an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, June 2007, ISSN 1552-5112




Sang Real: 1307-2007 AD


Rodney Sharkey


[1. The Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

As a professor in English Literature and Humanities at Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, I founded an annual conference entitled Inscriptions in the Sand in 2003.[1]  When I began to curate Inscriptions, I attempted to provide a more diverse conference experience as a ‘performance event’ by curating simultaneous symposia, art exhibitions, multi-media performances and musical recitals.  It proved to be a resounding success for over 100 people who traveled from sixteen different countries. 

As the Inscriptions series develops, the antique venues available as exhibition spaces become more and more of a draw for potential participants.  Two such sites available in the town of Famagusta are the twin churches of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller that date from the early fourteenth century.  Restored and maintained by the North Cyprus Art Society, they have been used to exhibit the work of a variety of different artists in the last three years of Inscriptions.  In 2003 the Hospitaller church housed a performance piece by American performance artists The Mob involving the simultaneous interpretation and translation of a sign language of the foot, while a multi-media performance piece by Heather Raikes entitled The Wave was staged in the Templar church.  At Inscriptions ‘04, English artists Veronique Chance and Canadian Lynne Marsh installed a series of video projections entitled “Olympiad” and “Ballroom,” respectively.  In 2004 the conference dates fell – coincident on a number of administrative details – on Thursday the 12th and Friday the 13th of May, 2005.  At that point I decided to reserve the Church of the Knights Templar for an installation piece to be designed by two fellow curators of the Inscriptions series, and myself.  The main reason for this decision was the date.  On Friday, October 13th, 1307, a Papal edict instigated by Pope Clement V outlawed the Knights Templar for heresy.  Historical opinion has it that the superstitious legacy of Friday the Thirteenth arises as a result of this edict. My colleagues and I felt that these details might resonate through a suitable artwork or installation piece in the church.  Further, such a work would also allow us to pursue two complementary aspects of the creative process as we began contemplating how to utilize a site-specific space that is invested with a pertinent temporal dimension on a particular date. The result, we imagined, was that our piece might then illuminate (or distort) the past in the light of contemporary concerns. Although our creative intervention was exhibited in 2005, the time that has since passed has seen our context sharpen in relevance rather than diminish.  As I hope to demonstrate in this review, the seven hundred year interval between 1307 and 2007 is not so large or long that certain political contexts do not resonate profoundly when it comes to myth, money conflict and disease.

[2. Interior of the Church of the Knights Templar during preparations for Sang Real, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

We began by researching the history of the Knights Templar and our initial findings revealed that the heresies of which the Templar was accused included defiling the holy cross, and homosexuality.[2]  As a result they were persecuted by both Church and State until the Grand Master Jacques de Molay was tortured and burned at the stake for heresy in 1312.  However, the historical record also suggests that there was a subtext to the Templar being outlawed: they had become too economically powerful.[3]  Their wealth was partially accrued through their role as the first international bankers.  Escorting wealthy people to Jerusalem they would collect both their fee and the traveler’s savings in the city of departure and then deliver, or not (as the case may be), upon arrival in the holy land.  They were, if you like, the first cash-machines.  It is possible that in response to this bourgeoning wealth, Pope Clement and King Philip the Fair of France used heresy and homosexuality as convenient taboos in order to undermine the Templar's growing economic power. 

In making a comparison with the contemporary moment — as one key aspect of our proposed piece was the relationship between the past and the present — we noticed that the Catholic Church retains an almost medieval resistance to policy change vis-à-vis sexual preference, and that it now perpetuates the idea of Franciscan austerity to disguise its own ever-bourgeoning wealth.  For example, the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2nd, 2005 and the manner in which his passing was represented as that of a pauper belied the amassed wealth of the church as institution.  Further, and directly in relation to the idea of homosexuality as “convenient” taboo, the Catholic Church is wealthy enough to attempt to combat the spread of HIV in Africa to a much greater degree than is currently taking place. Yet one can legitimately ask why it would want to invest large sums of money in combating a disease that it has played a part in associating, in the Western popular mind, with homosexuality.  Further still, how can it be expected to combat the spread of HIV if it is not prepared to advocate safe sex programs?  Instead, sex, and particularly homosexuality, remains taboo (just as it was for Clement V) and consequently HIV spreads at an alarming rate because its initial manifestation has been ideologically framed by Western institutions as a localized and stigmatized “disease.”  Further, because Africa has been weakened by a decade-long debt crisis that has systematically undermined the health and education system, recent research by the United Nations AIDS program in Geneva has shown that the world-wide total of people infected with HIV is 33.4 million, up from 27.6 million last year. There are 16,000 new HIV infections every day.  95% of the infections have occurred in regions with the highest debt burdens, in particularly Africa, but also Asia and Eastern Europe.  The worst hit region is sub-Saharan Africa where 70 % of all new infections and 80 % of deaths occur.  UNAIDS estimates that there are 22.5 million people with HIV/AIDS in the region.  Since the first AIDS related deaths were recorded in the Nineteen Eighties, 83 % of the cases have been in sub-Saharan Africa, and 95 % of the world's AIDS orphans are African. [4]

Somewhat unnerved by the Church’s willful misrepresentation of its financial assets and the widening chasm between its adherence to dogma and the reality of human suffering, we turned our attention towards seeking contemporary parallels to the Medieval State’s attitude to the Templar.  Immediately, George Bush’s on-going and expansive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sprang to mind, as did his recent request to US congress for an additional US$87 Billion.[5]   It is beyond question that history will draw parallels between the current Western/Middle-Eastern, Christian/Muslim antagonisms, and the Crusades.   Indeed, this ironic parallel was brought to the fore when, following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense designated the military response as Operation Infinite Justice.  The origins of the name can be traced back to the 1998 Operation Infinite Reach air strikes against Osama bin Laden's facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan in response to the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Following the disclosure of Operation Infinite Justice, Muslim groups protested the name on the basis that their faith teaches that Allah is the only one that could provide "infinite justice".  Operation Infinite Justice was changed to Operation Enduring Freedom on September 25th, 2001.[6]   

What is instructive about the linguistic, and symbolic exchange of the term “justice” for “freedom” is that although there is an attempt to curtail the play of language in order to minimize comparisons to the medieval past, the echo draws attention to the similarity between the American troops on the ground and the Templar during the Crusades.  Both are arguably pawns in the wider ideological and economic game played by Church and State.  Given that in preparation for our installation we too were gaming, or playing, insofar as the connections we were making were contiguous rather than obvious, the role of games and particularly language games, deriving from Wittgenstein and Lyotard, became more pronounced.  As a result, we began to consider the importance of the role played by language in representing reality in the current conflict such as when the war delivers “democracy” rather than “death.”[7]   

The other strand of our research – into the Medieval period and the years before and after the Templar – identified that rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) to India and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and all of Asia Minor had reached Europe in the mid-fourteenth century.[8]  Calculations by Pope Clement VI at Avignon suggested that the total of reported dead reached something in the region of twenty-three million.  However, no serious alarm was felt in Europe until the trading ships brought the plague to Messina, Genoa and Venice in 1348.  Many within the church believed the brutal treatment of the Templar had resulted in the arrival of the plague.  Apparently, de Molay, at his execution, called down a curse on the King and the Pope.  The fact that the clergy were quick to attribute this ill fortune to a curse by the Templar, indicates, we felt, the degree to which people are prepared to use myth/magic as a way to sanitize or displace the hitherto unimaginable.

Armed with these historical representations of the past, we then attempted to figure Dan Brown’s version of the Templar and his (or perhaps Gerard de Sède’s) idea of “Holy Blood” into the equation.[9]  History records that the Templar captured Jerusalem during the Crusades and were believed to be keepers of the Holy Grail, said to be the cup used at the Last Supper or the receptacle used by Joseph of Arimathea to contain and preserve Christ's blood as he bled on the Cross.[10]  In Brown’s version, however, the Holy Grail is a secret rather than a vessel.  Sang Real (Fr. “Holy Blood”) is the hidden blood line of Jesus Christ; a child born to Mary Magdalene. Given that the book continues to sell millions of copies, we surmised that part of its success is predicated on the degree to which the general public is willing to entertain a Surrealist game as a potential truth. Brown, in a foreword to The Da Vinci Code, writes “Fact: The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization.”[11]  However, the Surrealist artist Gerard de Sède subsequently revealed his part in the Priory of Sion hoax when he claimed that he and Pierre Plantard allegedly invented the Priory of Sion to surrealistically ‘prove’ Plantard’s claim that he was part of the Merovingian dynasty (i.e. a blood relative of Jesus and Mary).[12]  To these children of Breton and Soupault, history was an elaborate and entertaining game.

We then proceeded from a point of comparison.  We believed that the current success of The Da Vinci Code reveals a collective willingness to entertain myth as truth in order, perhaps, to avoid other more pertinent and disturbing realities.  This clearly echoes the 14th century response wherein the arrival of the plague in Europe was attributed to a curse cast by the Templar Order.  In both instances myth functions as a way to avoid the political and religious climates of both historical periods. 

Quite by chance, this research coincided with the European broadcast of the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America wherein the author explores both the power of myth to tackle the unimaginable and the political climate of a particular period in history.  Kushner’s superb treatment of Reagan’s response to the emerging HIV crisis in 1985 in which mainstream American attitudes to HIV and AIDS were formulated and consolidated as attitudes of distance, dispassionate disinterest and displacement (frequently manifesting themselves as outright hostility and prejudice), also seemed very appropriate in relation to the attitude to HIV and AIDS in North Cyprus.  In North Cyprus all non-national workers are obliged to undertake a blood test for the presence of HIV before they can acquire residency permits.  Particular attention is paid to women who work in the nightclub industry and sex trade.  In the event of a HIV positive test, the unfortunate is arrested and deported within hours.  Moreover, in the community at large most people believe that HIV positive women are intravenous drug users (despite the fact that women now share equal representation with men in the worldwide prevalence of HIV/AIDS), and otherwise imagine HIV to be “a gay disease.”[13]  In this regard, the Mediterranean is no different to many regions in that it has learnt its approach to the syndrome from initial American policy in the Nineteen Eighties.  So, taking a line from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches we opted to explore “what human rights are, what freedom is, the idea with blood in it.”[14]   We also attempted to “link” this idea to the recurrent presence of the game motif as it appears in past and present political maneuvering, in Dan Brown’s text, and in our creative attempt to illustrate disparate parallels between different historical moments in order to generate relevant associations.

 When May arrived and it came to representing our research in multi-media form, utilizing the Templar church as the site-specific space, and conscious of the all-pervasive mythology of Dan Brown set off against the all too real concerns about blood in the twenty-first century, we created a metaphor for “the idea with blood in it.”  Because the Church itself is such an atmospheric venue – small yet spacious due to its high roof and apse which elongate the viewer’s perspective from front door to back wall (see Figure 1) – we decided to be minimalist with our materials. As we had gathered so much information relating to the spread of the Black Plague, the spread of HIV in Africa, the Templar and the Crusades, the Iraq War and the Catholic Church’s global wealth, we decided to project relevant selections from this information as Power-Point slides in simple white text on a black background onto the right wall of the church.  We also counter-pointed this information with patently fictional statements such as Brown’s claim for the legitimacy of the Priory of Sion.  In this way we were trying to prompt viewers to distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and ideology.


[3. Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

Given the manner in which much ideological distortion has been practiced historically in establishing institutionalized hegemonic narratives, we also used quotations from Lyotard about the subversive power of language games.


[4. Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

The following statement recurred in the slides with great frequency:


The only insurmountable obstacle that the hegemony of the economic genre comes up against is the heterogeneity of phrase regimens and of genres of discourse, summoning humans to situate themselves in unknown phrase universes. (Lyotard, 181)


By using this phrase, and others like it, we were suggesting that the three elements of our central installation (the other elements are discussed below) might position the audience in a different phrase universe; in other words, might allow them to absorb the diverse material we were presenting in different ways, allowing for interpretations that might challenge Brown’s myth and the sacrosanct atmosphere of the church space.  For example, one slide superimposed details of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth over a still image of the funeral of John Paul II with the latter’s wooden coffin prominent.

[5. Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

Using large projection images, the moving slides immediately drew attention to themselves as one walked into the church.  On the opposite wall we decided to seek equilibrium by maintaining the visual reading code we had established and so projected two diverse clips we had spliced together and which incorporated references to the Crusades, homosexuality, blood and HIV. We chose the first appearance of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and the chess game he embarks upon with the knight returning from the Crusades as a suitable complement to the gaming metaphor (language games) we had established with the Power-Point slides.[15]



[6. Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

This scene then segued into a series of short scenes from Kushner’s Angels in America which involved  a doctor describing the effects of the HIV virus on the human body, and Prior Walter (the central character and person living with HIV) attending a routine check-up at the hospital. Over this we juxtaposed the dialogue from an alternative scene where Louis, Prior’s boyfriend, is trying to convince Belize that American politicians have no sense of real suffering (“the idea with blood in it” mentioned earlier) and also of another scene where Belize tells Louis:

I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.[16]


This dialogue, spliced to accompany the visual images of Prior’s check-up, suitably contextualized the impersonal nature of the examination.  We then doctored the last line so that Belize said “you come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you … terminal crazy and mean” and looped this line five times so that the American context was partially elided in the hope that local visitors would make local comparisons.

At a certain point in the exhibition, as the last audio loop echoed in the church, the video images faded to black and the Power-Point slides completed their sequence, the church was engulfed in darkness with the desired result that the viewers’ attention was then focused on the material installation in the apse.  Playing now with Brown’s “Sang Real” fantasy we too tried to focus on more contemporary blood associations. To this end we acquired an intravenous drip and glucose bag from the local hospital.  We colored the glucose with red food dye and set the needle in our grail equivalent which we purchased from an antique shop in the old city.  We were aware that a cup used to preserve Christ’s blood would be an ordinary, wooden affair and so decided to get the type of cup onto which, we imagined, people would project received ideas of divinity.  In other words, we imagined the classic (yet simple) qualities of what people might imagine a Holy Grail would look like. Covering a plinth in white cotton, we positioned our Grail on top of forty copies of the world’s best selling work of fiction.  In the afternoon, before the installation was opened to the public, we turned on the drip and allowed it to fill the cup so that it overflowed over the copies of The Da Vinci Code.   We also surrounded the piece with ecclesiastical candles to increase the mood of projected religious reverence.

[7 Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

Once the visual footage finished its loop and the grail became the focus, this darkness was then brightened (or enlightened) by Bergman’s black and white Death figure as the visual imagery recommenced its sequential loop gradually moving from black and white images to color.   One unexpected but pleasantly surprising feature of the installation was that the color DVD images were rendered digitally diffuse due to the erosion suffered by the church’s walls. Conversely, the black and white of The Seventh Seal and the Power-Point slides resulted in clear and strong monochrome images.  This produced an effect wherein the switch to color footage produced disembodied imagery on the wall. Moreover, the presence of the dialogue was simultaneously accentuated by the degree to which the walls absorbed the color footage.  The imagery became a part of the wall, a part of the church if you like, and the soundtrack then enabled the spectator to identify the diffuse visuals as dialogues on death, disease, the Crusades, the Holy Grail, blood and homosexuality.

[8 Craven Allsorts, Sang Real, 2005, multi-media installation (detail), Church of the Knights Templar, Famagusta, Cyprus (photograph provided by artist/author)]

It is important to point out that we did not attempt to predetermine the manner in which the three disparate aspects of the total installation piece would interact contextually beyond the formal timing of the darkness that would focus attention on the plinth.  Rather, our intention from the beginning had been to compare and contrast similar historical facts such as the Crusades and the Iraq War, the Plague and HIV, the Catholic Church’s consistent attitude to homosexuality and the economic imperative behind all of these narratives. However, central to our thinking was the depoliticizing power of myth and we made a concerted attempt to repoliticize Dan Brown’s mythic Templar order with both the real blood shed in religious war and the real blood of the anonymous sufferers of preventable disease.  This hardly constituted a singular theme for the installation as a whole and more properly represented a point of interpretive departure.  We had intended to use animal blood instead of food dye but it proved impossible to swap one fluid for another in the glucose drip bag.  As a result we were aware of the irony in our simulated attempt to prompt the audience into considering “Sang Real.”  Nevertheless we believe that we did succeed in generating a series of signs representative of the past, the present and the potential future in the Church of the Knights Templar for one evening on Friday the 13th of May, 2005 in order to echo and re-contextualize 1307 in the light of contemporary culture and politics. 

By and large, the audience responded well to the piece.  Made up of international academics, artists, musicians and students they took time to consider each of the three aspects in isolation and then attempted to acquire an over-all impression from the door of the church. As the curators of Inscriptions we had been able to proceed anonymously from the start so that neither fellow colleagues at EMU nor students knew that we were Craven Allsorts, the name we adopted for the visiting artists who supposedly designed the piece.  This meant that no one need feel compromised about communicating their ‘real’ opinion. One recurrent criticism was that the Power-Point slides moved too fast and people felt that they were unable to process the text they contained. We were obliged to acknowledge that this was true although we did notice that the longer people spent within the church the more they derived from the installation. One visitor, an American performance artist, spent over an hour considering the various aspects of the show and returned an interpretation of the piece that excited us in terms of possibility and also broadly coincided with the overlapping similarities of past and present historical moments that we had tried to promote.  This is not for a moment to suggest that our intention was the raison d’être of the show, but to illustrate that the installation proved more worthwhile when time and thought was invested in interpreting the various strands of the piece. Almost all of the audience was greatly impressed by the church and by the atmosphere that it generated. The feeling was that any one of the three elements would have been carried alone by the space’s atmospherics. We knew this to be accurate feedback but also felt that we had increased the church’s religious semantics by the manner in which we had utilized light through the projections and candles. This was particularly evident at the point where the church was plunged into darkness so that the plinth radiated as both a sacred and profane sign. The students, deprived of installation art in Northern Cyprus, were bemused by the notion of multiple or collective meaning inhering in the three pieces but they were excited by the contrast between the old church and the modern audio-visual technology. Some immediately decided that the venue would be perfect for a fashion show!  Most of the academics felt that the objective of the piece was to repoliticize Brown’s myth through focusing on blood diseases but the associations with the Templar’s stigmatization and with contemporary Africa were missed. We felt that this was due to the speed of the Power-Point slides and, as a result, a tendency to try to focus on the Lyotard quotes as they recurred at the expense of the Templar history and UNAIDS details. Certainly, if “Sang Real” had been scheduled to run longer then we would have corrected the slide speed. However, if the piece were to remain on view longer than the allotted four hours then the drip would have had to continue its dissemination with the result that we would finally have to scrub the dye from the floor of the church.  Bearing in mind the aftermath of Calvary this was one biting irony that we wanted to avoid!

Personally we found when viewing “Sang Real” that our focus was irrevocably drawn to the HIV crisis in the developing world.  We had tried to focus on this “real” blood rather than the “real” (Fr.) or magic blood of the current, popular imagination.  What is certain is that when we compared present institutional ideological priorities with the ideological priorities of the dominant institutions of the past, we could see the trace of a potentially catastrophic historical repetition.  In short, it is a real and ongoing tragedy that the present day reality of conditions in sub-Saharan Africa is not already recognized as a catastrophe.[17]



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, June 2007, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] For more information on Inscriptions in the Sand please visit

[2] See Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality, 1095-1274  (Staffordshire: Arnold, 1981), pp. 137-140

[3] See Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, The Crusades (London: BBC Books, 1994), pp. 148-149.

[4]Statistics gather from official United Nations AIDS programme site. See

[5] Effectively, all of the money for the war on terrorism is being borrowed, and the budget deficit for 2005 was a huge US$477 Billion. See for more information. 

[7] See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984 (La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, Paris: Minuit, 1979).

[8] See Ambrosie, The Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, tr. & ed. M. Hubert and J. LaMonte (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941) and for these facts and more details regarding the spread of the plague.

[9] See Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Random House/Doubleday, 2003) and Michel Baigent, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell Publishing, 1983). Both parties were recently in court regarding copyright over the ideas that appear in both works. For more details of the court case see,,1763534,00.html.

[10] For details of the Templar in Jerusalem and Cyprus see Helen Nicholson, Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights. (England: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 28, 69, 90.

[11] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, preface.

[12] See “Da Vinci Code Decoded.”  Narrated by Tony Robinson.  Channel Four Productions, February 2005.

[13] As published research in this field is essentially non-existent I am basing my argument on personal experience through teaching students, talking to locals, talking to police officers and in this way building an accurate picture of general attitudes in the region.

[14] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part 1: Millennium Approaches (London: Nick Hern Books and The Royal National Theatre, 2004), Act II, Sc. III, p. 34.

[15] The Seventh Seal. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand. Produced by Allan Ekelund. 1957 (Det Sjunde Inseglet)

[16] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part 2: Perestroika (London: Nick Hern Books and The Royal National Theatre, 2004), Act IV, Sc. III, p. 61