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Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in Sicily
by Daniela Paglia

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Cross of the Holy Sepulchre.The early decades of the twelfth century saw the foundation of several important armies of knights in the Holy Land. These military-religious orders were under the nominal authority of the Papacy but they were not commanded by any king. Speaking generally, for each order had a specific place in society, these were self-governing religious brotherhoods with a fighting role. As clerics could not bear arms, the knights and a corps of "serving brothers" (effectively assistants to the knights) could actively defend pilgrims, the clergy and other civilians. Most of these medieval knights were drawn from the feudal nobility, knighthood (the office and duty of the mounted man-at-arms) being the exclusive province of the landed aristocracy.

The knights of the Holy Sepulchre trace their origin to a loosely-organised corps of knights that militarily supported Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Unlike the Hospitallers, Templars and Teutonic Knights, their influence did not extend much beyond the Holy Land, and it did not survive the fall of Jerusalem in 1291. However, a few priories were founded outside Palestine. In 1262 the Priory of Saint Andrew was formally chartered just east of the Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina.

In Jerusalem, the knights protected the entire city and especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself, believed to mark the place of the tomb of Jesus Christ. For some time the Franciscans (a Catholic order of friars) had a presence at the Holy Sepulchre, but eventually the church came under control of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, still its principal custodians today. By 1400 the collective "order" of the knights of the Holy Sepulchre was little more than a historical memory.

In 1847 Pope Pius IX re-founded the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre as a knightly institution of the Roman Catholic Church based on the history and traditions of the medieval brotherhood, with the red Cross of Jerusalem (shown here) as its heraldic insignia. The Grand Master is a Cardinal appointed by the Pope. Eventually, women were accepted into the order as dames. With the Order of Malta (Hospitallers), the Order of the Holy Sepulchre is one Martorana Church.of the two principal military-religious orders of chivalry in the Catholic Church today.

Being nominated to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, which has knights and dames across Europe and in North America, requires that a candidate live a Christian lifestyle in communion with the Catholic Church and be recognised as such by his or her pastor and bishop. The order supports numerous charitable works around the world, and especially in the Middle East. in Sicily there are two "lieutenancies," based at Palermo and Catania. In Palermo there are two churches of the order, including San Cataldo, a beautiful twelfth-century structure preserved in its original medieval condition. Like the Martorana church (next to it), San Cataldo was built during the same period as the superstructure of Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Church, in a very similar style.

Do these knightly orders serve a purpose today? To observers, they are but a relic of an earlier time. If we view the Catholic Church as a quasi-monarchy with its own ancient and medieval traditions, principles and theology little changed over many centuries, then the orders of chivalry certainly have their place.

About the Author: Freelance journalist Daniela Paglia formerly taught history and Italian studies in a high school in Catania. This article was written in collaboration with Vincenzo Salerno and our history editors.

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© 2007 Daniela Paglia