The Holy Grail

6 Nov

The Holy Grail is generally thought to be one of two things: the cup Christ used at the Last Supper, or the cup which Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Christ’s blood when the Roman soldier Longinus pierced his side with a lance while he was nailed to the cross. These two cups later became conflated both in the Grail literature and the popular imagination.

There are various legends surrounding the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper.

One has it that it was conserved by St Peter, who brought it to Rome and used it to say mass. It remained in Rome until the reign of the Emperor Valerian. In 258, then Pope Sixtus II gave it to his deacon St.Lawrence, who gave it to a Spanish soldier, Proselius, with instructions to take it to safety in Proselius’ native country of Spain. This cup allegedly survives to this day in the Cathedral of Valencia.

The picture above is the chalice, but take note-the relic is only the upper part:

This upper part is a cup of finely polished dark brown agate, which Professor Antonio Beltran believes to be of oriental origin and datable to 50-100 BC.

The account of the chalice’s being taken to Spain doesn’t quite jibe with the account given by the sixth century Christian pilgrim, Antoninus of Piacenza, who visited Jerusalem in 570 and described a chalice of onyx being conserved as the holy relic.

Aproximately one century after Antoninus, the Frankish bishop Arculf toured the Holy Land and described the cup as being two-handled and made of silver, and conserved in a reliquary in a chapel near Jerusalem.

Nothing more was ever seen or heard of these two chalices, and no mention of the relic of the Last Supper appears in the historical record for another five hundred years or so.

The Crusades coincided with a renewed interest in the subject. At left is a third putative chalice, kept in the church of San Lorenzo in Genoa. According to the chronicler of the Crusades William of Tyre, written in 1170, it was found in 1101 at the mosque in Caesarea. He did not, however, identify it with the cup used at the Last Supper: that connection was only made in the 13th century by the historian Jacobus da Voragine. Another account has it being taken at the sack of Almeria in 1147. How it ended up in Genoa is, predictably, the subject of fanciful interpretations, all of which claim the Genoese thought it was made of emerald. The bowl was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and returned broken (that hole you see in the bottom right quadrant) which, if nothing else, proved it was glass and not emerald. But the Almeria legend does at least have the advantage of tying in neatly with the earliest legend (accepted by the Catholic Encyclopedia) that the chalice was taken to Spain during the persecutions of Valerian (though it still doesn’t explain why Jesus would have used a large green glass bowl.)

Spain again plays a prominent role when the chalice first became the `Grail’: a picture of the Virgin Mary with a `grail’, is  possibly the earliest image of a (the?) grail, is in the church of St Clement of Taull, in the Pyrenees, which was consecrated in 1123.

But the first use of the term `Grail’ (Graal) in writing was made by the French poet Chretien de Troyes. His epic poem, Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the story of the Grail) was written around 1180 and was the first work of literature to take the Grail as its central theme. In Chretien’s poem, a mysterious vessel or object which sustains life is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is lame or sick and his lands are barren. A young knight (Perceval) happens upon the castle and is invited in. There, he witnesses a mysterious procession but asks no questions. The failure to ask condemns the castle owner and his lands to remain in their condition of sickness and barenness.

The exact nature of the `Grail’ is not specified in Chretien’s poem, as it wouldn’t be in the magnum opus of one of his principal successors, Wolfram von Eschenbach. The first writer to specifically identify it as the chalice of the Last Supper is Robert de Boron, who wrote his Joseph d’Arimathe sometime between when Chretien and Wolfram wrote their works on the Grail. Nevertheless, the fact that the two most important Grail epics fail to specify what the Grail is – Wolfram suggests that it might be a stone, while Chretien describes it as a light-giving object- are enough to give one pause. why would the Grail be a stone? Why would it give off light? Wolfram uses an unexplained term to designate the Grail- lapis exillis-and claims the story was told him by a certain Kyot de Provence, who had read it in a discarded manuscript he’d found in Toledo, which had been written by a Jewish astronomer. This brings us back to Spain: the Grail was a stone, and legends of it are persistently traceable to Spain and the Pyrenees.

The Grail as a literary subject did not outlast the thirteenth century, so we may well ask: what caused it to appear so suddenly and disappear just as suddenly at this particular moment in history? Oddly enough, the Grail made its appearance- first in painting and then in literature- at around the same time that Catharism, a Christian heresy with deep roots in the Byzantine Empire, came to western Europe. It was particularly prevalent in the south of France- known in French as the Midi-and flourished, then died, at roughly the same time as the Grail legends flourished and then died. Food for thought…

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One Response to “The Holy Grail”

  1. manesismar February 20, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    this is not the real Holy Grail is jast a broken glass bowl

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