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John the Baptist in Florence and Bruges

Leonardo and Van Eyck and their particular devotion to John the Baptist during the Renaissance

Delivered at the Sauniere Society Conference, Templar Lodge Hotel, Gullane, May 1999


The years 1400-1500 caused a “mind shift” in Western Europe. Philosopher Michael Grosso has described the events of the Italian Renaissance, which happened in that timeframe, as a “Renaissance Millennium”, in which arts, science and technology went hand in hand.
In this lecture, I want to approach and paint the scenery of this movement, which history has largely failed to explore in any depth.
One famous example that has recently been explored by the authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince is Leonardo da Vinci and his paintings. The authors show that within Western Europe, there was an “underground stream” that contained heretical knowledge, i.e. that was contrary to Catholic doctrine.
They have argued for the special treatment that John the Baptist received in Leonardo’s paintings, expressing a reverence for John the Baptist that, at the very least, can be considered odd. They have also noted the strange clues Leonardo left behind in his work, suggesting a “cult of John”. Sceptics, sometimes quoting Dante when he said the Florentines were infatuated with their patron saint, have argued this merely “fits” within a non-esoteric pattern – John the Baptist being the patron saint of town ruled by Leonardo’s patron – new evidence makes it much harder for these sceptics to continue their argument.

This fascination revolves around the Adoration of the Lamb of God, a painting by Jan Van Eyck.
The city of Linz was Adolf Hitler’s vision of his “heavenly Jerusalem”, the city of the blessed that was predicted in Revelations, the final chapter of the New Testament. During the Second World War, the Führer opened what has since been described as his “most wide ranging search for a piece of art”. He ordered the SS to find the hidden Adoration of the Lamb of God, which he wanted to use as a central object of decoration for his new headquarters of the “Third Reich”.

Jan Van Eyck is considered to be the most prolific artist of his generation. He is credited with innovative painting techniques, i.e. oil painting, creating compositions none have been able to recreate. He is considered to be the “founder” of the “Flemish Primitives”. Van Eyck lived both in Ghent and Bruges, the latter where he settled in 1430. Bruges, described as the “Venice of the North”, was a rich economic centre, contemporary with the de Medici rule of Florence. In 1150, the Count of Flanders had brought what was supposed to be the “Precious Blood and water”, i.e. the Grail, from Jerusalem and had given it to Bruges, where the shrine can still be admired.

The painting is strange in many respects: there is almost no hint of Christ in the painting. The centre of worship is a lamb, which is assumed to be Jesus. (“Who else could it be?”) In various places, Templar crosses have been placed. One panel depicts knights, carrying the Templar Cross on a banner. Van Eyck termed this panel the “Knigts of Christ”, which is also part of the official name of the Knights Templar.
Depictions of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are the main focus of the painting, though, particularly when the polytych is closed. In one depiction, the Baptist’s right index finger is touching a Templar cross. Van Eyck has painted it in such a manner that this gesture cannot be seen as a coincidence. This brings into perspective the allegations of Picknett and Prince and André Douzet on the legends that the Templars were the holders of the right index finger of John (depicted in most of Leonardo’s drawing, also labelled the “John Gesture”).

Furthermore, Van Eyck actually had the audacity to depict Vijdt and his wife, the patrons of this painting, as worshipping the two Johns! Why, however, depict them as worshipping the Johns, rather than Jesus, or the Lamb, the centrepiece of adoration?
Albert Pike in his writings on his “Scottish” Freemasonic doctrine states that John the Evangelist is used to represent John the Baptist; the Evangelist is said to have “completed” what “the Baptist” started. But he would only write this more than 400 years later…

There is doubt on the identity of Van Eyck. On the painting has been found the enigmatic inscription: “Hubertus Van Eyck started this painting, (the brother) Jan Van Eyck finished it.” Scholars are at a loss here as there is little – and no straightforward – evidence of any other paintings by Hubertus Van Eyck (or in fact details on his life), who is believed to have been the elder brother of Jan, but for which there is no evidence other than the reference to Hubertus on the painting by Jan Van Eyck. Marc Penninck, an art historian, believes, however, Van Eyck changed his name from Hubertus to Jan, Dutch for John. But why would Van Eyck do this? Had it something to do with knowledge he was acquiring? Does the “brother”, referring to Jan Van Eyck, refer not to a genetic relationship, but rather a spiritual relationship, i.e. Van Eyck having changed his name to John when he became a “brother” in an order?
Penninck’s analysis of Van Eyck’s other paintings also stress that Van Eyck was aware of alchemical thinking. This conclusion is backed by evidence, for the Florentine Giorgio Vasari writes that Van Eyck was, in fact, an alchemist.

There is some evidence to suggest Van Eyck was also a member of a secret society. He was definitely well positioned to be in one, for not only was he court painter in 1425 to French king Philip the Good, he was also a close friend and trusted ally to his “master”.
Philip The Good founded the Order of the Golden Fleece, in Bruges, where Van Eyck resided. The order tried to reintroduce the image of the Greek hero Jason – famous because of his Argonauts – back into the public conscience. Many scholars, such as Joscelyn Godwin and Antoine Fauvre, have illustrated why the golden fleece is linked to alchemy, and hermeticism. On the painting, John the Evangelist is depicted carrying a cup, containing the serpent-like animals. Might this be a reference to the green serpent of wisdom, inside the grail cup? Various scholars have noted that “union with the divine” was the ultimate search of both those that supposedly drank the Grail.

A member of this Order of the Golden Fleece was René d’Anjou, who had, apparently, a close friendship with William St. Clair, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel. In the Rosslyn-Haye manuscripts, documents found in Rosslyn which are part of d’Anjou’s writings, as recorded by Niven Sinclair, there are some enigmatic descriptions. One of these is a triad of Jesus, Mary and John, which he deems “unusual”. The same triad, however, also appears on the Van Eyck painting. Furthermore, the manuscript refers to a Lamb as a symbol of John the Baptist.
Finally, it should be stressed that the Lamb itself was an official seal of the Knights Templar, particularly in Southern France.
It seems quite evident Van Eyck was greatly inspired by both his master and both he and D’Anjou, an alleged grandmaster of the Priory of Sion, ate from the same source of esoteric knowledge.

The Ghent altar piece was finished in 1432. Within one decade, the “Renaissance” would quite erupt in the city of Florence. There, de Medici-family ruled and we find an artist who is obsessed by John the Baptist: Leonardo da Vinci.
Interestingly, in his authoritative biography of Leonardo, Serge Bramly states how only Leonardo came close to the style of Van Eyck. These were not just any painters: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the central piece in the entire Louvre (as seen on all leaflets), Van Eyck’s Adoration is the central promotion piece for the city of Ghent and, in fact, is considered to be the founder of “the Flemish primitives” and the one who brought “oil painting” to its first advanced use, changing the future of art forever.

Coincidence? Perhaps...
But what are we to make of the following that happened to the Van Eyck painting in Nazi Germany? Of all the things that the “Führer” could get for his birthday, his friends and deputies decided to give him a complete “Adoration of the Lamb”. Complete, for in 1934, two panels, including the John the Baptists one, had been stolen. The John the Baptist panel was soon returned, but the panel of the Just Judges has since been (and still is) lost. The Nazis are said to have originated from a Vril society, a society which might not have existed. What did exist, however, was a contemporary book on “Vril” that might have inspired the Nazis even more. The writer of the book was one “Johannes Taufer”, no doubt a pseudonym, as the name is German for “John the Baptist”.
To search for the Just Judges panel, the Nazis dispatched an official investigator, Ober-lieutenant Koenig, who, probably not coincidentally, decided to begin his investigation on June 24 (Feastday of John the Baptist). (It should be noted he could have started his research earlier as he had already arrived in Ghent, but for some reason waited until June 24 to officially open the investigation). Though he learned many things, his research, in the end, did not lead to the rediscovery of the lost panel. The Nazis did deport the painting to Germany, but it was never given as a birthday present to Hitler.
At the end of the war, General Patton was ordered to go find the hiding place of where the Germans had hidden the painting. Specific mention is made that it was Patton himself, a man whose mystical orientation is well known.

This to merely underline the apparently occult symbolism of the painting. More recently, research by the former head of the Ghent police department, Karel Mortier (as seen also on The Late Show on BBC in 1998), uncovered evidence that warrants the conclusion the thieves were not nobodies. Rather, it involved a member of the Belgian Cabinet, who resigned when a confession in the theft suddenly occurred on a person’s deathbed (the reason for his resignation remains officially secret to this very day, but Mortier was able to look at the document anyway).

Van Eyck signalled the start of a glorious new painting technique, one that would chiefly be brought to its conclusion in Florence, with painters such da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Giotto, Fra Angelico and many others.

Van Eyck and his painting show us the changing image of Man, which strove for recognition and which would erupt in the Italian Renaissance.
This was the liberation of the soul, which Florentine philosophers considered essential. They envisioned a new age in which arts, science and technology would happen.
The de Medici’s ruled Florence, John the Baptist being the patron saint of the city. They were the early patrons of Leonardo da Vinci, whose paintings would become lasting – occult – memories of the John the Baptist.

Science and technology have, however, seldom achieved the deserved attention; it is mostly the art that has been centred upon.
Picknett and Prince have argued that Leonardo refined or even invented photography, which should not be ruled out as he also developed submarines, helicopters, parachutes, tanks, bicycles, etc.
Florence became the new centre of wisdom, the new Alexandria. Quite literally a “new age” had dawned on Mankind: the knowledge of Egypt had entered the Western world. All roads seem to lead to Egypt, to Alexandria in particularly. Alexandria had been, of course, the last power base of Egyptian knowledge. As Picknett and Prince have argued in Templar Revelation, it was from Alexandria that Jesus and John the Baptist received their “orders”. Simon Magus was sent there to “study”. What did this studying imply? Was it merely religious or also scientific? Eratosthenes, the person who measured the dimensions of the Earth, was both a priest in an Egyptian mystery tradition and a “scientist”, the chief librarian of the Alexandrian library.

Leonardo da Vinci, an inventor centuries ahead of his time (the bicycle, helicopter, the parachute, etc.), is perhaps the most often overlooked example of this new knowledge centre (most scholars merely centring on his art).

There are various books that now argue that the Templars knew about the existence of a fourth continent and set sail there. Though this lecture will not detail such possibilities, “secret knowledge” or forgotten knowledge was present in Florence.
Often overlooked is Florentine born Amerigo Vespucci, who would discover “America” but who was also a very close friend of Leonardo.

As author German Arciniegas writes in his biography of the sailor:
“It is evident that Amerigo Vespucci had at his command knowledge nobody before him had possessed – knowledge that enabled him to make his great affirmation that the new lands, whose location Columbus had discovered by his genius, were not Asia, as the Genoese believed, but a new world. [His letter was known as “Mundus Novus”.]”
Where did Vespucci get this knowledge?

All this scientific interest was connected with the discovery and translation of Ptolemy. Claudius Ptolemaeus of Alexandria, of whom we know only that he lived sometime between the years A.D. 127 and 151, summed up in his “Geography” and “Astronomy” knowledge in those fields. The author argues this was “the knowledge of the Greeks”, but it seems, rather, to be the knowledge of Greece and Egypt combined. Since all Greeks claimed their knowledge came from Egypt, it is save to argue the knowledge is Egyptian.

As Arciniegas states: “A longing to know, to travel, to explore the seas, to discover, sprang up, one of the characteristics of the Renaissance. In Florence no discussion of such matters failed to go back to Ptolemy, as can be seen in Amerigo's letters.”

Arciniegas continues: “Geography was a theme of paramount interest to all in Florence, but especially to the two great men with whom Zenobio and Giorgio Antonio were most closely associated: Marsilio Ficino and Agnolo Poliziano.
Marsilio Ficino had so marked an inclination toward geographic problems that in the fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari for the audience chamber of Cosimo de' Medici in the Palazzo della Signoria he is shown at Toscanelli's side.
The existence of a fourth continent had been “admitted or prophesied by San Antonino,” Archbishop of Florence, according to Uzielli. In 1482 Francesco Berlinghieri concluded his “Geografia in terz rima” in Florence, where it was published with an apologue by his friend Marsilio Ficino.”

“The theme of the yet undiscovered world was the topic of the day in Florence. Between 1476 and 1480, Lorenzo Bonincontri had been discussing it in his public lessons on the “Astronomica” by the Latin poet Manilius. In a word, the problem of the New World passionately interested these people of Florence before the New World had been discovered.”

Where did this interest and knowledge come from? No scholar has addressed this issue. But the answer seems obvious: could this knowledge be based on the translation of Plato’s Timaeus and the famous Atlantis passage: “There was an island,” Plato says, “beyond the passage known as the Pillars of Hercules. This island [Atlantis] was larger than Libya and than Asia. The travellers of those times could cross to it, and from it to others, and reach the continent lying on the opposite shore of this sea...On the hither side of the strait there was only a narrow entrance... On the farther, this real ocean and the land surrounding it, which could truly be called a continent...” (interestingly, one author apparently suggested da Vinci actually financed the discovery of America!)

The Florentine scholar Toscanelli, admired by Columbus, took such accounts into consideration when he pondered the idea of lands in the west, who would be discovered soon, at a time when Florence was still at its peak. Vespucci, Leonardo’s friend, would befriend Columbus when both were living in Seville. Columbus would then set sail for America. Modern scholars are agreeing Columbus had maps and other material at his disposition, but where he gained these from, is still a hotly debated topic. It seems, once again, that an obvious source has been overlooked.

It is this “St Marc” (whose remains were brought to Venice in the 9th century and were interred in the famous St Marc Cathedral on the famous square in Venice) who according to some sources gave “the secret” to one Ormus. This mythical figure enters the Priory of Sion-literature from its inception. The name “Ormus”, however, was first introduced by Etienne Marconis in his rite of Memphis. It is claimed by various Rennes-le-Chateau authors that Berenger Sauniere’s brother Alfred had access to particular knowledge of this society; Sauniere himself was apparently a member of a secret society.

We find that in the Renaissance, two strands seemed to have come together: John the Baptist and knowledge from Alexandria.
As Picknett and Prince have argued in Templar Revelation, it is clear that the current incarnation of the Priory of Sion is but one aspect of a continuing tradition of John worshippers. This saint was specifically “deified” in 15th century Florence and seems to be but the visible aspect of an underlying mystery religion, possessing advanced knowledge, which the Florentine rulers seem to have “opened”, at least in part, to the outside world, ringing in a “New Age”, a “Renaissance” for western man, both spiritually and scientifically. Did this “secret knowledge” reach Florence? And, specifically, what other secrets lay dormant within the secrets of the John followers?

Philosopher Michael Grosso has labelled the Italian Renaissance the first “Information Age”, as printing provided new technology for the distribution of knowledge and information. We are now living in the Second Information Age, which, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to bring about the very same subjects as the first. Again, we find a redefinition of Christianity taking place, and this time, the search for new land is not on Earth, but elsewhere, in the solar system.