original discovery of the Money Pit, which supposedly happened in 1795,” says Rick. “There’s always been four or five credible theories about the treasure’s origins—one of which has been that it’s from the Templars.”
How did the wealth of a medieval order of knights, who were destroyed more than a century before Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage, find a home in the New World? The prevailing theory among true believers is that during the Templar’s final days, a fleet of the Order’s ships sailed from La Rochelle, France to the safety of Scotland. The treasure then rested at Kilwinning Abbey until Sir Henry Sinclair and a group of Scottish knights spirited the wealth away to Oak Island, hiding the riches on the island for their progeny to eventually recover.
The story strikes most historians as more than a little fanciful, and the Laginas certainly approach it with a healthy sense of skepticism. “The theory gets a little more tenuous after you have the knights leaving Scotland,” says Marty. However, the brothers quickly point to what they believe is evidence that other Europeans reached the shores of America before Columbus. “There’s the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, which, according to the carbon-14 dating, was constructed between 1440 and 1480,” says Rick (though most researchers believe the tower was built well after Columbus’s discovery). He also references the Narragansett Rune Stone in Rhode Island, which, according to geologist Scott Wolter, contains a mark that links the slab of rock to the same sect of monks that helped construct Kilwinning Abbey—the same place that supposedly housed the Templar treasure before its journey to the New World. “There are these connections—spider web connections—but no dots that say it went from here to here to Oak Island,” says Rick.
Despite the lack of a smoking gun proving Sinclair and the Scottish knights made the voyage to Oak Island, the brothers maintain certain discoveries they’ve made on Oak Island make the Templar theory intriguing, if not convincing. “Has there been a find on Oak Island that we can say is a definitive tie-in to the Templars? No,” says Rick. “But, are there curious facts and bits of discovery that indicate the possibility? Yes.” One of those bits of evidence is the fact that the flag of the island’s native peoples, the Mi’kmaq, bears a striking resemblance to the Templar’s battle flag: a red cross on white with a red crescent and red star.
For Marty, the engravings of what appear to him to be corn and trillium flowers in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel—a chapel built by Henry Sinclair’s grandson William in 1446—lend credence to the Templar theory. “To me, being from upper Michigan, there does really appear to be trilliums in the chapel,” says Marty. Both corn and trillium flowers are native to the Americas, indicating to Marty that Henry Sinclair had visited the New World and passed on what he saw to his family, who later incorporated it into the chapel decorations.
After pouring so much of their time and energy into navigating the pitfalls and perils of Oak Island in their effort to uncover the island’s secrets, the Laginas have high hopes their story will end with some sort of payoff. “We all want our money back,” says Rick. But while the brothers would love to discover a pile of gold and riches straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure, the rewards of the hunt extend beyond material goods. “I believe there’s a story on Oak Island of historic significance, and I want to be part of the team that figures it out,” says Rick. “If that story involves the Templars—one of the most powerful entities on the face of continental Europe during their time—then all the better.”
His brother agrees that finding solid proof of a Templar presence at Oak Island would constitute a huge win, but also embraces the mindset of what his sibling calls “hopeful skepticism.” “There are certain people who believe almost every lost treasure in existence has a connection to Oak Island. So we’ve got to take it all with a little dose of reality,” Marty says. In an adventure filled with half-truths and cryptic clues, keeping that level head may be the most valuable asset of all.
This article appears in the Newsweek’s special edition, Secret Socities: Infiltrating the Inner Circle, by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.
The “window” of the Apollonia Fortress’ dungeon affords a view of the kind of Mediterranean scene that is fast disappearing: gravel cliffs sloping sharply down to turquoise and pale green inlets, grouper fish darting around a reef, clearly visible in the transparent water, and one man sunbathing on the rocks, completely naked. The tourists standing at the spot where the magnificent tower once loomed gaze enchanted at the view – either at the sunbather’s exposed limbs, or, more likely, at the remnants of the Crusader port. This is a collection of boulders protruding from the water, what’s left of the towers that once stood by the entry of the ancient port before they grew weary and collapsed in the mid-20th century, several hundred years after they were built.
Crusader nobles awakened to this vista every morning, peering out at the European ships that anchored across from the port and the boats that made their way back and forth to fill the city’s storerooms with precious goods. The living quarters of the Crusader fortress, where the families of the knights who ruled the area resided, were located on the western side of the fortress, which faced the sea. This section eventually collapsed after ceaseless erosion by the waves of the gravel ridge.
Apollonia’s natural harbor never developed into a port as large as Acre, where dozens of ships would anchor in the 13th century, to be loaded with locally- produced sugar bound for Europe. But the ruins of Apollonia are enough to make one see that the constant movement of people, raw materials and cooking techniques was already occurring hundreds of years before the word “globalization” became part of the modern vocabulary.
Sugar cane, lemons, oranges, eggplant, bananas, rice and other agricultural products originally cultivated in the Far East were adopted by Western civilization via the Middle East. The legends that grew up around the West’s first encounters with these unfamiliar foods and the way they spread throughout Europe were largely connected to the Crusades and the knights who flooded the Middle East with blood on their way to the Holy Land. They hungrily gorged themselves on sugary sweets and almonds, it’s said, and brought these treats back with them to their native countries.
But the historic truth, as usual, is a bit more complex, since most of the knights who settled in the Crusader kingdom never returned to Europe. Today it is widely believed that the reconquest of Spain and Sicily from the Muslim Empire, rather than the Crusades, introduced the foods and flavors of classic Arabic cuisine into the lands of the Mediterranean and then to Western Europe.
Whatever the case, the West’s encounter in the Middle Ages with Arabic cuisine, which in many respects was more advanced than Western cooking of the time, was a source of great excitement among the Crusaders. This week, we returned to the cuisine of the Land of Israel in the 12th and 13th centuries – via a Crusader cooking workshop at Apollonia National Park.
Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are. In the Middle Ages, so we learned in the workshop, food defined a person’s identity and status in the world. This is true to a great extent today as well, but it was even truer when people believed that the nobleman’s physical build required him to eat the dainty flesh of fish, fragile, high-flying birds, and roast game. A peasant whose body was not designed to digest such foods and nevertheless sampled them, was liable to take sick, according to popular belief at the time, and so he was supposed to make do with simple, crude vegetables that grew close to the ground. Once in a while, the poor would season their bean and root vegetable stew with a paltry bit of fat from an animal’s less desirable parts.
Meanwhile, the upper middle class ate hardly any vegetables. And as for carbohydrates, white bread made from wheat was food for lords only. In Europe, the peasants ate black bread made from rye or oats, and delivered any wheat, a much rarer commodity, to whoever was above them in the social hierarchy. Thus, the Crusaders were quite surprised to find that in the Holy Land, everyone ate white bread and pita made of wheat.
In Europe, cooking employed mainly animal fat, usually lard, and food was so greasy that bumps were carved in bowls to keep it from slipping out of people’s hands. In the Middle East, the main sources of fat were olive oil and sesame oil.
Another surprise was the abundance of available spices and the broad use of herbs. In medieval Europe, food was seasoned primarily with black pepper and a little salt, which was also used to preserve, smoke and dry foods. In Arab cuisine, by comparison, seasoning was considered a real art. Extensive use was made of spices such as ginger, saffron, cinnamon and cloves, which the Arab traders brought from the spice lands of the East, and of seasonings produced from indigenous herbs.
The Crusaders appear to have internalized the principles of seasoning so well that if you tried to follow Crusader recipes exactly as written, you’d end up with dishes quite unappetizing to the modern palate. Seasoning in Crusader times was not just meant to improve the taste of the food, but had a host of other purposes as well. For one thing, it was a status symbol that reflected a person’s ability to purchase expensive spices from faraway markets. And the various colors that spices gave to food had mystical meanings – for example, the golden hue produced by yellow saffron was an allusion to the possibility of eternal life. The spices also had medicinal purposes.
But most often, the heavy seasoning was intended to cover up the awful taste and quality of the raw ingredients. At a time when there was no refrigeration, the meat was frequently in a bad state. Such dubious meat, buried under layers of spices to hide its flavor, gave the central bazaar that served the Crusaders in Jerusalem its name – the Rue de Malquisinat (“The Street of Bad Cooking”).
Na’ama Frustig and chef David Gol, the leaders of the workshop, chose dishes composed of ingredients that existed during the Crusader period here and adapted them to the modern palate – i.e., they reduced the cacophony of spices and flavors of the original recipes. The lamb packed into the browned meat pies is not soaked overnight in sour milk, as was customary back in the Crusader era, but chopped and fried with egg yolk (in the Middle Ages, eggs were rarely eaten on their own as a food, but were cooked with other ingredients), rosemary, parsley, oregano, thyme and a variety of other local herbs. Jacques de Vitry, the governor of Acre, wrote admiringly of the lemon trees, whose tangy fruits were ideal for making sauces for fish and fowl. So chicken thighs were brushed with a mixture of lemon, olive oil and sumac. While the lentil stew simmered over an open fire, workshop participants were taken on a tour of the fortress’ kitchens.
Here is an adaptation of a recipe that appears in different versions in cookbooks from the late Middle Ages. It is based on lemon, spices and wine (the Crusaders who settled in the Holy Land revived, at least for a while, the wine industry that had faded during the age of Muslim occupation) and is a good example of that era’s tendency to blend sweet, sour and salty tastes.
Lemon sauce for chicken and pheasant
2 1/2 cups white wine
4 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
Peel the lemons and set aside the peel. Squeeze the lemons, keep the juice and the pulp and discard the white pith. Combine lemon peel, pulp and juice with the wine and cook over a low flame for four minutes. Add the sugar, cinnamon and salt and simmer for one more minute.
The main celebrity of Apollonia was King Richard the Lionheart. Since little Apollonia did not appear on the map of holy pilgrimage sites, not too many VIPs of the time stayed there, but the English king did spend at least one night. He had run into a unit of Saladin’s army near the city, and in the famous Battle of Arsuf, managed, despite the Crusader army’s inferior numbers, to achieve a great victory, which paved the way for the conquest of the Holy Land. This battle exacted a heavy price among the Crusaders, including the life of Richard’s friend, Sir Jacques, who as buried at the Church of the Holy Lady in Apollonia in the presence of the king himself. The church and the knight’s grave have yet to be found (take note, all you prospective writers of best-selling historic adventure tales).
The history of the Apollonia fortress, unlike that of the city itself, is very brief. It was built by the Crusader rulers of the city, but it wasn’t long before, in the face of the Mamluk threat, it passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitaller, who were thought to have a better chance of defending the city. As it happened, this strategy was not very successful. Nor was the digging of a wide, 17-meter deep moat that could only be crossed by a raised wooden bridge, or biological weapons in the form of animal carcasses that were hurled over the wall to spread disease among the enemy. Just 24 years after it was built, the Mamluks conquered the fortress after a siege that was anything but lengthy.
But before that happened, 200 Knights Hospitaller and their bearers used to dine at the large wooden table in the dining hall twice a day – most likely in shifts, given the tight space (during the siege, 2,000 people somehow squeezed into the fortress).
The Christian monastic communities, which set down in great detail the rules of eating – including what goes on the menu, seating arrangements and frequency of meals – had an especially important influence on lifestyles in the Middle Ages. Every knight had his own personal knife, there were no forks as yet, and spoons were a rare item. The soup and stew bowls found in excavations were designed to enable diners to drink from them directly.
In the five cooking and baking ovens found in the kitchen next to the dining hall, stews simmered and slabs of meat were roasted. The city’s knights went on hunting trips in pursuit of the fallow deer, wild boar, rabbits and bears that still populated those unsettled areas at the time. One of the city’s rulers died in a freak hunting accident when his hat became stuck on a tree branch, causing him to be strangled.
Tagliot – Archaeology 4 All offers cooking workshops in Philistine, Crusader and Ottoman cuisine. For more information, call 03-6423432 or visit http://www.tagliot.com
Why did Hitler crave the missing panel in the famous Ghent Altarpiece? Maybe because the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a map to the Holy Grail.
On the night of 10 April 1934, one of the twelve oak panels that comprise Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Often referred to as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” this monumental oil painting is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. It is also the most-frequently stolen, having been burgled, in its entirety or in parts, at least six times—quite a feat, considering that it is the size of a barn door (14 x 11.5 feet) and weighs about two tons. It was the most-desired artwork by the Nazis, including Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.
The two Nazi leaders actually raced one another to be the first to steal the altarpiece. The Nazi art theft unit, the ERR, captured it first for Hitler, from its hiding place at Chateau de Pau, in the south of France, where the Belgian government had sent it for safe-keeping. But an emissary from Göring appropriated it for the Luftwaffe head’s massive stolen art collection, which included some seven-thousand masterpieces, displayed at his country estate outside Berlin. Hitler got wind of this, and intercepted the altarpiece, sending it first to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, where it was restored, and then for storage in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, where the twelve-thousand most famous stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied Europe were kept in secret, destined to feature in Hitler’s planned “super museum,” which would be the size of a city, and display every important artwork in the world. From the Altaussee salt mine, the Ghent Altarpiece and its fellow captives were ultimately rescued, thanks to the combined efforts of Austrian miners and a pair of Monuments Men, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein, who only learned of the Altaussee hoard thanks to a fortuitous toothache that led them to a former SS officer, an art historian who was in hiding as the war drew to a close. The upcoming George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, dramatizes some of these stories, though taking a great many liberties in the process.
The iconography of The Ghent Altarpiece has long fascinated scholars. The painting was immediately the most famous in Europe, when it was completed in 1432. It was the first major oil painting. Oil had been used to bind pigments to paintings since the Middle Ages, but Jan van Eyck was the first to demonstrate the true potential of oils, which permit far greater subtlety and detail than largely-opaque egg-based tempera paint, which was preferred before The Ghent Altarpiece popularized oils. The altarpiece contains over 100 figures, and is an elaborate pantheon of Catholic mysticism—at its center stands a heavenly field, brimming with uniquely-depicted figures around a sacrificial lamb, representative of Christ (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb from which the work draws it title). The lamb stands upon an altar and bleeds into a chalice—the Holy Grail.
Hitler so craved the Ghent Altarpiece because it was one of the most famous artworks in history, and it was by a Germanic artist, in the realistic, Northern Renaissance style that Hitler preferred. It had also been forcibly repatriated to Belgium after the First World War, before which certain panels of the altarpiece had been displayed in Berlin. The Treaty of Versailles mentioned only four works of cultural heritage, foremost among them The Ghent Altarpiece. Hitler wanted to correct the humiliation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, and recapturing the altarpiece would go some way toward that goal.
But there may also have been a more fantastic reason why Hitler wanted this painting above all others. Rumor had it that he was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, the so-called Arma Christi, or instruments of Christ’s Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. Hitler believed that the possession of the Arma Christiwould grant their owner supernatural powers. As the tide of the war turned ever more against the Nazis, Hitler cranked up his efforts to seek some supernatural way to bring victory to the Third Reich.
Cue the soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’sübermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The idea that the Nazis had teams of researchers hunting for supernatural treasures, religious relics, and entrances to a magical land of telepathic faeries and giants might sound like a bad History Channel documentary, or out-takes from an Indiana Jones movie. But despite the considerable popular interest in all things Nazi-related, and all things supernatural, relatively few people are aware of a very real organization that was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones plots: the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization.
The Ahnenerbe (which literally means “Inheritance of the Forefathers”) was a paranormal research group, established by order of SS head Heinrich Himmler on 1 July 1935. It was expanded during the Second World War on direct orders from the Fuhrer. Hitler and other top Nazi leaders’ (Himmler foremost among them) interest in the occult is well and widely documented. The Nazi Party actually began as an occult fraternity, before it morphed into a political party. Himmler’s SS, ostensibly Hitler’s bodyguard but in practice the leading special forces of the Nazi Army, was wholly designed based on occult beliefs. Wewelsburg, the castle headquarters of the SS, was the site of initiation rituals for twelve SS “knights” that was modeled on Arthurian legend. The magical powers of runes were invoked, and the Ahnenerbe logo features rune-style lettering. Psychics and astrologers were employed to attack the enemy and plan tactics based on the alignment of the stars. Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’s übermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The Ahnenerbe sent expeditions all over the world. To Tibet, to search for traces of the original, uncorrupted Aryan race, and for a creature called the Yeti, what we would call the Abominable Snowman. To Ethiopia, in search of the Ark of the Covenant. To the Languedoc, to find the Holy Grail. To steal the Spear of Destiny, which Longinus used to pierce Christ’s side as Christ hung on the cross, and which disappeared from a locked vault in Nurnberg. To Iceland, to find the entrance to a magical land of telepathic giants and faeries called Thule, which Hitler and most of the Nazi brass believed was the place of origin of the Aryans, and was very real. If they could find this entrance, believed to be accessible via a secret code hidden in a Medieval Icelandic saga called The Eddas, then the Nazis might accelerate their Aryan breeding program, and recover the supernatural powers of flight, telepathy and telekinesis that they believed their ancestors in Thule possessed, and which was lost due to inter-breeding with “lesser” races.
As crazy as all this may sound, it was fervently believed by many in the Nazi Party—so much so that huge sums of money were invested into research, along with hundreds of workers and scientists. This pseudo-scientific institute both sought supernatural advantages for the Nazi war effort, but also had a propagandistic agenda, to seek “scientific” evidence to support Nazi beliefs, like Aryan racial superiority.
With all this in mind, it is entirely plausible that Hitler believed that the Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded map to supernatural treasure. After all, the Ahnenerbe was hard at work looking for a secret entrance to the magical land of Thule in the Icelandic saga, The Eddas. Whether such a map is in The Ghent Altarpiece is another matter, one that scholars dismiss out of hand, though it is tempting to interpret the complex, enigmatic iconography and disguised symbolism of van Eyck’s masterpiece in terms more exotic than those in the average art history textbook. But there is also another component to the story that fuels this theory, and it is linked to the 1934 theft of that single panel.
There has never been a convincing explanation for the motivation for the theft of the Righteous Judges panel, referred to as such because it depicts a group of Biblical wise men (while also hiding several portraits, including one of van Eyck). While the man who masterminded the theft of the Judges panel, Arsene Goedertier, is known, he could not have acted alone, and his motivation is uncertain. The panel was ostensibly stolen in order to ransom it back to the bishopric of Saint Bavo—but Goedertier had more money in his bank account than was asked for in the ransom demand. For lack of a clear motive, various theories have arisen, one of which is linked to a Nazi art detective, Heinrich Köhn, who was sent to Ghent to find the stolen Judges panel several years before the Nazis seized the other eleven panels of the altarpiece.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, along with Himmler, conceived of the idea to find the lost Judges panel and give it as a gift to Hitler at the tenth anniversary of his assumption of power in Germany, in 1943. Köhn investigated throughout the city of Ghent, even taking apart portions of the cathedral (for one theory held that the panel had been hidden on-site, never having left Saint Bavo). He found nothing, and was sent to fight in the Eastern Front for his failure. Why would the Nazis wish to locate a single stolen panel? They surely had designs on seizing the entire altarpiece, and did not wish it to be incomplete when they did so. Some have suggested that the coded treasure map leading to the Arma Christiwas missing a key component that was hidden in the Judges panel. In order for the map to bear fruit, that panel was needed. It was stolen in 1934, therefore, to keep it out of Nazi hands, should the nascent Adolf Hitler follow through with his plan to recapture The Ghent Altarpiece and make it the focal point of his super-museum.
While there are plenty of non-supernatural, non-Da Vinci Code-y rationales for Hitler to desire The Ghent Altarpiece above all other objects, it is entirely plausible that Hitler might have believed in the coded treasure map theory. It seems far-fetched to us today, until we consider the other crazy theories that were truly believed by Hitler and his cronies. If The Eddas might contain a code to gain entrance to the magical land of Thule, where Aryan ancestors lived as flying telepathic faeries and giants then, according to Nazi logic, then the world’s most important painting might indeed contain a treasure map leading to the Holy Grail.