It is difficult to say what you see first when you step inside the church built by the Knights Templar in the middle of London, over eight hundred years ago. What you notice first, though, is a complete disparity in both the architectural style and the ‘feel’ of the original west end, the Round Church and the ‘new’ east end, built a century later and bearing all the signs of a more modern establishment. And one thing you cannot help but notice in the Round Church is the sheer number and variety of carved heads.
The original church was built in the middle of the twelfth century when the power of the Knights Templar was on the ascendant. Two hundred years after the founding of the Order, it would be wiped out the political and financial chicanery, leaving the Knights with a story and a reputation that still fascinates us today.
Philippe le Bel, King of France, owed the Templars a lot of money. The order had been founded in order to protect the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land at the time of the Crusades, and one of he ways in which the Knights served the pilgrims was by setting up an early form of international banking. The venture grew, and although the individual Knights were vowed to poverty, the Order grew to be rich and powerful… never a safe combination.
In 1307, when support for the Crusades was waning, Philippe had the Knights in France rounded up, accusing them of everything from heresy and anti-Christian practices, to homosexual acts and idolatry. Unsurprisingly, under the most brutal torture, confessions… later ruled to be falsified or invalid… were wrung from some of the captives. The majority of the Templars were put to death, with many, including their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, being burned at the stake.
Most of the charges brought against the Order were not only groundless but were also identical to charges brought by Philippe against a Pope, Boniface VIII, who got in his way some years earlier. One of the most curious charges brought against the Order was that of the veneration of a bearded head. Over the centuries there has been much speculation about this head.
Could it have been a simple representation… a portrait? Perhaps something as simple as the Mandalion… a portrait of Jesus painted during his lifetime and credited with miraculous powers, or the Veronica… the veil pressed against Jesus‘ face as He walked to the Cross and which is said to bear his image. Some believe it to have been a mummified head, and many cite historical practices and a reverence for the head that goes back to a time long before Jesus and continues into medieval Christianity with a veneration of relics.
Could the Templar’s head be that of John the Baptist, who was reportedly beheaded? Others, notably Keith Laidler, author of ‘The Head of God: the lost treasure of the Templars’, have controversially suggested that it could even be the head of Jesus. This would have been completely unacceptable to a Church founded on the belief that Jesus ascended bodily to Heaven.
There is another school of thought that sees the Templar head as rather more symbolic than physical. It is known that whilst in Jerusalem, the Templars took up their abode beside the ancient site of the Temple of Solomon. Rumours and legends speak of the Templars excavating and finding treasure beneath the Temple. Whatever the truth of that, one thing is certain… in the Holy Land they would have come into contact with other beliefs than Christianity.
Alchemists use the symbol of the ‘dead head’, Caput Mortum, also called nigredo. While this symbolises the ‘worthless matter’, blackened and useless, left over from alchemical experiments, it is also the state of decomposition, which was seen as the first step in the quest for the philosopher’s stone… itself a symbol for spiritual immortality. It is the darkness and dissolution of the ego through which one must pass before making spiritual progress.
The Templar head was also accused of being demonic… and was given the name Baphomet in some of the transcripts of their trials. It has been suggested that the name is a corruption of Mohammed, which is possible, as not only would the Templars have encountered Islam when fighting the Saracens, there exists a transcript from 1098 that makes this error. Any suggestion that the Templars had adopted any Islamic beliefs would also have been anathema at the time.
The Baphomet of popular imagination is, these days, Eliphas Levi’s Goat of Mendes, which did not come into being until the nineteenth century and has nothing to do with the Templars, hundreds of years earlier. On the other hand, there is a theory that once more takes a symbolic approach… If the word Baphomet is written in Hebrew and decoded with the Atbash cipher, it can be read as the Greek word Sophia… which means Wisdom.
Whatever the truth of the matter may be…and we will probably never know for certain… one thing is certain… the Round Church is absolutely teeming with heads, carved above each arch, encircling the central space like some macabre representation of the Round Table. From the relatively recent stained-glass depiction of David with Goliath’s severed head, to the innumerable carvings that line the walls, just a few of which are illustrated here. There is every imaginable expression, every class of persona and creature, from dogs to demons, paupers and knights to crowned kings. Are they portraits? Symbols of vices, virtues or the fate awaiting sinners, as some have suggested? Or is there something more significant, to which we have lost the keys? One thing is certain, though… if you wanted to conceal the significance of one symbolic head, there would be no better place to do so than amongst so many… hidden in plain sight.