Friday, September 03, 2010

News Flash: Holy Grail Has Been Found

The Holy Grail, by Arthur Rackham, 19th C.

This may be disappointing. This may be bad news for romantics. It's been found in Valencia Cathedral, where it has been hiding in plain sight for six hundred years.
Not as romantic as some of the legends, perhaps.
The Holy Grail, of course, is the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, the first and original communion chalice. The quest for this relic is of course a central theme of Medieval romance. Parsifal, King Arthur, and all.

It really was lost, or at least in hiding, for centuries. But not since the Renaissance.
Here's the full story, as understood in Valencia, and as recounted in the book "St. Laurence and the Holy Grail," by Janice Bennett. After Jesus's death, the owners of the Upper Room, reputedly relatives of Mark the Evangelist, gave Peter the simple agate cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, as a memento. The apostles, after all, were still meeting there regularly, after the crucifixion. It was only fitting that the cup go to Peter: he was the acknowledged leader of the apostles, and so would have officiated at their masses in the Upper Room. Peter, naturally enough, took it with him whenever he travelled, so that he could always celebrate communion using the actual cup Jesus himself used for the first communion.
So, when Peter went to Rome, the cup came too. When Peter was martyred there, it became one of the prized possessions of the See of Rome and of the papacy.

Then, under Valerian, came an especially severe persecution, in which Pope Sixtus II, among many others, was martyred. St. Lawrence, the treasurer of the Roman diocese, was commanded by the emperor to surrender all of the church's treasures. Lawrence asked for three days in which to gather the assets. He used the three days instead to scatter them to safe refuges, meantime gathering a group of poor and infirm parishoners to present as the "real treasures" of the church.

He was, as you may recall, put to death by being roasted alive for this impudence.

Among those treasures was the grail. Lawrence was from Huesca, in Spain; he entrusted the grail to a fellow townsman, Precellius, who smuggled it back to Huesca.

We have independent confirmation that the grail was displayed in the Cathedral of Huesca in 533 AD, after the Roman persecutions had ended.

Then came the Muslim invasions. Starting in 711, they began to conquer the Iberian peninsula south to north, at various times taking all of Spain up to the Pyrenees, and threatening France beyond. They were not finally driven out until the 1490s.

This is when and why the grail went missing: to protect it from the Muslims, it was hidden for centuries in various caves and isolated monasteries, mostly in the Pyrenees, to avoid falling into Muslim hands.

And here we are in the Medieval period, and just at the time and place where the tradition of Medieval romance was born--the land of the troubadours, southern France, just beyond the Pyrenees. Everyone there surely knew of the grail, and everyone knew it was hidden in some secret place, although very few would know the true location. Hence the Grail quests, and the romantic legends around them. In Chretien de Troyes's time, it was still incommunicado; he wrote the epic poem "Parsifal," the first written source to mention the Grail quest. The quality of his work spread the legend throughout Europe: to Germany, and Wolfram von Eschenbach second version of "Parsifal," which he himself claimed came from the traditions of Provencal, of southern France; and to the writers of the "Welsh Romances," earliest British source for the King Arthur tales. Both von Eschenbach and the Welsh bards were also still writing in the time when the Grail was missing.

But in 1399, the Muslim danger largely passed, the cup re-emerges, to be displayed once again in the relatively secure cathedral of Barcelona, in Spain's northeast corner. Later it is shifted further south, to Valencia, roughly midway down the peninsula, as the Muslim power further recedes.

And there it remains today.


The Grail as it appears today. Roland Noe, Creative Commons license.

Cynics scoff that the cup you see in Valencia Cathedral cannot be the true Grail, because it is too elaborate. This is either ignorance or deliberate deceit. The cup is a simple round agate cup, without adornment, of exactly the sort known to have been commonly used in first-century Palestine. It looks ornate because it has been placed in a gold stand. This, record show, was done in 1744, after the cup was once dropped and broken, in order to preserve it from future mishaps.

You hear similar cynical comments about the Holy Rood, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Mention it, and you will almost inevitably hear that "if all the pieces of the holy cross scattered over Europe were put together, you would have a whole ocean of crosses."

Someone actually tried that experiment. They took the measurements of all such claimed cross fragments, added them all together--and came up with a block of wood barely sufficient to make the crossbeam, not even the full cross.

The wide distribution of pieces of the Cross is due to the same cause as the Grail legends. Invading Muslims, when they took Jerusalem, seized the Rood, and the Christian world had to pay a stiff ransom to recover it. To ensure that this could not happen again, the cross was then hacked up, and its pieces scattered throughout Europe, This would ensure it could never be completely lost again.

And so with the Grail.

What we see in Valencia may not be the real Holy Grail. Pre-Modern sources are always sparse and questionable. But the story, and the lineage, is entirely plausible; the sources seem to corroborate; and archaeologists have discovered time and again that such ancient traditions, when they concern something people held to be of really great importance, are usually pretty accurate.

But so much for romance.

A Spanish Renaissance painting, rather inaccurately, shows Jesus using the Valencia Grail in its modern stand and a contemporary communion wafer at the Last Supper.

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