The saintly ladies of the Teutonic knights

Photo 1
The interior of a 14th C. reliquary comissioned by the Teutonic commander of Elblag (Poland), Thiele von Lorich. The reliquary contains particles of numerous relics, including relics of female martyr saints. 

One of the most common misconceptions regarding the religiosity of the knights of the military orders is that they were involved in the promotion of the cults of military saints such as St Theodore, St Demetrius, St Maurice, Sts Sergius and Bacchus, and, above all, St George. The association between Templar, Hospitaller or Teutonic knights and military saints such as St George seems natural today but, surprisingly, it does not reflect medieval devotions. Except for a few statues and frescoes preserved in peripheral locations, there is little evidence that the military saints were the favourite patrons of the Military Orders. On the contrary, it seems that they inspired only limited veneration. For example the birth place of St. George in Lydda in the kingdom of Jerusalem (modern Israel), did not attract veneration from the Templars and the Hospitallers even though it was one of the major, pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. The reason for their limited popularity is that the military saints were elevated to sainthood because of their refusal to participate in warfare which made them unsuitable to serve as examples for the knights in Military Orders who were expected to fight and kill, albeit in defence of Christians. The messages conveyed by the lives of the military saints who rejected bloodshed could not serve as guidance and inspiration to knights guarding the crusader states.

 

Photo 3.jpg
A close-up of the exterior of the reliquary showing a kneeling Teutonic knight wearing a white mantle of the order with a cross and praying to St Mary and Infant Christa 

The evidence from Teutonic Prussia suggests that a group of saints that were deemed more suitable to serve as patron saints of the Military Orders were women such as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Barbara. As female martyrs who suffered death because of their faith, they possessed several qualities, well understood in medieval European visual culture, which made them suitable candidates as patrons and protectors of male communities of knights. These saints were chaste, they had dedicated their virginity to Christ, just like the Military Orders who professed sexual abstinence and had themselves sacrificed both marriage and parenthood. They too found themselves in peril in a non-Christian world that required bravery and fortitude to resist pagan suitors, incarceration and torture. More loosely, the eastern associations of St Barbara and St Catherine, a Greek saint, were a clear reference to the Orders’ Levantine origins and duties. Furthermore, female virtues of patience, modesty and humility, though unattractive for secular knights, were also something to aspire to in a military male community. Another important factor was that, almost without exception, female martyr saints came from noble families, St. Catherine in particular is described as a sovereign queen and her protection could be read as an affirmation of the wealth and nobility of the devotee.

 

Photo 4.jpg
The central panel of the late 14th C, mail altar of the Teutonic castle chapel in Grudziadz (Poland) showing St Catherine, visible on the right holding a sword and her wheel, and St Barbara, visible on the lest holding the tower in which she was imprisoned and a palm of martyrdom.

Female martyrs were always depicted at the peak of the ‘curve of life’ according to Aristotelian conceptions of the ‘Ages of Man’ that was so popular in later medieval convention. Always young, wealthy and beautiful they represented an idealised femininity and, in a sense, they offered a spiritual alternative to real ladies of court, a counterpart to the idealised secular knight. Knights of the Military Orders did not fight in tournaments to win the favour of the ladies of the court. In their prayers, Templars, Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights may not have wished to emulate the deeds of St. George or St. Maurice but, if the art they commissioned is to be believed, they might have hoped that their life of service will please one of their saintly female patrons: St. Catherine, St, Barbara, St Dorothy, St. Margaret of Antioch and others.

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