The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail in the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain

Healthy scpeticism is expected, but this seems to be the real deal.

The Holy Grail (Santo Caliz) in the Cathedral of Valencia, SpainYour quest for the Holy Grail is complete once you land in Valencia.

It is inevitable that such a seemengly bold claim will evoke a cynical grin from most people who hear of the Holy Grail kept in the Valencia Cathedral. However, and contrary to how it may seem, such scepticism is an uninformed reaction, rather than otherwise.

It is common knowledge that if you collect all the nails with which Jesus was cruxified, it turns out that the poor guy had a few hundred nails in Him. And you could build a house from all the wood that is claimed to be part of His cross. However, it is just not like that with the Cup that can be much more scientifically analysed and cross-examined with various historical records and references. As a result, every single claim in the world have been dispelled. Apart from that of the Valencia Cathedral. On the contrary – historians all over the world point all their evidence to this item as being the authentic Cup used in the Last Supper.

Hollywood has, as usual, impregnated the public with a pseudo-historical moment of truth. Indiana Jones speculates that the Cup was wooden since Jesus was a carpenter. Well, shoe-makers don’t drink from leather cups and blacksmiths don’t make their own steel mugs. While it would be absurd to see a golden or platinum cup used by Jesus, it is also a bit silly to expect Him to have found time in His very busy schedule to make all kinds of cutlery and domestic items for His following, rather than just buy one on the market or have one donated. Porous wooden cups, impractical and forbidden for the Jewish Passover, are unlikely to have been used by Him.

In fact, the Cup is made of agate stone – a popular material for drink vessels in those times. It is a homogenous piece cut out entirely from a lare chunk of agate, 9 cm in diameter. Naturally, decorations of gold and pearls were added to the supporting structure over the centuries.

The Holy Grail is believed to had been left in the house where the Last Supper took place – a house belonging to the family of St Mark the Evangelists, who later took it to Rome when he went to serve as an interpreter for St Peter. Passed on within the church and used as Papal Chalice, the relic was shipped out of Rome in 3rd century by St Lawrence, in anticipation of a persecution. It was taken out of Rome in the hands of a Spanish soldier to Huesca, Spain. During the Muslim occupation of the Iberic peninsula, the Grail went into hiding and later re-emerged in various Spanish monasteries and cathedrals. The Kings of Spain looked after it, on occasions taking it into their treasuries or palaces, until it was finally presented to the Valencia Cathedral in XV century, where it remained ever since. It briefly left the Cathedral only twice, both times during the 1930s Civil War, for fears of plunder.

To be totally fair, the Cup in the Antioch Cathedral also passes tests on authenticity. However, it is way too large to be passed around as a cup. Records refer to two cups being used in the Last Supper – one as a communal tank for wine and the other as a cup to drink from.

By William Hansard.

The heroic march “Homeward Bound” by Jack Trombey is best recognized as the theme from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the ever-popular spoof of the Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages. These tales, in which the Knights of the Round Table set out on grand adventures to acquire the Grail, have endured for centuries. They have firmly implanted in our minds the metaphor of the Grail. Strangely though, we have limited sources regarding the historical Grail. What exactly is the Holy Grail? Does it really exist? Where might it be? For some, these questions would be nearly impossible to answer. Not so for the Fraternity of the Holy Chalice of Valencia.

The Fraternity was created in 1952 to promote worship of the Santo Cáliz de Valencia, pictured here. The relic is only the cup itself, which is a simple piece carved of fragile agate.[i] The stem, handles, and foot were added by medieval goldsmiths in order to protect the cup. There is a marked difference in the plainness of the cup and the ornate, stylistic decoration of the additions. The tradition tells us that this is the cup which Jesus used to introduce the Sacrament, and which according to some, that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Jesus’ blood after the Crucifixion.[ii][iii] How then, did it end up in Spain?

According to the history compiled by the Fraternity of the Holy Chalice, it was taken to Rome by St. Peter and kept there until approximately 256 AD, when the Roman emperor Valerian began persecuting Christians. Fearing the relic would be destroyed, Pope Sixtus II ordered his deacon, St. Lawrence, to send it to Lawrence’s hometown of Huesca, Spain. In 713 AD, the Chalice began a quiet journey across the Pyrenees, remaining hidden from the Islamic invaders. It returned to Huesca sometime before 1071, when it is mentioned in an inventory. The relic was given to King Martin the Humane of Aragon in 1399, and there it remained until 1410, when King Alfonso the Magnanimous gifted his collection of relics to Valencia. When the Peninsular War began in 1807, it was disappeared to the Balearic Islands, taking cover from Napoleon’s Grande Armée until their retreat in 1813. In 1916, the Chalice was given its current home in the Valencia Cathedral chapterhouse, now called the Holy Chalice Chapel.[iv]

Tempting as it might be to believe that this is the Holy Grail of legend, the legends themselves complicate things. For one, the Holy Grail and the Holy Chalice have not always been considered one and the same. As scholar Roger Sherman Loomis notes:

The Grail may be described as the dish from which Christ ate… during the Last Supper; or as the chalice of the first sacrament… or as a stone with miraculous feeding and youth-preserving virtues; or as a salver containing a man’s head…[v]

The earliest secular Grail legend is Li Contes del Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, a French poem written c.1180. In this story, the knight Perceval is shown an ornate platter by a crippled king. Perceval does not inquire about the object, and later learns that the Host served from it sustains life. Chrétien describes the Grail thusly:

The grail…
was of fine pure gold;
set in the grail were
precious stones of every kind,
the best and costliest
to be found in earth or sea
.[vi]

A little later, sometime around 1190, Robert de Boron creates another integral part of the Grail legend in his poem Joseph d’Aramathie. This work is not an Arthurian tale, but a history in which the idea of the Grail as the Chalice is introduced. The Chalice is gifted to Joseph by Pontius Pilate, and Joseph uses it to collect the blood and sweat of Christ after the Crucifixion.[vii] This work has its origins in the Gospel of Mark and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, both of which mention that Joseph is the one to take Jesus down from the cross and provide for his burial. The latter tells of Joseph’s supposed imprisonment by the Jews, during which time he is sustained by the Chalice.[viii][ix]

It is because of the secular and apocryphal nature of these stories that the Catholic Church has never recognized any relic as the true Holy Grail. The Catholic Encyclopedia remarks that, “the whole tradition concerning the Grail is of late origin and on many points at variance with historical truth.”[x] Protestants too, are uncomfortable with the Grail legends. Author John C. Wilson claims:

[Protestants] are likely to misunderstand the Holy Grail as a mystery of transubstantiation and the magic as superstition of the Middle Ages. Thus Christians of neither persuasion can find themselves at home in the Quest for the Holy Grail.[xi]

So what can the Santo Cáliz tell us about travel in the Middle Ages? It offers us more questions than answers. This is potentially one of the most sacrosanct relics in all Christendom, yet we do not hear tales of adventurers attempting to commit furta sacra, nor of pious pilgrims journeying to see it. There are travelers, such as Marco Polo, whom mention the Grail legend, but none mention the Santo Cáliz specifically. Not many even knew this relic existed. The Fraternity of the Holy Chalice now advertises pilgrimage to Valencia Cathedral, and regularly conducts worship of the Holy Chalice,[xii] but the organization did not yet exist in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church refused to recognize the relic, and those who did have faith in it kept it safely hidden. And so the Santo Cáliz sat gathering dust in reliquaries, while other relics stood in the limelight. Ultimately, the metaphorical quest for the Grail has been more significant than this one relic. The fictional curator Marcus Brody perhaps put it best:

The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I’ve none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith

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