Lost Graffiti of the Templars
Graffiti made by the Knights Templar in a bastion in south western France prompts an investigation into their possible meanings, and further examples in England.
A revised and expanded version of an article published in Fortean Times 259. All the images of Domme, Whitchurch, and Toller Fratrum are by the author.
The assumption that first-hand evidence of the Knights Templars’ mysteries was erased along with the structure of their organization has been perpetuated by so many Templar books, that many researchers, scholars included, entirely ignore or skate-over the fact that the Templars actually did leave behind some startling indications of their thoughts in the form of stone-carved graffiti in prisons where they were held following the suppression in 1307. There is some in the dungeon at Warwick Castle in England and at Chinon castle in France.
Yet by far the strangest and most intriguing examples, as I was to find, are at the guardhouse at Domme in southern France, traces that have been unaccountably overlooked in the thousands of pages written about the Templar legend. These graffiti carvings could be as close to first-hand Templar writings, or indications of their innermost thoughts, as we are ever likely to get  so when the opportunity arose to take a close look at them I took up my map and camera and sallied forth, not suspecting that what I was going to find would leave me astonished, and would engulf most of my spare time in the following months, driven by the need to comprehend what the Templars had left behind on the walls of this terrible place.
These graffiti carvings could be as close to first-hand Templar writings, or indications of their innermost thoughts, as we are ever likely to get.
The first carvings are found inside the entrance way: a large cross with a forked base, surrounded by four smaller crosses. Known as a Jerusalem or Crusader’s Cross, this emblem was adopted at the time of the First Crusade, and may have been the personal arms of Godfrey of Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, only for a year. The emblem is surrounded by a circle, explained by the guide notes as possibly representing the confined Templars. The ‘stickman’ appearance of the large cross with its triangular base is repeated dozens of times all around the lower level of the guardhouse.
Godfrey of Bouillon (1060-1100),
wearing the Cross of Jerusalem
Entering the guardhouse it becomes clear that its walls are replete with carvings, some of them familiar, many less so. The extraordinariness of the Domme graffiti is exemplified by a near bas relief representation of a crucified Christ with visible ribs and three radiating sets of three dots issuing from each hand. The Christ and two onlookers are contained within a square, I am told, and for the Templars this square (which is really a 'roofed' square) is the symbol of the Temple Of Solomon. This interpretation ties in with what is known, for the Templar’s headquarters in Jerusalem was at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the south side of the Temple Mount, what they thought of as the Temple of Solomon. This carving must have taken days, and is more affecting than any painting I have seen of the same scene, as we learn that the imprisoned Templars had no tools with which to carve it.
Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
The guide continues with words that touch directly on the mystery of these carvings, describing other, more mysterious abstract symbols (see below) as “geometrical signs that may represent the Jewish seven branches of the candelabra called menorah.” The menorah candlestick is one of the oldest symbols of Judaism, its seven branches representing light, the seven days of Creation and when lit the seven planets or the all-seeing eyes of God. Interpreting one of the strangest of the Knights Templar carvings (the ‘double-armed cross symbol’) as a menorah rests entirely on it having seven main branches. Yet the branches do not curve upwards to an equal height as they should. Four of the symbol’s branches are at different heights, two of which are pointing downwards; the diagonal lines at the midway are different. So despite having seven ‘arms’ and a triangular base, representationally it is hardly anything like the menorah. Seth Mandel, a menorah expert, has found no drawings from antiquity or medieval times, either in Roman or Jewish sources, of the menorah with straight arms. At least one specialist I consulted offered a Cabbalistic interpretation of the tree symbol, but this requires a contortion similar to viewing it as a menorah, no easy correlation. Yet the interpretive line at Domme leans towards the esoteric and the inter-faith.
Having now explored many avenues to find the source and meaning of the ‘cross symbol’ , and although a precise analogue for it still eludes me and probably always will, some ideas as to its origins and inspiration are now decidedly within reach.
The first thing to note is the symbolic echo of the 'radiances' from the hands of the crucified Christ graffito and the arms of the abstract cross, whose five 'fingers' on each 'hand' suggests a human form (albeit one with two sets of arms). Yet the cross is clearly so highly abstracted, I continued searching for a closer symbolic analogue. This is what I found...
In 1097 the first crusader armies arrived at Constantinople. After taking Nicea from the Seljuk Sultanate they marched through Anatolia on their way to Jerusalem. A guide sent from inside the principality of Armenia Cilicia to the east led Baldwin of Bolougne to the mountains of the Taurus, then to the Marash plain where he joined with the Armenian forces. He continued towards Edessa (modern Sanliurfa), and was adopted by King Thoros. Upon the assassination of Thoros, Baldwin became the new ruler of Jerusalem, and the first crusader state was created. In 1215, nearly a century after the formation of the Knights Templar, an ancient monastery close to Mount Ararat in eastern Armenia was rebuilt and renamed Geghardavank. The name means ‘monastery of the spear’ for it was here that the lance that pierced the crucified Christ was brought by Thaddeus (or Jude the Apostle). The walls of the shrine are covered with distinctive carvings of crusader crosses. And in an exact mirror of the crusader’s crosses inside the entrance to the Domme prison, there are several of the same Jerusalem Cross forms carved at Geghard monastery: one large cross with four smaller crosses in each of the four quadrants. It is not difficult to see what fascination the monastery held for crusading knights with its repository of the Holy Lance that pierced the side of Christ. This relic (there were others too) was clearly a huge draw, and still exists at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Vagharshapat.
Looking closely at early Christian sites in Armenia, another startling parallel leapt out from the numerous memorial stones, khatchkars, that exists in their thousands at monasteries and ancient cemeteries. These carved stones with their ornate branched crosses reached a peak between the 12th and 14th centuries. If the khatchkar cross is reduced to its essential form – with the horizontal branches splitting off into two diverging branches, each finished with smaller crosses – it resembles the Domme complex cross emblem. There are, however, crucial differences: the five ‘digits’ of the Domme cross are extra elaborations, which may hint towards more ‘heretical’ inclinations, and no less than the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, Proffesor Youssef Ziedan, emailed me with the opinion that the symbols are “pagan symbols and not Christian.” Yet having trawled hundreds of examples of medieval Christian and Arabic art and symbology, nothing comes anything like as close to one of the most prominent and strange carvings at Domme than these Armenian crosses, inviting the supposition that at least one of the Domme Templars had been to Armenia and taken the khatchkar carvings as a precursor to the, possibly unique, versions at Domme. It could have been during the Templars presence in the country in 1298-9 under the orders of the last grandmaster James of Molay (or Jacques de Molay, 1243-1314). Maybe the inscribing Templar had even visited Geghard monastery and been deeply impressed. Situated close to Iran’s north-westerly borders, with Syria to the south, Armenia appears to be something of an architectural and artistic ‘missing link’ between the advances of medieval Islamic mathematicians and early Gothic buildings in western Europe. Perhaps the Crusaders developed some symbolic tradition during their time in the Holy Land, influenced by the art they encountered in Armenia and Syria.
Armenia appears to be something of an architectural and artistic ‘missing link’ between the advances of medieval Islamic mathematicians and early Gothic buildings in western Europe.
More evidence for this idea could come from medieval graffiti at the 13th century church of St John the Baptist at Whitchurch in Buckinghamshire, England. In the gallery below you can see how the surface of nave pillar is replete with carvings of exotic crosses with configurations strongly reminiscent of the double-armed cross at Domme, even down to the triangular forms at their bases. It is not unusual to find these 'dotted crosses' as medieval graffiti in English churches, but those at Whitchurch are unusually elaborate and numerous. What does this have to do with the Templars? Maybe nothing at all, but can it really be coincidental that the church stands half-a-mile away from Creslow Manor, which was a Knights Templar preceptory before being turned over to the Knights Hospitallers after the Templars' suppression? In the triangulation of Armenian khatchkars and the Crusader graffiti of Geghard, the Domme abstract crosses, and the splendid 'dotted crosses' of the church at Whitchurch is the shadow of a symbolic tradition that was , if not exclusive to, Crusading knights, and even Templars and Hospitallers, which in England comprised many reintegrated Templars.
Also worth a mention, though likely much less significant, are medieval masons’ marks which also share geometric features with the Domme symbols, some having precisely the same triangular features as those at Domme. There are mason’s marks at Chartres cathedral with exactly the same configuration as the central motif of the ‘cross symbol’ and also elsewhere at Domme: a pair of bent horizontal lines linked by a vertical line. It is a very definite and fairly complex shape totalling seven precisely-related marks. Other mason’s marks at Chartres could well derive from the same ‘root shape.’ “The great prevalence of these [mason’s] marks, composed of mathematical lines,” wrote Robert Ingham Clegg, “is a strong confirmation of the truth of the opinion entertained by... many other writers, that the secret of the medieval Freemasons was the application of the principles of geometry to the art of building.” These marks are further clues to the obscure connections between Templars and Cisterician monks who facilitated the Gothic vision, and the nameless artisans who realised it using rules of form and structure derived from Middle Eastern craft schools, and the influence of Pythagorean theory founded on the mystical properties of ratio and harmony.
A small indication of this interest in geometric proportion and its symbolic significance amidst the Crusading military orders is found, as I discovered on a summer's day in 2013, on the wall of a barn at the Knights Hospitaller estate at Toller Fratrum in West Dorset in the graffito of a double Vesica Piscis. The almond shape made at the point of intersecting circles signifies Christ in both his heaven and on earth. The positioning of the graffito high on a wall suggests it was made by someone involved in building the barn.
(left) The property of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem at Toller Fratrum. (below left) The graffito of a double vesica piscis is cut high on the wall of the barn. (below right) Christ in Majesty, framed within the vesica.
Turning back to Domme, we look now at a graffito design (of which there are at least four examples) purported to represent the Holy Grail, the ‘Graal de Domme’. This curious octagonal-diamond-triangle emblem resembled nothing I nor any of the dozens of scholars I showed it to could find, so I went with the official interpretation and looked at Holy Grail representations in the Middle Ages. The chalice held by Melchizedek on the north porch of Chartres cathedral has a good three-dimensional resemblance to the Domme Grail. Melchizedek’s chalice contains a stone sphere, an unusual depiction echoed in the early grail romance, Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220), where the grail is the Lapis Exilis, the stone that fell from Heaven. And who are the guardians of the grail in Parzifal? Wolfram calls them 'Templeism', a neologism taken by most to mean the Templars. The octagonal shape found in the Domme ‘stone’ was of special significance to the Templars. It links to certain strictures imposed on them after breaking the rules. Architecturally, the octagon is an ordinary shape for medieval fonts and church pillars, and also underlies the Jerusalem cross. The intimacy between the Grail and the number eight is encapsulated by the theme of renewal, or resurrection. Might it be that the ‘chevrons’ within the octagon represent the wings of the phoenix, which also appears in Parzifal with the Lapis Exilis: “By virtue of this stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which she is reborn”?
The stone-in-chalice motif has its alchemical tradition. Symbolically, it persists in architecture even up to the watered-down Gothic-revival houses that line England’s suburbs. The bannister ends in many homes for instance are topped with identical wooden sculptures, so one cannot but wonder if these indeed trace back to the Templar/Gothic grail. Before looking into it I had always assumed they were representations eggs in eggcups – but is that not really a much more bizarre idea than them being Holy Grails.
Holy Grail graffito
Melchizedek's Grail at Chartres cathedral
Pope Clement V, (1264-1314)
In the niche overlooking the valley a graffito depicts Pope Clement V as a serpent being speared by the archangel Michael. This is clearly an angry satirical swipe at the man who betrayed the Templars, equating the pope with Satan (or Belial), the ‘old serpent’ who is ‘Accuser’ and the ‘Father of Lies,’ throwing his arm aloft as Michael, the most divine of the archangels and commander of the Army of God, is about to defeat him. It may be said that this moment of cosmic drama stems from a fleeting mention in the book of Revelation (12:7), but considering the importance of Michael in apocryphal documents such as The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, an apocalyptic prophecy and military manual possibly influenced by Zoroastrianism, and other Gnostic and Rabbinic strands with a similar emphasis on Michael/Christ versus Satan, is it possible that some of the Domme Templars were, when out in the Holy Land, influenced by echoes of pre-Christian influences? What else besides the rules of chess did they return with?
Pope Clement V as a serpent lanced by St. Michael
More subtle and enigmatic among other motifs to be found at Domme: a pentagram and several suns and crescents above the scene of a Eucharist. A mass of complimentary evidence encompassing scientific and mathematical enquiries into nature, passing into all kinds of handcrafted works, mathematical and illustrative, makes it unlikely that these do not emanate from the symbolic meanings ascribed to them by the Pythgaoreans and NeoPlatonists. The Pentagram derived from the proportions of man, and indicated good health. The sun and moon were the “guarantors of immortality.”  The Pythagorean traditions of numerical and geometric harmonies deeply underlie a family of symbols that, in the developing intellectual centers of Western Europe, were developing and converging with, the Christian iconographies that were embraced and espoused by the religio-political establishments in the late medieval period, culminating in the cloud piercing summits of Gothic architecture. Inventor of no less than two of the seven cardinal virtues or Liberal Arts, music and mathematics, Pythagoras was depicted on French and Spanish cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts. By the 13th and 14th centuries adherents to the way of truth through enquiry and observation were also indicating themselves via mason’s marks and English church graffiti, their pictographic enthusiasm not seen until ‘Kilroy was Here’ was unleashed across post-War Europe by allied soldiers.
Eucharist scene with celestial symbols
The graffiti at Domme could prove significant in providing extra insight into the members of the order in southern France. It is almost incredible to find this place, with just a couple of obscure French exceptions, entirely overlooked by English-language scholarship (the old French-English academic rivalries lingering on?) A few academics who I showed the symbols to denied they had any meaning at all, dismissing them as “doodles” or “the idlings of an inmate”. By trying to define a meaning for the symbols I was, according to one assistant professor, engaged in a hopelessly outmoded way of thinking (apparently called Structuralism), since the new wisdom, in art history at least, is that even the word “meaning” requires careful definition. Those who think the symbols are merely doodles need to be reminded that to the medieval mind everything was symbolic.
Other graffiti includes life-size hands, a Nine-Men’s-Morris gameboard (not pictured), several Madonna and child, angels, the dozens of crosses with the curious dots and forked bases obsessively repeated, a St. Christopher, text in medieval French (any assistance in decipherment would be greatly appreciated).
Stepping out of the guardhouse I found myself unexpectedly shaken and dazed. No interior space and few artworks have ever affected me so powerfully; the sense of their presence, of emotional contact with the inhabitants is incredible. It is akin in a way to the cave paintings at nearby Lascaux, except that at Domme a combination of intense devotion, injustice, and anger emanates from the walls like a heat, challenging you to walk away without reflecting on how it all came about.. There amidst the many carvings and inscriptions the situation of the Templars in their darkest time is brought closer to knowing than anywhere else. In considering these inscriptions, from the mysterious to the familiar, it is impossible not to imagine the prisoners scoring over and over their traces, reflecting on and sharing their deeper meanings, gaining knowledge and peace of mind, preparing themselves for the trials they must have known awaited them.
1. With acknowledgments to the stone found by by Jeff Nisbet, Fortean Times #146, May, 2001.
2. André Goineaud-Bérard, Bulletin de la Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, Tomme CXXVII, 2000. This includes the names of all seventy Templars held at Domme.
3. In 1970, Canon Tonnellier, historian and archaeologist, surveyed the graffiti at Domme, declaring it the most beautiful in France. Archéologia No. 33, 38. Curiously, English scholars do not widely acknowledge the Templar origin for the Domme carvings, which I gather is something to do with the walls of the prison being built a few decades after the Templars existed, an extraordinary assertion given that the appropriateness of the imagery and how the graffiti is so manifestly carved with extreme devotion and over long periods of time, even in single examples. Are they supposed to have been done by tourists? Fortunately, such dogmatic close-mindedness is not shared by Italian scholars who accord with the Templar attribution for the Domme graffiti,
5. As others have tried: William Henry, Mary Magdalene: The Woman Who Enlightened the Christ, Adventures Unlimited Press, 2006, p.282-285. Additionally, symbols that resemble a trunk with stems are often mistaken for a Tree of Life, when in a medieval context it is often a ‘ragged staff’ being depicted. A good stone-carved example is at Warwick castle dungeon where Templars were held, and there are many medieval graffiti examples in England's churches as well as on effigy sculptures of Wodewose wild men.
6. For example, nothing like these complex symbols at Domme exist in either Violet Pritchard, English Medieval Graffiti, Cambridge University Press; or Sabino De Sandoli, Anthology of Crusader Inscriptions in the Holy Land (1099-1291), Franciscan Printing Press 1973. Nor are there any clues in Adrian Frutiger’s Signs and Symbols, Syndor Press, 1997. Many museum departments and university academics in Europe and United States do not recognise the symbols, nor does Templar and Crusader expert, Helen Nicholson, to whom I want to give particular thanks for her extensive replies to my incessant questioning.
7. John James, The Master Masons of Chartres, West Grinstead Publishing 1990. The same mark also occurs at St. Ninian’s Masonic Lodge, Brechin, see Robert Freke Gould, The History of Freemasonry, Vol. 1 (Thomas C. Jack 1883), p. 455-66,; and at Old Trinity Church, Edinburgh founded by Mary, consort of James II, see www.freemaonsry.bcy.ca
8. Chapter xlviii, Robert Ingham Clegg, New Revised Enlarged Mackey’s History of Freemasonry. Vol. 3, The Masonic History Company 1921.
9. There are, indeed, even more blatant indications of a highly ancient, underground tradition facilitated by the Templars within European culture which I am still investigating.
10. Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzifal (Book IX), Jessie L. Weston translation, David Nutt 1894.
11. Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend, Penguin Books 2005, p.179, 309.
12. A later stone and chalice motif exists on a ceiling at the Hôtel Lallemant, Bourges, as shown on p. 159, Fulcanelli, Le Mystère des Cathédrales, Brotherhood of Life. The author calls this stone “philosophic calcination, symbolized by a pomegranate”, alchemy-speak for a red stone. One main difference with the Domme grail and the others are the ‘phoenix wings’ inside the ‘stone.’
13. The most authorative history of Gnostic dualist religions is Yuri Stoyanov, The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy, Yale University Press 2000.
14. Christine L. Joost-Gaugier, Measuring Heaven, Cornell University Press 2006.