Thursday 28 August 2014

The First Grail Maiden

In Arthurian tradition the Holy Grail appears in many forms but the image most popular with people today is that of the Chalice of the Last Supper. This image comes from Arthurian Romance of the 12th and 13th centuries based on Robert de Boron's History of The Holy Grail (Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal) where the objects of the Grail procession are identified as relics of the Passion.

The First Grail Romances
Robert de Boron's account was the third of three key texts that had a major influence on the tradition of the Grail we know today. The first known literary account of the grail was produced by Chretien de Troyes writing around 1180 AD. Chretien is credited with writing five Arthurian Romances, his last, Perceval, or le Conte du Graal, the Story of the Grail, was his last last work and, for whatever reason, left unfinished. In Chretien's original work he simply described the object as 'a grail' (un graal), a serving dish. Chretien describes the Grail as part of a mysterious procession that started with a squire carrying a lance bleeding from its tip, then two squires entered with candelabras of 10 candles each followed by a maiden carrying a 'grail' from which such a brilliant light radiated from it, so bright that the light of the candles faded like the stars when the sun or moon are rising.1 Alternatively, the light may have been coming from the maiden herself.2

Chretien tells us little else about the mysterious objects of the grail procession, omitting to tell us it is the cup of the Eucharist and at no time connects it to the relics of the Passion. Surely the attraction of Chrétien's grail was that neither he nor his audience knew exactly what it represented; yet both seem to realise the importance of witnessing the procession. A suspected later interpolation into the Conte du Graal adds that the grail sustains the Grail King with a single mass wafer. The same hand is probably responsible for naming the lance as the weapon used by Longinus at the Crucifixion that pierced Christ's side in the First Continuation.3

Grail Maiden - Arthur Rackham 1917
The second great Grail Romance was penned by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet, in the first quarter of the 13th century following shortly after Chretien's work. In Wolfram's introduction to his Grail epic Parzival he claimed that Chrétien's version of the tale had failed to present the true story of the Grail and states that his source was a poet from Provence called Kyot. To Wolfram the Grail (Gral) is a heavenly stone, the lapsit exillis, an emerald from Lucifer's crown that fell to earth, with the names of those appointed to the Gral inscribed on its top edge, but as soon as the name is read it vanishes from sight. It is tempting to speculate exactly what Wolfram had in mind; his lapsit exillis may simply be a corruption of lapsit ex caelis meaning the 'stone that fell from the sky' but of course it also brings to mind the lapsis elixir, the stone of the wise, the Arabic term to describe the Philopsher's Stone or the mythological tradition of the Emerald Tablets of Thoth etched with mystical writings. However, in transforming Chretien's serving dish to a stone from heaven Wolfram diverged from most other Grail Romances.4

When he finally arrives at the Grail Castle, Perceval seeks initiation into the Brotherhood of the Gral. His initiation occurs in two stages: on two occasions he will appear before the Gral; the first time he will fail the trial.

Wolfram describes a procession similar to Chretien's account where the bleeding lance and the Gral with the addition of ivory trestles and glass vials in which balsam was burning, are paraded in front of him by twenty four maidens. Then the twenty-fifth maiden enters bearing the Gral, whereas in Chretien she is unidentified, Wolfram tells us this is the princess of perfect chastity, Repanse de Schoye, and again as in Chretien, she radiates a brilliant light: “her face shed such refulgence that all imagined it was sunrise.5

Later, Parzival is told about the Gral, how a warlike company of Templars, the Brotherhod of the Gral, dwell at Munsalvaesche (the Grail Castle). They are nourished from the Stone, the lapsit exillis, who's essence is pure. No matter how ill a mortal may be he cannot die for a week after seeing the Stone. The Gral is nourished by a Dove from heaven on every Good Friday which delivers a small white Wafer to the Stone that it leaves there.6 In a Christian context this may be interpreted as a reference to the former practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in dove-shaped receptacles (columb) suspended by chains from the canopy of the altar.

According to Chretien and Wolfram the Grail clearly possesses some religious significance, the procession is an initiation rite, but it is not to linked to the Christian rite of the Eucharist.

The Christianisation of the Grail
Robert de Boron wrote two poems at the beginning of the 13th century; the Joseph d'Arimathe and the Merlin, the latter work surviving only in fragments; the first writer to make a connection between the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Matter of Britain. These two works are thought to have formed a greater opus, Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal, with the Perceval forming the third and final part. It is likely that de Boron's final work is represented in the Didot Perceval, thought to have been written between 1190 to 1215 AD. The Didot Perceval survives in two quite dissimilar texts in two manuscripts known as the Didot (Paris) and the Modena variants. In both manuscripts containing the prose Perceval it is preceded by a prose version of the poem Joseph d'Arimathie by Robert de Boron and by a prose Merlin, a re-handling of the poem by de Boron. The prose Perceval may be the work of a continuator of the two compositions of Robert de Boron and may bear some resemblance to the lost original.

The Joseph d'Arimathie provides the first history of the Grail but does not mention the bleeding lance but it appears later in the Didot Perceval which follows Chretien in the Grail Procession: “Just as they seated themselves and the first course was brought to them, they saw come from a chamber a damsel very richly dressed who had a towel about her neck and bore in her hands two little silver platters. After her came a youth who bore a lance, and it bled three drops of blood from its head; and they entered into a chamber before Perceval. And after this there came a youth and he bore between his hands the vessel that Our Lord gave to Joseph in the prison...7

Later in the tale the Fisher King explains the mystery of the Grail to Perceval: “Dear grandson, know that this is the lance with which Longinus struck Jesus Christ on the cross, and this vessel that is called the Grail, know that this is the blood that Joseph caught from His wounds which flowed to the earth....8

The Attainment of the Grail - Sir Edward Burne-Jones 1895-96 (Wikimedia Commons)
The Didot Perceval closely follows Chretien's account but for one major detail; the Grail is carried by a youth rather than a maiden. This is further evidence that Chretien did not intend his grail procession to be symbolic of the Eucharist. Why did de Boron change the gender of the grail bearer?

The supposed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women during these times led to many prohibitions in Church Law and it was strictly forbidden to have women serving near the altar within the sacred chancel and they were prohibited from entering behind the altar rails during the liturgy. Only men and boys could serve at the altar. The presumed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women entered Church Law at the time of the flourit of the Grail Romances especially through the Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, a vital part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici and remained in force until 1916.

Women could not distribute communion, teach in church, baptise, wear sacred vestments and they certainly could not touch sacred objects. It was not until 1983 that canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law allowed local ordinaries to permit girls and women to serve the altar and touch sacred objects. If Chretien's grail had been intended as the Chalice of the Last Supper the Grail procession in his tale would have been regarded as Liturgical Abuse. In making the Grail an object of  Christian veneration de Boron had no choice but to change the gender of the Gail bearer to a male.

de Boron's work was the inspiration for the Grail Romances that followed and spawned the huge Vulgate Cycle. He was the first author to provide a complete history to the Grail and the first to give a Christian dimension to the legend, relying heavily on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. According to de Boron, the Grail was the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and then used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the Holy blood at either the Crucifixion or the Deposition. While imprisoned Joseph was sustained by the Grail and the true meaning of the cup was revealed to him by Christ himself. Joseph's family then brought the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, the valleys of Avaron, in the west, interpreted by later writers as Avalon and subsequently identified with Glastonbury. The mention of Avalon has fuelled the argument that de Boron wrote his work after the monks of Glastonbury had discovered the grave of Arthur and Guinevere in the Abbey grounds in 1191; the inscription on the burial cross confirming that the place was indeed Avalon.9

The legend of Joseph of Arimthaea was generally known at the time with various rhymed French versions in circulation, whereas the Gospel of Nicodemus was used by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century and later translated into Anglo-Saxon, French, English and German in the 12th and 3th centuries.10 Joseph of Arimthaea was particularly venerated at Moyenmoutier in Lorraine in north east France, across the Vosges mountains from Montbeliard and the nearby village of Boron, the apparent birthplace of Robert, which may have influenced his selection of material.11

At one time the Abbey of Moyenmoutier claimed to possess the relics  of Joseph of Arimthaea. According to the early 13th century Chronicles of Senones during the time of Charlemagne (king of the Franks 768 - 814 AD), Fortunat, patriarch of Grado, made a pilgrimage to the East and brought back the body of Joseph of Arimathea from the Holy Land to the monastery of Moyenmoutier. At a later date, but before the end of the 10th century, the body of Joseph was taken away by 'strange monks.'12 Although this is a late tradition it may have contributed to the persistence of the Glastonbury tradition whose monks were suspected of the crime.13

In Chretien's story de Boron seems to have recognised elements of the Grail procession as relics of the Passion; the Holy Lance of Loginus and the Chalice bearing Christ's blood as the cup of the Last Supper. Yet it is doubtful that this is what Chretien intended for his unfinished story of the grail. Key to de Boron's thinking must have been the recognition of the Grail Maiden bearing the chalice in the Grail Romances as Ecclesia a figure depicted in Christian iconography as the person holding the chalice and catching the Holy Blood at the Crucifixion in illuminated manuscripts, for which, as we have seen above, he substituted a youth. There is evidence that the Grail legend, at least in the form of the Chalice at the Cross, was known in the Rhine regions from at least the early 6th century.14

The First Grail Maiden
Ecclesia usually appears with Synagoga in Crucifixion scenes from the early 9th century. Ecclesia is shown receiving the Holy blood in the chalice on the 9th century ivory cover to Henry II's early 11th century book of Pericopes. Ecclesia is said to represent the new church as the Virgin, Mary The Church, and is often depicted in Crucifixion scenes with a blindfoled female companion who's head is bowed standing on the opposite side of the cross bearing a broken lance and holding law tablets that are slipping from her grasp. This figure is said to depict Synagoga, the Synagogue, the Jewish Church that turned its back on Christ at the Crucifixion.

Detail from cover of the book of Pericopes 820-830 AD
However, the earliest depiction of Ecclesia is from the beginning of the 5th century where she is shown as a veiled woman offering a wreath to St Peter while another figure of her crowning St Paul in the apse mosiac at Santa Pusenziana in Rome dated c.400 AD.

The Gellone Sacramentary, dated 790-804 AD, has a Crucifixion scene showing a bleeding Christ without any earthly attendants, a scene which does not appear to have any precedents and was done perhaps to avoid distracting from the scene on the opposite page. This page (folio 144r) represents a head with long hair, forming the top of an initial I for the section of Te igitur that begins Inprimis quae which asks for blessing on the church. In this context the head may represent Ecclesia.

The 8th century Gellone personification seems to be without precedent and predates both the 9th century Utrecht Psalter and the Drogo Sacramentary, the latter showing an unmistakable depiction of Ecclesia catching Christ's blood in a chalice which is possibly the earliest depiction  of this theme.

In the Utrecht Psalter depiction of Psalm 115 is the first in the West of Christ hanging dead on the cross. To the left are Mary and John, to the right a mysterious male figure in a loin-cloth holding a paten with bread in his right hand and in his left the chalice held to Christ's side. These images are unique to the Ultrect Psalter, Other psalters of the period such as the Stuttgart Psalter, c.820 AD, do not show this.

The unidentified figure receiving blood in the chalice appears only in the illustration to Psalm 115, folio 67 recto illustrating Psalm 115 verse 4: "I will take the chalice of salvation and I will call upon the name of the Lord" which was recalled during the Mass liturgy. This may be the earliest extant use of this image and earlier than the first depiction of Ecclesia at the Crucifixion scene and is the only scene in the Psalter with an overtly Eucharistic reference, connecting the chalice to the cup of the First Mass.15

It is therefore without doubt that the maiden collecting Christ's blood in a chalice at the Crucifixion is intended as the Chalice of the Eucharist and in this Robert de Boron saw the Grail Maiden of Chretien's Conte du Graal. But what is the significance of the Grail bearer being a virgin?

The Virgin and the Grail
Representations of the Virgin Mary holding a chalice are to be found in the Pyrenees mountains of north west Spain. Some fifty years before Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first known story of the Grail, images of the Virgin Mary with a simple bowl (called a “grail” in local dialect) containing radiant red blood appeared in St Clement, Taull, and eight churches in the Spanish Pyrenees. Historian Joseph Goering argues that they were the original inspiration of the Grail legend, in his view these wall paintings are "the historical origins of the Grail."16

In early 12th century Catalonia the church of St Clement was visited by the master painter who made beautiful frescoes of Christ in Majesty and seated with the apostles is an enigmatic representation of the Virgin Mary holding a Grail, a shallow bowl exuding radiant light, perhaps so hot she covers her hand with her cloak. Other churches in the Catalonia region had similar pictures (and in one case, a damaged statue) with this Grail motif that is found nowhere else in Christendom. The first was commissioned at St Clement in 1123 AD, these paintings bearing testament to the existence a local tradition, or cult, some fifty years before the earliest date for Chretien's Conte du Graal. To add to the mystery of the Grail, in these paintings the lips of the Virgin (Sancta Maria) are shown stitched together as if sealed to safeguard some great secret.17

St Peter (with keys) and St Mary with radiant vessel.
Detail from the main apse of St Peter of El Burgal.
(Wikimedia Commons)
In one painting from the main apse of St Peter of El Burgal the Virgin is seated next to St Peter and She is holding a ciborium, of similar construction to the Chalice of Dona Uracca, with a central container mounted between two cups or bowls, the lower one inverted to form the base. The ciborium from St Peter's, as with all other representations from these nine churches in the Catalonia region, emits a radiance from the blood within.18

In can be of little coincidence that the Grail romances appeared just as Eucharistic devotion was gaining favour at the same time as the recovery of relics of the Passion from the Holy Land became the driving theme of the Crusades.

In addition to its use at the Last Supper, the cup of the First Mass, the Holy Grail was said to have been used to catch the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion. The “Chalice at the Cross” motif that had emerged at the end of the first millennium showing the Chalice in the hands of Ecclesia as the first representation of the Grail Maiden was in existence several hundred years before the first Grail Romances were written.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. William Kibler and Carleton Carroll, trans. Chretien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Penguin Classics, 1991.
2. DDR Owen, The Evolution of the Grail Legend, University of St Andrews, 1968.
3. Ibid.
4. Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, trans. A. Hatto, Penguin Classics, 1980.
5. Ibid p.125.
6. Ibid p.240.
7. Dell Skeels, Didot Perceval or, The Romance of Perceval in Prose: A Translation, University Of Washington Press, 1966. >> Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective.
8. Ibid.
9. Nigel Bryant, trans. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances attributed to Robert de Boron, D.S.Brewer, 2008.
10. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998.
11. Ibid.
12.  John Matthews, ed. Sources of the Grail: An Anthology, Floris Books, 1996, p.351.
13. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, p.344 (fn.15).
14. Linda Malcor, The Chalice at the Cross, 1991.
15. Ian Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall, editors, A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, BRILL, 2011.
16. Joseph Goering, The Virgin and the Grail, Yale, 2005.
17. How else would you paint sealed lips? – see Urgell and the Holy Grail.
18. Goering, op cit.

* * *

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Grail: A Holy Thing?

[Grail]...….(in medieval legend) the cup or platter used by Christ at the Last Supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea received Christ's blood at the Cross. Quests for it undertaken by medieval knights are described in versions of the Arthurian legends written from the early 13th century onward. 

The Story of the Grail
Today we see the Holy Grail as a legendary sacred vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, identified with the chalice of the Eucharist. Three of the four Gospels of the New Testament specifically mention a cup or platter at the Last Supper when Christ poured wine into a cup and urged the Disciples to drink of his blood.

This same vessel is said to have been the dish used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather the Precious Blood of Christ at the deposition. But none of the Gospels mention a vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea, or anyone else, to collect the Blood of Christ while on the Cross.

The Last Supper
As much as Celtic scholars have endeavoured to find the origins of the Grail story in Celtic mythology, locating cauldrons of plenty and lances dripping blood, they have failed to find an exemplar text for the story of Perceval. The main accounts of the Grail come from the mediaeval Romances, the majority of which were written between 1180 and 1240 AD during a flurry of literary activity. Three key texts have had significant influence on the object we today regard as the Holy Grail.

The story of the Grail commences with Chrétien de Troyes and was entitled Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, or the Story of the Grail), written between 1180 and 1190 AD. No extant manuscript containing Chrétien’s romances is contemporary with the author himself. Chrétien fails to describe the Grail in any great detail, and refers to it as simply “a grail” (un graal) as if his readers would be familiar with this term. An alternative argument suggests  Chrétien did not himself understand what the 'Grail' actually was. Chrétien writes of the Grail in only 25 of some 9,000 lines of the Conte du Graal. However, the grail was not the main subject of Chrétien's work; he wrote about Perceval's adventures and then Gawain who took up the quest.

In Chrétien's tale, Perceval witnesses a procession when he stays the night at the Fisher King's castle. Leading the procession is a squire carrying a white lance that drips blood from its tip. The procession continues with candelabras and then a maiden brings a "grail” that is so radiant it appears to dim the light from the candles. Perceval fails to ask what the lance or the grail are. The next morning the castle appears deserted and he leaves.

After wondering for five full years Perceval eventually meets a hermit, who is also his uncle, and is rebuked for bearing arms on Good Friday. The hermit explains that the Grail is a “holy thing” which sustains the Fisher King's father, the Grail King, by serving a single mass wafer. The passage bears extensive reference to the Passion and holds deep Christian feeling but oddly contains an exceptionally bitter mention of the Jews “who should be killed like dogs”. This passage has been described as untypical of Chrétien who normally writes in an unemotional and tolerant manner. Consequently the passage has been identified as an addition to the original manuscript by a later hand.

Chrétien's story then switches to Gawain who goes in search of the bleeding lance for one year. A vassal foretells that the lance will one day destroy the kingdom of Logres (England). Unfortunately Chrétien's account breaks off virtually mid-sentence and was left incomplete. This has led to a multitude of tales following Chrétien that have attempted to fill in the gaps with divergent interpretations and, notably, the description of the Grail.

A series of Continuations and Prologues (The Elucidation) of the Conte du Graal, composed c.1200-1230, added another 40,000 lines in an attempt to bring Chrétien's tale to a satisfactory conclusion with Gawain finally attaining the Holy Grail, but in reality confused the matter even further mixing pagan Celtic themes with further Christianisation of the Grail. In the First Continuation the bleeding lance is identified as the spear used by Longinus to pierce Christ's side when he hung on the cross. There had been much interest in the lance since it was discovered in Antioch in 1098 during the First Crusade.

Inspired by the equation of Chrétien's lance with that of the crucifixion, the addition of the Grail as a second relic of the Passion soon followed. A passage identified as a clear interpolation into some manuscript copies of the First Continuation tells how the Grail was the vessel in which Christ's blood was caught by Joseph of Arimathea who subsequently brought it to England where it has been ever since in the safe keeping of one of his descendants. The interpolator seems to hold a preoccupation with the circumstances of the Passion and the part played by the Jews; the passage in the First Continuation bears a strong resemblance to the hermit passage in the Conte du Graal and we can justifiably suspect the same hand as being responsible. But it remains unanswered as to what inspired the interpolator of Conte du Graal to Christianise the objects of Chrétien's grail procession into relics of Christ's Crucifixion?

Thus, the Christian mysticism of the Grail begins with with the First Continuator - not Chrétien, who's original work never links the grail with the chalice of the Last Supper; it is probable that he had something else in mind. We have no record of Chrétien's death; perhaps he purposefully left his work unfinished as a master stroke to puzzle us still 800 years later? If so it certainly worked. But it also left the Grail open to the interpretations of a multitude of other writers.

The Damsel of the Holy Grail
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
The next Grail Romance, entitled Parzival, was penned by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the first quarter of the 13th century. In Parzival, the Grail is described as a green stone, lapsit exillis, that fell from the Heavens. Wolfram claims that Chrétien's tale failed to do the subject justice and cited his source as a poet from Provence named Kyot. Some scholars believe Wolfram might have meant Guiot de Provins, a French troubadour from the Champagne area.

According to Wolfram, Kyot had uncovered a forgotten Arabic manuscript written by Flegetanis, a Muslim astronomer who had found the secrets of the Grail written in the stars. However, many sceptics believe Kyot the Provençal was simply a literary device invented by Wolfram to permit his deviations from the Conte du Graal, but as with  Chrétien, Wolfram does not link the Grail with the Chalice of the Last Supper. Significantly the first two medieval romances to feature the Grail do not link it with a relic of the Passion.

Robert de Boron was the first author to give the Holy Grail myth an explicitly Christian dimension when it became the 'Holy Grail' the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper. Boron was author of two surviving poems, the Joseph d'Arimathe and the Merlin, thought to have been part of an intended trilogy along with the Perceval which has not survived.

Relics of the Passion
In de Boron's account the emphasis was placed firmly on the history of the Grail as a Holy relic, whereas Chrétien's focus was firmly on the adventures of Perceval and then Gawain. Chrétien's simple serving dish, “un graal,” had now developed into the Holy Grail, a Christian relic of the Passion brought back from the Holy Land. Clearly, de Boron had something quite different in mind to Chrétien and Wolfram.

According to Boron, writing between 1200 to 1210 AD, relying heavily on apocryphal texts omitted from the official version of the Bible such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea used the Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ's body as he hung on the cross. Joseph's family brought the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, in the west, which later poets identified with Avalon at Glastonbury. These ideas seem to have been inspired by the patrons of the Grail Romances on returning from the Holy Land.

At the end of the Joseph d'Arimathe de Boron states he is in the service of Gautier of "Mont Belyal", identified as Gautier de Montbéliard who departed on the Fourth Crusade in 1202 AD and died in the Holy Land. Robert is said to have been originally from the village of Boron in the district of Montbéliard.

Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders from 1168 to 1191 AD, was the man said to be the patron of Chrétien's last romance, Conte du Graal. In the opening lines, Chrétien honours Philip with praise for providing him with the book he adapted into the "best tale ever told in a royal court". Philip's father was Thierry of Alsace, also  known as Diederik van den Elzas, Count of Flanders from 1128 to 1168 AD, who joined the Second Crusade in 1147 AD.

According to tradition, Thierry returned to his capital Bruges on 7th April, 1150 AD, with the relic of the “Precious Blood” a cloth that Joseph of Arimathea used to wipe blood from the body of Christ after the Crucifixion. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built between 1134 and 1157 AD as the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders, to house the venerated relic of the Holy Blood. However, this cannot be verified until 1256 AD and we cannot dismiss the possibility that it was a later invention.

However,  as we have seen above, the writers of the Continuations, clearly felt that Chrétien's tale was meant to conclude with the relics of the Passion.

The Early History of the Grail
The earliest accounts of the Grail appear to have formed their roots from contact with the Holy Land during the Crusades. Many claimants to the Holy Grail are cited as relics brought back from the Holy Land during this period; perhaps we should not be surprised as the recovery of Christian relics was the stimulus for the Crusades; Pope Urban II delivered his “call to arms” speech at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095 to liberate the eastern churches.

Before Robert de Boron and the Continuations of Chrétien's Conte du Graal produced these literary renditions of the Holy Grail there were stories of relics from the Passion. Relics claiming to be the Holy Lance, Holy Sponge, Holy Chalice, the Crown of Thorns and nails from the cross were all venerated well before 1,000 AD.

Writing around 1200 AD, the first reference outside of the Bible to the dish of the Last Supper, the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus recorded that in 717 AD a hermit was shown a vision of the dish of the Last Supper. This learned hermit then wrote a book in Latin, entitled Gradale, the medieval Latin for ‘dish’; in English it was the 'Grail'.

But the earliest account of the Chalice and Lance to be recorded appears in the account of Arculf, a pilgrim who travelled from the British Isles to Palestine in the 7th century, and claimed he saw both the Chalice of the Last Supper and the Holy Lance that pierced the side of Christ when he hung on the cross.

On his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (c. 680), Arculf was driven by storm to Scotland and so arrived at the Hebridean island of Iona, where he related his experiences to his host, Abbot St. Adamnan. Adamnan’s narrative of Arculf’s journey, De locis sanctis (Concerning Sacred Places), was noted by Bede, who inserted a brief summary of it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Arculf claimed he touched and kissed the silver chalice, which had the measure of a Gaulish pint and two handles on either side, through an opening of the perforated lid of the reliquary in a chapel between the basilica of Golgotha and the Martyrium, near Jerusalem. He saw the Holy Lance in the porch of the basilica of Constantine. This is the earliest mention of the Chalice of the Last Supper in the Holy Land and the only account that claims it is made of silver. Nothing is heard of it again.

Perhaps the earliest depiction of the "Holy Grail" is found in the 9th century in a psalter showing a figure at the Crucifixion collecting Christ's blood in a chalice. A miniature from the mid-9th century Utrecht Psalter shows an unidentified figure with a halo at the foot of the cross with a chalice into which Christ's blood flows. This figure is usually described as Ecclesia.

Ecclesia appears with a female Jewish partner (Church and Synagogue) in several pieces of later Carolingian art featuring the Crucifixion dating from c.870 AD and commonly appearing in miniatures and various small works until the 10th century. Ecclesia first appears in a Crucifixion scene in the Drogo Sacramentary of c.830 AD.

Crucifixion with Ecclesia and Synagoga, Notre-Dame des Douleurs, Marienthal, Alsace

Ecclesia and Synagoga are often found standing on either side of the cross in scenes of the Crucifixion, especially in Romanesque art. Ecclesia is generally adorned with a crown, chalice and cross-topped staff, while Synagoga is blindfolded and looking down, carrying a broken lance with Law Tablets that appear to be slipping from her grasp. The lance is often seen as an allusion to the Holy Lance used to pierce Christ's side at the Crucifixion. Ecclesia is often holding a chalice that catches the blood flowing from the wound, said to represent the Christian Eucharist. The pair are interpreted as the new church of Christianity and the old Jewish faith that turned its back on the Crucifixion.

Significantly, illuminated Gospel manuscripts always depict the figures at the side of the Crucifixion as Ecclesia and Synagoga, with Ecclesia always collecting the blood of Christ in a chalice. Whereas de Boron's Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus only appear in Crucifixion scenes in Medieval Grail manuscripts with one exception. An illuminated manuscript at Weingarten Abbey in Germany is illustrated with a Crucifixion scene showing what appears to be Joseph and Nicodemus removing Christ's body from the cross and an unidentified figure holding a chalice collecting the Holy blood. This manuscript pre-dates Robert de Boron's history of the Grail by a hundred years, suggesting the story was in circulation well before de Boron penned his account. Significantly, Wiengarten houses the Holy relic of the Precious Blood said to have been caught in a leaden box from the wound inflicted in Christ's side by Longinus.The box was buried at Mantua in Lombardy, Italy, and miraculously discovered in 804 AD.

In Christiain iconography the personification of Ecclesia preceded her coupling with Synagoga by several centuries, where she is depicted as the Bride of Christ, the church was in this context conflated with the Virgin, leading to the concept of Maria Ecclesia, or Mary as the church.

Is the depiction of Ecclesia bearing the chalice containing Christ's blood the origin of the Grail Maiden? There is evidence, pre-dating the first Grail Romance of Chrétien, suggesting that this is indeed the case.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
DDR Owen, The Evolution of the Grail Legend, University of St Andrews, 1968.
Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Allen Lane, 2004.

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Monday 11 August 2014

The Chalice of Doña Urraca: Is this the Holy Grail?

There are reputedly an estimated 200 different cups and chalices across Europe claiming to be the Holy Grail. Earlier this year another was added to the list.

The Chalice of Doña Urraca
Visitors flocked to the museum of the San Isidoro basilica in Leon after Spanish historians Margarita Torres and José Ortega del Río claimed to have discovered the Holy Grail. In their new book “The Kings of the Grail” Torres and del Río identify part of the Chalice of Doña Urraca, held in a church in León in northern Spain, as the legendary a 2,000-year-old vessel that Jesus supposedly drank from at the Last Supper.

After three years studying the history of the chalice Torres and del Río published their book at the end of March earlier this year. The news, released suspiciously close to All Fool's Day, immediately went viral on the net, and was dismissed by some as just another hoax along with the many stories released at this time that included archaeologists from Nottingham had found Robin Hood’s bones, Boudicca’s grave was finally located under King’s Cross station and plans were revealed to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall to its full height, should Scotland gain independence. And some.

The Chalice of Dona Urraca
Torres and del Río claim an onyx chalice was originally lined with gold and concealed within another antique vessel known as the Chalice of Doña Urraca located in León’s basilica of Saint Isidore where it has been there since the 11th century. Oddly the curators of the church's collection seem to have been totally oblivious to the proposal and have never marketed the Chalice of Doña Urraca as the “true” Holy Grail.

The chalice is said to have been constructed in the 10th century from two antique onyx cups combined by a frame made out of gold and embellished with stones and jewels. Detailed study has revealed the two onyx cups are indeed two Roman cups dating from around the 1st century. Comparable conversions of Classical onyx vessels into chalices had been accomplished for the emperor Romanus in Constantinople in the 10th century.

The chalice bears an inscription made in beaded gold letters recording that it was presented as a gift from Urraca to the palace church in Léon. Doña Urraca (1032 -1101 AD) was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand I and sister to Alfonso VI, King of Castile-Leon. Doña and her sister Elvira were in charge of the monasteries of the realm. A chronicle records that she “adorned sacred altars and the vestments of the clergy with gold, silver and precious stones”.

The materials and techniques employed for the Urraca chalice have their closest parallels in the products of the German imperial workshops of the middle of the 11th century. Similar German influence can be seen in the work of the reliquary of Saint Isidore presented to the treasury of San Isidoro as a gift of Ferdinand I, king of Castile-Léon (1015 – 1065 AD) and his wife Sancha, who granted a host of objects to the new palatine church in 1063 on the occasion of the arrival there of the relics of Saint Isidore of Seville.

The kingdom of León encompassed the north-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula. It had begun as the kingdom of the Asturias, a narrow strip of land behind a range of mountains that after the invasion served as an effective barrier to Islamic occupation, the first Christian political entity established following the conquest of the Visigothic kingdom by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate in the first quarter of the 8th century. The Kingdom received its name early in the 10th century when Fruela II became king and moved the royal court south from Oviedo to León, a city whose name reflected its origin as the headquarters of a Roman legion in the first century. Under King Ferdinand I the city developed as a much more important capital.

Under Ferdinand I, during the second half of the 11th century, appropriated objects of Islamic manufacture were joined in the San Isidoro treasury by sumptuous liturgical arts that had become increasingly Germanic in character. An entire collection of Islamic boxes, most of which carry Arabic Inscriptions, can be found in the treasury of San Isidoro and among the items enumerated in the extraordinary charter of 1063 were a number of textiles designated specifically as Islamic in manufacture.

Torres told the Irish Times that while they had been researching the history of some Islamic remains in the Saint Isidoro basilica they discovered two medieval Egyptian documents that mentioned the Chalice of Christ.

The parchments told of how Muslims took a sacred cup from the Christian community in Jerusalem to Cairo. It was then given as a diplomatic gift to “Ferdinand, emir of Léon” on Spain’s Mediterranean coast in return for help he gave to Egyptians who were suffering a famine. Later Doña Urraca, his daughter, had the onyx cups mounted in a gold frame and presented it to the palace church in Léon, later to become the Cathedral of San Isidoro.

Torres and del Río's claims have been supported by scientific dating, which estimates that the onyx cup was made between 200 BC - 100 AD. Yet Medieval experts doubt the dramatic claims insisting the existence of the Grail is a myth, nothing more than a literary invention of the 12th century and not a real drinking vessel.

However, Torres and del Río do not actually claim that the chalice is the Holy Grail; they argue that they simply found early traces of a community who believed that it was. The Spanish historians admit it would now be impossible to prove the chalice was actually the origin of the Eucharist, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, as the first 400 years of the cup’s history are unknown and remain a total mystery. Yet Torres and del Río insist there is no doubt that this is the cup that early Christians revered as the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper which made the journey to Cairo and then from Cairo to León.

I guess it all depends on what one means by the Holy Grail?

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Los Reyes del Grial
By Margarita Torres Sevilla y José Miguel Ortega del Río
Reino de Cordelia 2014
ISBN-10: 8415973292
ISBN-13: 978-8415973294

The book is currently only available in Spanish.


The Kings of the Grail by Margarita Torres Sevilla and Jose Miguel Ortega del Rio was published in English on 2nd April 2015 by Michael O'Mara Books.

J Matthews review on Amazon:

"......The most interesting part of the book is the material from Islamic sources, which have been largely ignored by researchers in the past. It is possible to see evidence of a vessel which seems to gave been carried from the Holy Land to Spain, but the date is late ( 11th century) and there is not enough evidence of its whereabouts before this. The argument that this relic was kept in the treasury of the Kings of Leon for hundreds of years, during which time they never once spoke it it, seems tenuous at best......In all, those who continue to seek out the history of the many Grails found around the world, would find this interesting, but it does not convince."

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