Bible Review 20:4, August 2004

From Symbol to Relic

How Jesus’ Cup Became the Grail

By Eric Wargo

Throughout the long history of Christianity, the Holy Grail has served primarily as a symbol. As Ben Witherington III notes in the preceding article, no early Christian writings indicate that the cup used at the Last Supper survived or was preserved as a relic. Jesus’ first followers regarded the cup as a symbol of salvation, and nothing else. In modern times, the vessel now known as the Holy Grail has become a metaphor for any ever-elusive ideal or never-ending quest.

But in the late Middle Ages—in the late 12th and 13th centuries—and again in the 19th century, the search for this relic of the Last Supper was transformed into a very real mission—one that consumed the passions, money and blood of seekers.

In a recent comprehensive study, The Holy Grail, British historian and literary scholar Richard Barber traces the history of the Holy Grail through its many literary manifestations, and shows how some sketchy biblical and apocryphal references became a medieval emblem of redemption.1 According to Barber, the earliest evidence of interest in the cup of the Last Supper as a relic appears in a late-seventh-century C.E. account of a pilgrimage to Palestine by a Frankish bishop named Arculf. Having been shipwrecked on his return voyage, Arculf was invited to stay at the abbey of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where he regaled the local abbot, Adomnan, with tales of his journey. Adomnan later recorded the tales in a three-volume work, De Locis Sanctis or Concerning the Holy Places.

Of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Adomnan writes:

Between the basilica of Golgotha and the Martyrium, there is a chapel in which is the chalice of the Lord, which he himself blessed with his own hand and gave to the apostles when reclining with them at supper the day before he suffered. The chalice is silver, has the measure of a Gaulish pint, and has two handles fashioned on either side ... After the Resurrection, the Lord drank from this same chalice, according to the supping with the apostles. The holy Arculf saw it, and through an opening of the perforated lid of the reliquary where it reposes, he touched it with his own hand which he had kissed.2

Unfortunately there is no other historical mention of this silver chalice.

The term that has come to denote this wonderful object, grail, first appears in the prose romance Perceval, by the French writer Chrétien de Troyes. Left unfinished at the author’s death in 1190, the story concerns a young, would-be knight who visits the mysterious castle of the Fisher King, where he witnesses a strange procession, in which a gem-encrusted gold dish called a “grail” is used to carry a host (communion wafer) to an ailing old man. It is not yet identified as the “Holy Grail”—or even specifically described as a relic of the Last Supper—although at one point it is described as “such a Holy thing.” Adhering too strictly to his first lesson in manners—don’t ask unnecessary questions—Perceval fails to inquire about the objects he has seen, and later in the story he is informed, first by a mysterious woman and then by an old hermit, that he should have asked. The procession Perceval witnesses also includes a boy carrying a lance that bleeds from its tip, which may well refer to the lance used by the centurion to pierce Jesus’ side on the cross (John 19:34). If so, the Grail of the tale may also be supposed to be an artifact of the Passion; but since the author never finished his story, we have no way of knowing for certain what he intended.

Perhaps because Chrétien left so many questions unanswered, the theme of the Grail and a knightly quest to discover its secret fired the imaginations of his contemporaries. Within a few decades, several other writers had either tried to finish his story or offered wholly new versions. Two influential examples are the richly symbolic Parzival, by the well-traveled German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach, which alludes to the arcane lore of alchemy and gemstones and Islamic philosophy that the author picked up in his travels, and the three-part poem L’Estoire dou Graal, The History of the Grail, by the French writer Robert de Boron. It is in this latter work, from the first decade of the 13th century, that the Grail is first specifically identified as a vessel used at the Last Supper. Boron’s poem traces the cup’s journey from Jerusalem to “the land in the West”—which many take to mean Britain—where it becomes central to the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

With the exception of Wolfram, who describes the Grail as a jewel-encrusted stone, most writers agreed that the Grail was some kind of vessel. But what kind, exactly? The Gospels mention both a cup and a dish (for example Matthew 26:23, 27: “He answered, ‘He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me’ ... And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you ...’”), and the medieval writers are often unclear which one is meant. The word grail, possibly from the Latin gradalis, appears originally to have meant a broad platter for serving meats. Robert de Boron and some other writers seem to describe it as a bowl or dish. The term may also be related to Greek krater, a broad chalice with handles. Later writers tended to gravitate to the idea that the Holy Grail was a cup or chalice, and this has remained the most common interpretation.

Robert de Boron’s poem also goes into great detail on the vessel’s origins, describing how one of Jesus’ followers, Joseph of Arimathea, obtains the cup of the Last Supper from Pontius Pilate after the Crucifixion. Joseph is then imprisoned, but is visited by the risen Jesus who brings him the Grail, which sustains him during his 40 years of imprisonment. After his release, Joseph builds a “Grail Table” with 13 seats to commemorate the Last Supper, and gives the Grail to his brother-in-law Bron, who carries it to the “Vale of Avaron” in the western land. Later, the wizard Merlin counsels Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, to create a Round Table based on Joseph’s Grail Table.

Robert de Boron’s poem also introduces another, pseudo-biblical element to the Grail’s growing symbolism: Joseph of Arimathea reuses the Last Supper cup to collect Jesus’ blood when he buries his master after the Crucifixion.

For this embellishment, Robert de Boron is drawing not on the Gospels, which mention Joseph of Arimathea only briefly—as the disciple who received permission from Pilate to bury Jesus in an empty tomb near the place of Crucifixion (Matthew 27:57–61 and parallels)—but on the fourth-century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate.a This fourth-century text, which circulated widely in the Middle Ages and which Robert significantly retells in the first part of his poem, elaborates on the role not only of Joseph but also of Pilate, the rich Jew Nicodemus who assists Joseph in the burial, and the centurion (here named Longinus) who impales Jesus with a lance during the Crucifixion. The Gospel of Nicodemus does not, however, say that Joseph uses the burial as an opportunity to collect Jesus’ blood. The idea may be Robert’s own, but a number of illuminations and artworks from as early as the ninth century show various figures, including the allegorical lady Ecclesia (Church), gathering Jesus’ blood in a cup as he dies on the cross. These pictures may point to a textual tradition, now lost, that may have influenced Robert.3

The strong link between the Grail and Jesus’ saving blood and body show that the Grail was, for medieval writers, a symbol of the Eucharist, the central ritual of the church. In Robert’s poem, when Jesus gives Joseph the Grail, he explains to his disciple that it is to be used for the Eucharist. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the symbolism of the Mass is more oblique but still hard to miss: His Grail is a large stone dispensing food and wine to spiritually pure knights, and “recharged” periodically by a communion wafer brought from heaven by a dove (symbol of the holy spirit). And in Chrétien’s original story, the Grail is a vessel carrying a communion wafer. Part of young Perceval’s later education includes a lesson in the importance of the Mass for his spiritual salvation; his confusion during his initial encounter with the Grail partly represents his spiritual immaturity, his inability to appreciate the importance of the Mass.

After the turn of the second millennium, “heretical” groups, such as the Cathar movement that flourished in southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries, increasingly challenging church orthodoxy—especially the belief that the Eucharist was the sole avenue to salvation. Since it could only be administered by a priest, the Eucharist represented the ecclesiastical authority that the dissenters rejected. As part of their struggle to discredit heretics, the church in turn placed increasing emphasis on the Eucharist, devoting much brainpower—and ink—to clarifying how it worked. The term transubstantiation was coined in the 12th century to denote how, when blessed by the priest, the Eucharist wine literally changed into Jesus’ blood and the wafer into his flesh; this idea rose to prominence in church doctrine in the 13th century.

The Holy Grail is best understood in light of this theological issue. The secular writers who penned the Grail romances wove a mystique around the Mass, romanticizing it in the popular idiom of the adventure tale. Contrary to some modern Grail conspiracy theories that suggest that the Grail represents some heretical belief suppressed by the church, the Grail stories were actually very orthodox in their theology and reflected the religious conservatism of the courts in which they were popular. According to Barber, they can even be read as a kind of secular propaganda, as “a kind of call to arms to the chivalry of Europe against the forces threatening the Church.”4

We have no way of knowing whether the writers of these romances thought of the Grail just as a symbol or also as a relic that careful seekers might rediscover. Certainly, they penned their stories in an age when relics were revered and valued as having miraculous powers. At Antioch in 1099, during the First Crusade, the unexpected discovery of a spear believed to be the centurion’s lance that pierced Jesus’ side (and that would later figure in the Grail stories) boosted the morale of an outnumbered Frankish army enough to defeat the Turks surrounding them. A supposed piece of the True Cross was repeatedly carried into battle by the Christian armies defending Jerusalem in the 12th century.b And by the time of the Grail romances, relics of the Holy Blood were already known at various sites around Europe.

No doubt the Grail stories, with their promise of mystery, challenge and salvation, helped inspire the search for relics. The late-12th-century historian William of Tyre describes an emerald bowl found in a mosque in Caesarea during the First Crusade and brought back to Genoa as booty. It was identified as the Grail in the late 13th century by Jacobus de Voragine (author of the medieval best-seller, the Golden Legend), in his Chronicle of Genoa, and his identification was no doubt based on the Grail romances. The vessel, called Il Sacro Catino (“Sacred Bowl”), was taken to Paris after Napoleon conquered Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, but was later returned, broken. It can still be seen in Genoa’s cathedral; it is clearly made of green glass, not emerald, and it was probably made in the 11th century. Another object, an agate chalice or caliz in the cathedral of Valencia, Spain, has also been connected to the Last Supper. According to medieval legend, Peter brought the vessel with him to Rome and it was later spirited away to Spain during a period of Christian persecution. The agate upper portion of the cup could date to the Roman period—there is no way to precisely date it—but its elaborately crafted mount is medieval.5

Stories about the Holy Grail all but died out with the Reformation. Protestant reformers had no use for relics, real or imagined. Nor did they accept the real presence of Christ—that is, transubstantiation—in the Eucharistic rite. For the reformers, as for earlier heretical movements, salvation came from personal merits and faith, not from participation in the Mass.

But the antiquarian search for the Grail as an actual artifact gathered new steam in the 19th century, along with a renewed scholarly and popular interest in the fictional works that first told of the knightly quests for this wonderful object. The Romantic movement had revived interest in Arthurian legends, both in Germany, where Richard Wagner composed his great opera Parsifal, and in England, where the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King) created a misty picture of England’s remote heroic past. Early in the 20th century, the former abbey and hill at Glastonbury, in Somerset, became known as a place where the real Holy Grail might still be buried, due to the revival of a medieval legend that Joseph of Arimathea had come there in the first century and founded the first Christian church in Britain. That legend was probably concocted by the abbey’s publicity-seeking monks early in the 13th century, when the Grail was firing the imagination of Europe. (A few years earlier, in the late 12th century, the Glastonbury monks had also claimed to find the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere on their grounds.) It was shrewd PR that had lasting effect: Now Glastonbury has become a magnet for Grail-seekers, as well as tourists and New Agers of all stripes.6

And Grails have never stopped turning up—in archaeological sites, private collections, churches, you name it. Modern candidates for the holy cup include an elaborate silver Eucharist chalice or lamp found near Antioch in 1908 and currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; identified in the 1930s as the Holy Grail, it has more recently been dated to the sixth century. One still-popular theory holds that the Holy Grail remains hidden somewhere in Scotland’s Roslyn Chapel. As late as the past decade, numerous other ancient and medieval vessels in private collections have been put forth by their owners as candidates for the Grail.

Modern writers have tended to turn the Holy Grail into a symbol for any sort of ideal or quest—whatever we feel will redeem or save us. One rather ingenious modern reinterpretation is that the Holy Grail, san greal in the original French, was really sang real or “royal blood.” Redividing the French words in this way was originally suggested by a 15th-century English writer, referring to England’s hero-king Arthur, but the idea was revived and given a sensational, biblical twist in the 1982 bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail.7 The authors of that book suggested that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and fathered a lineage of French kings—this secret bloodline being the real Holy Grail. Drawing heavily on their work as well as on Gnostic texts that seem to suggest a close or sexual relation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Dan Brown’s recent bestseller The Da Vinci Code has widely popularized the idea that the Holy Grail is a code word for the royal (or holy) bloodline of Jesus.8 While these ideas make for exciting reading, there is nothing to substantiate them. The stories of Jesus’ physical affections for Mary are late and spurious.c

As historian Barber suggests, these fantastic ideas, as imaginative (and fun) as they are, actually represent a perennial need to reduce works of the imagination to something concrete—something that people hope may one day be found, like an actual physical cup (or plate, or chalice), or a long-buried scroll listing Jesus’ descendants. The truth is something much harder to grasp and accept: The Holy Grail is a symbol, a metaphor and an idea that sprang from the fertile imaginations of medieval storytellers. You will find it digging in books, legends and myths, but not in the ground.