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Ognissanti, a church in Trani with Templar clues

The wind of Trani blew placidly to Eastern, where the salvation waits for men who act according to God’s will. It was revealed to the heart of those departing soldiers. Harnessed among a thousand and shining armor, they aspired to reconquest Jerusalem. A crusade was not a simple travel, but it delineated the border among the penance and impenitence, among the blessing and damnation. Each soldier was intimately a pilgrim, who entrusted his soul to the wind and the sword.

The departure ceremony from the church of Ognissanti

That day, the Church of Ognissanti of Trani was wrapped in a shuddering unison, a desire of glory mixed with fear. In its Romanesque simplicity, the building was the last familiar place before the departure. The sea, in fact, roared good-naturedly and the shining waves, under the evening sun, crashed along the docks of the port. The long row of the Crusaders orderly proceeded from the external to the presbytery of the little church, passing through the elegant central portal. Then, the soldier received the solemn blessing by the archbishop of Trani, Bertrando II. This was the reason of wearing those crosses, the symbol of a mission, of the investiture which proceeded from God to man.

The ceremony could seem so simple, but does this simplicity hide the strength? Is the God’s talk as a veiled whisper directly to the pilgrim’s soul? That blessing was so full of meanings: it opened the path to salvation. Anyone who would have died in combat or along the perilous journey would have been welcomed by the paternal arms of heaven. This was the wayfarer’s dimension, as indicated by Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim. The city devoted to him its Cathedral, whose stylistic features stood proud over the horizon of the blue sea. This was the aspiration of each soldier who that day was leaving the loved Western for the place of the Muslim infidels.

The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim

The Knights Templar in Trani

Among the coloured shields of the Crusaders the red Cross Pattรฉe of the Knights Templar emerged. The brave monk-warriors appeared along the entire street. Their task was so honorable and deserving of praise: they had to accompany the wayfarers along the roads; assisting them in their care thanks to their spitals; welcome the dead in decent cemeteries. It was possible to meet them  along the Via Francigena, that led to Rome.

The path continued until Benevento, along the Via Traiana. Then there was the obliged passing for the Jerusalemite fortress of Crepacuore, which had the function of defending the road. After having reached the city of Troia, there was a crossroad. The pathway led to the North to the ancient and arcane Sanctuary of San Michele Arcangelo, in the Gargano. Sometimes it was necessary to get the blessing by the supreme Christian fighter, who had driven back the enemy into darkness. On the contrary, if the path continued towards the South, the white cottages and the masterful docks of the Apulian ports, like Trani or Otranto, appeared.

From Ognissanti to the port

In small groups, the Crusaders proudly began to take the narrow alley of the Angiporto, which led from the Church of Ognissanti to the port area. The preparations for departure were so hectic.

Church of Ognissanti
Current area of the Trani port

Squat ships, whose sails were not yet deployed, so suitable for carrying soldiers, swayed rhythmically. Primitive forerunners of the most modern galleys, they were solemnly blessed. The life of many men depended on that wood, which now appeared so similar to that of the Christ’s cross. As this last had led humanity to salvation, so those cramped boats had to conduct towards the Holy Land. A last look at the cathedral at the end of the day and the heart addressed to Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim: it is the departure time.

The history of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim

Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim was a young hermit, born in Stiri, Greece, in 1075. Since his early age, he had demostrated a predilection for an ascetic and wandering spirituality. While conducting her herding business, one day he began to recite the phrase Kyrie eleison, following the teaching of Saint Paul who affirmed “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5,17). He was considered crazy, so his mother decided to lock himup in a monastery, where he suffered beatings and humiliations. However, the boy continued his prayers and, courageously, he decided to leave on a pilgrimage to Rome. Embarking in Lepanto, he was thrown into the sea like the prophet Jonah, because of his ossessive litany.

Nonetheless, the first miracle by Saint Nicholas was made. The boy mysteriously reappeared in Otranto and nobody knew how he reached it. Nicholas emerged soggy and run down from the sea, incessantly screaming his Kyrie eleison. He could appear as a crazy man for the Otranto inhabitants and the archbishop. Then he was driven away from the city and then Nicholas restarted his pilgrimage. After day of hard way, he arrived in Trani the 20th of May 1094. Surprisingly, here he found kind and friendly faces. The archbishop Bisanzio loved the boy for his simplicity and his constant prayers to God. The religious decided to offer hospitality to Nicholas.

However, he could not stay in Trani for a long time; in fact, he became seriously ill and the 2nd of June he died [1]. After the burial inside the church of Saint Jack, his remains started to be miraculous. Hence, the archbishop decided to propose his canonization. After few years, in 1099, the construction of the majestic cathedral dedicated to him started.

Trani Cathedral 

The Trani Cathedral is so imposing and proud, similar to a bulwark on the sea tha scans the horizon and watches over the city. The building was constructed over a preexisting edifice, known as Saint Maria della Scala. This old construction was demolished at the same time of the new cathedral edification. Its original area corresponds to the current crypt, with cross vaults and marble columns.

Crypt of the Cathedral

Hypogeum of San Leucio

The area of the hypogeum of San Leucio is almost totally preserved. Through it was possible to enter Santa Maria della Scala, whilst today it is the bottom part of the Cathedral. Here the remains of the saint are preserved. They were in Brindisi and in the 8th century they were stolen.

The hypogeum of San Leucio

Historiographical notes

The building site lasted for more than 100 years, and 1143 results as the date of consecration from the official documents. At the same time, the historiographical sources attest the translation of the remains of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim from the Church of Saint Jack to the new cathedral under construction. The Historia Traslationis Sancti Nicolai Peregrini by the deacon Amando tells the sumptuous transfer ceremony of the saint, to which a representation of the Knights Templar participated: “Milites etiam Templi Domini, qui paulo remotius ad urbe distabant hoc cernentes dixerunt illud stupendum miraculum sacri corposis traslationem iudicare”.

Exterior of the Trani Cathedral 

The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim is one of the shining examples of the Apulia Romanesque. A salient facade opens in front of the opposite balcony by three portals, of which the decorated central one shows Arabesque influences. The original bronze door, preserved inside the building, was made by Barisano da Trani.

Central portal
Original bronze portal by Barisano da Trani

The cathedral appears on a raised floor with respect to the square in front, an architectural peculiarity which allows the direct access from the external to the crypt. Two flights of side stairs lead to the upper level. The magnificent circular central rose window opens over a series of three three single-light windows decorated with zoomorphic sculptures. On the left side there is the bell tower, erected between 1230 and 1239, traversed below by a graceful pointed arch.

The internal

Internally, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas has a basilica plan with three naves and a transept. Although the original mosaic floor has not been preserved, the mystical atmosphere is still perceptible inside the building.

The internal of the Cathedral
Area of the presbytery

The coverage of the central nave has wooden trusses, whilst the crosses dominate the side ones, where the typical matronei of the Romanesque buildings are placed. Overall, the cathedral seems so unadorned, mostly similar to a fortress in the sea than to a religious building.

The matronei
The counter-facade

A Cathedral on the sea

The words by Cesari Brandi well tells this extraordinary marriage between the sea and the mystical component of the building: “As attracted, the sea and the sky coagulate: they acquire firmness of color and immovable material solidity and, on the other hand, the stone that discovers in rust and gold, finds aerial thickness and the path of long reflections, slow and blue like the dead wave. The unknown and sublime architect had understood how to lead sky and sea to capture architecture, how to destroy the shapeless naturalness in the perennial unnaturality of form” [2]. In this sense, the edification of a so important religious building, near the sea, has an apotropaic-protective function. Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim watched over the sea and ideally impeded to enemies to arrive.

From the external, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim seems more a fortress than a religious building

Symbology hints

On the basis of the bell tower, on the wall of the balcony in front of the facade, some worn Merels Boards and Sacred Centers. These are symbologies typically associated to the Order of the Knights Templar, since a link among the symbologies ans the Order has been demonstrated [3].

A portion of the balcony, the Castello Svevo on the background
The external decorations of the balcony

On the main facade, the stone lions of the central portal appear rather worn. The elephants are more preserved, symbol of purity and temperance, and the griffin, a figure symbolizing the double nature of Christ, the terrestrial and celestial ones.

Knights Templar in Trani: more than a hypothesis 

The Historia Traslationis Sancti Nicolai Peregrini refers on the presence of the Knights Templar during the transfer of the remains of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim. Nevertheless, it is not the only source arguing about the presence of the Order in the Trani bishopric during the Crusade period. Particularly, a lot of written documentation reports of a Templar domus located in the nearby Barletta [4]. It is hypothesized that it could be the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, given by the Trani archbishop Bertrando the the Order members, Riccardo and Raniero, in 1169. This domus became the main Commendatoria in the Bari area, until 1229, when some of the goods were confiscated by Frederick II. In fact, there was not a good relation between the Emperor and the Order of the Temple of Jerusalmen, since the last one was on the Guelph side.

The Svevo castel near the Church of Ognissanti
The Castello Svevo of Frederick II guaranteed the power of the city to the Emperor

The Domus Templare of Barletta

It is not surprising the presence of the Knights Templar in Trani and Barletta, since from there a lot of goods left towards the Holy Land. These were a support for the military vanguards in Jerusalem firstly, and then in Acri, the last fortress of the Order in the Middle East. Moreover, Trani was the city were the Ordinamenta maris were issued in the 11th-12th century. It is the first maritime code of the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, in few time Trani became one of the most relevant departure port to reach the Holy Land [5].

This commercial vivacity and the monetary exchange is confirmed by the presence of almost 200 members of the Jewish community in Trani. This last had the role to provide money to a favorable exchange rate, which allowed the constant supply of the Crusaders. Still today, Trani hosts the Jewish neighborhood and the remains of two synagogues. It is a particularity that makes Trani closer to Jerusalem.

Another indication deriving from popular sources about the presence of the Knights Templar in Trani is that the Order would own the little Church of Ognissanti. It is located near the city port and has a long historiographical tradition.

The Church of Ognissanti: a Templar debate still open 

The church of Ognissanti is frequently related to to the monastic order of the Knights Templar. According to a famous hypothesis, they would have received some territorial possessions on the basis of the cited agreement stipulated with the archbishop, Bertrando da Trani, in 1169. According to the tradition, the Church of Ognissanti is among these buildings.

Church of Ognissanti
Double portico of the Church of Ognissanti

The Church of Ognissanti in Trani 

The main facade of the church is composed by a double portico with three arches, embedded into the surrounding buildings. It is supported by columns surmounted by capitals with sculpted scenes. Among them, there is a scene of Saint Michael who kills the dragon and other representations of the archangels. Then it is possible to access the narthex, which allows the entrance to the church through three portals. These are enriched with sculptures representing the Annunciation and Eucharistic symbols, such as peacocks and the grapevine in the lunette.

Church of Ognissanti
The main portal of the Church of Ognissanti

The apse

Of greater stylistic interest is the apse. It overlooks the port of the city. Here, there is a single-lancet window extraordinarily decorated with knots and zoomorphic figures. The simbology is similar to that of contemporary churches, by the use of the bestiary with Christological connotations, like the stone lions, griffins and eagles placed on the summit.

Church of Ognissanti
The portion with three apses of the church
Church of Ognissanti
Apse window

Among the decorative knots motifs, there is the Knot of Revelation, which recalls the Holy Spirit. On the archivolt of the single lancet window there is a sculpture representing the fight of Sanson against the lion, a figure of the devil. The sculpted protomes completing the arches, on the apse, represent human faces, a stylistic choice typical of some monastic orders, like the Cistercians and the Knights Templar.

The internal has a basilical plan with transept. Three naves are separated by columns that support Romanesque round arches. The central nave has a roof with wooden trusses, whilst the side ones are characterized by ribbed vaults. Overall, the internal of the Church of Ognissanti are simple, according to the period uses.

Church of Ognissanti
The gutter does not help, but the road name is rather evocative
Church of Ognissanti
Even here, the reference is clear.


The ownership of the Church of Ognissant by the Knights Templar has been debated in the last century. Arcangelo Prologo was the first who argue about the Templar membership to the building (1894). The scholar related the Milites Templum Domini described in the Historia Traslationis Sancti Nicolai Peregrini with the owners of the Church. Then, the Templar ownership of Ognissanti would be confirmed by the presence of a tombstone located near the right portal. It states “Hic Requiescit Costantinus Abbas Et Medicus Orate Pro Anima Eius“, which can be translated as “Here Constantine, abbot and doctor, rests, pray for his soul”.

For a long time the identity of Constantine was debated. However, the writing would indicate the existence of a spital annexed to the religious building, which would recall the modus operandi of the Knights Templar. Even Bianca Maria Capone supports this thesis, arguing that another church, known as of Saint John, was known as the “grancia of the Knights of the Temple of Ognissanti” [6].

…or not Templar?

Nonetheless, Vito Ricci [7] and Fulvio Bramato [8] questioned about the Templar relation with the Church of Ognissanti. According to the scholars, the members of the Order could not have a sufficient heritage for the realization of a so important architectural building. Moreover, there are clear documentary sources which would historically corroborate the relation between the Church of Ognissanti and the Knights Templar.

Additionally, even the agreement between the Order and the local bishopric of 1160 could refer to the canons of the Cupola della Roccia [9]. This could derive from a trivial observation: the Order of the Temple of Jerusalem had taken an oath only to the Holy See, by the papal bull of 1139, the Omne Datum Optimum by Innocent II. Hence, the Templars could be under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction by the local bishops. From one side it would exclude the possibility of concessions of the religious building by the bishop Bertrando II, but nothing excludes that the Order of the Temple could have independently built the Church of Ognissanti. The mystery is all to be revealed.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1]  San Nicola il pellegrino. Patrono di Trani e dell’arcidiocesi. Vita, critica e messaggio spirituale, G. Cioffari, 2004, Rotas editore.

[2] Pellegrino di Puglia, C. Brandi, 1960.

[3] Sator, Codice templare. A.Giacomini, 2004, Edizioni Penne e Papiri.

[4] I templari a Barletta. Nuove acquisizioni, Oronzo Cilli, 2002.

[5] Trani, in Itinerari e centri urbani nel Mezzogiorno normanno-svevo, Fonseca, 1993, Atti delle decime giornate normanno-sveve (Bari 21-24 ottobre 1991).

[6]  Guida all’Italia dei Templari: gli insediamenti templari in Italia, B.Capone, L.Imperio, E. Valentini, 1989, Edizioni Mediterranee.

[7] La chiesa di Ognissanti di Trani non fu templare, V. Ricci, 2010, Cronache medievali.

[8] Il Templum Domini e la Militia Templii nella diocesi di Trani. Elementi e prospettive per la ricerca. F. Bramato, 1997, Barletta crocevia degli Ordini religioso-cavallereschi medioevali, Seminario di Studio.

[9] I Templari. Eroismo e misfatti, in Storia e Dossier, F. Cardini, 1995, Giunti Editore, Firenze.

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