Jakob posing dramatically inside the church

Jakob posing dramatically inside the church

A few weeks back we thought we had spotted a Templar lodge, but we had got the wrong church military order. How interesting it was to discover that the only extant Templar church in Italy is right on the outskirts of Perugia (here’s a list of Templar sites).

The Church of San Bevignate is located on a windy road, Via Enrico dal Pozzo (‘Henry from the Well’) that extends northeast from the city, nearly to the civic cemetery of the town. The site of the Templar Church is not marked anywhere in Google Maps (which must be a conspiracy, of course), so I’m providing a map below (the church is marked by the red thumbtack), in case anyone wants to visit. You don’t have to wear a sinister cloak  when you visit, either. In fact, if you leave a form of ID at the desk, they’ll give you a tablet which has an audio tour of the complex (in multiple languages, including English). They also have quite the little Templar book display, though everything is in Italian.

Of course, Jakob loved it, and he spent a good amount of time exploring, or posing theatrically as an ‘Assassin’.

San Bevignate is marked by the red thumbtack.

San Bevignate is marked by the red thumbtack.

The Templars were established in 1119 in Jerusalem, after the First Crusade, with a mission to protect Christian pilgrims visiting sites in the Holy Land. They established their headquarters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the site of Solomon’s Temple, and ‘Templar’ accordingly became a short-hand name. Despite ecclesiastical and secular reservations about a band of ‘warrior-monks’, by 1139 the order had been gifted funds and land, exempted from taxes, freed from border restrictions, and answerable to no one but the Pope. Thousands of chapters popped up all over Europe.

The façade of the church

The façade of San Bevignate

By the order of Pope Gregory XI on 9 December 1237, the Templars established a chapter at the Abbey of San Giustino d’Arna, some 16 km. northeast of Perugia. But local resentment  to Templar wealth and power was building; sometime between 1283 and 1285, a body of armed men, led by four local church leaders, forced the Templars out of San Guistino D’Arna, and over to San Bevignate (which had already been built).

By 1300, having been pushed out from the Holy Land (and never to return), the Templars’ express purpose had been lost. Meanwhile, European powers were wary of a rich, powerful, and wholly independent military unit back home. Philip IV, King of France, in considerable debt to the Templars, began to seize their leadership in a dawn raid on 13 October 1307 and force, under torture, admissions of sacrilegious behavior. The bad press and unrelenting pressure from Philip took its toll and in 1312 Pope Clement dissolved the order. Members and assets were supposed to go to the Knights Hospitaller (and some did, such as the Perugian church), but authorities in different countries dealt with the Templars in their own way; it was often a convenient excuse to remove royal debt to the order.

And so only about sixty years after the church of San Bevignate (named after a local hermit about which little is known) was built, the official, public presence of Templars in Perugia came to an end.

Here is what the interior of the church looked like ca. 1900:

Interior of San Bevignate, from P. Diletti and N. Sardegna, L’Ordine Tempio e San Bevignate (Perugia 2012) 102, Fig. 1

Today, one can tour the church, with its lofty arcuated interior and frescoes brought back to life by a four-year program of consolidation and conversation that allowed the site to open to the public in 2009. The church had suffered heavily from a 1984 earthquake, the damage from which can be seen in the interior corners:

Vertical earthquake cracks in the masonry

Vertical earthquake cracks in the masonry

Decoration is generally simple or stark, rather than elaborate:

Detail of the animals on the entrance arch

Detail of the animals on the entrance arch

Frescoes

Frescoes. Note the plaster around the pictures with lines drawn to pretend that the walls are constructed of large ashlar stone blocks.

In the apse are depicted souls both saved and damned.

The elect

The elect

Upon the resurrection, the damned squirm and writhe out of their sarcophagi, while the blessed sit right up, refreshed:

The damned

The damned

The blessed

The blessed

A big stone altar rests in the apse:

The altar

The altar

The site is built on a Roman house and fullonica (laundry), so you can go underneath the church (where you see that they completely replaced the floor to do the excavation and structural support work) and explore trenches cut through the local clay that reveal the parts of that Roman-era establishment:

Roman mosaic underneath

Roman mosaic underneath the nave

Jakob and Micah crouching low…

Jakob and Micah

This is my favorite kind of site: small but rich in history and interest. Worth a 45-60 min. visit! If you are walking, it is 30-35 minutes from the center of town.