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The Enduring Mystery And Controversy Of The Holy Grail

March 5, 2020 18.3k views10 items

The line between religious fact and myth propels humans forward as they seek to better understand Scripture and faith. Persistent fascination with the Bible, biblical figures, and the foundations of Christian belief and thought drives historical research, archaeological investigation, and popular inquiry alike. Evidence related to the crucifixion of Christ and Noah's Ark makes the intangible tangible, bringing comfort and satisfying curiosity while perpetuating the desire to know more. One of the most enduring quests among the Christian faithful involves an elusive artifact, the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail - purported to be the cup or dish Jesus used at the Last Supper, or the cup used to collect Jesus's blood as he perished on the cross, depending on one's interpretation of legend - has been featured in literary works, movies, and television shows. The Holy Grail has taken numerous forms, only prompting further speculation as to what the Holy Grail actually is, and more importantly, where it is now.

The mystery and controversy surrounding the Holy Grail are alive and well. As Holy Grail history continues to evolve, scholars and non-scholars alike have posited as to its migration through time and space, even asserting that it's been found and can be seen today. 

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  • Photo: Sylvain Billet / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    The Genoa Chalice Is Another Possible Contender For The Grail

    Made of glass and hexagonal in shape, the Sacro Catino, also known as the Genoa Chalice, is said to have been made in Egypt. It was taken to Jerusalem by the Queen of Sheba and moved to the coastal site of Caesarea at some point before the 11th century.

    In the aftermath of the First Crusade, Guglielmo Embriaco took the vessel to Genoa. William of Tyre, writing during the 12th century, described the chalice as more of, "a vase of brilliant green shaped like a bowl. The Genoese, believing that it was of emerald, took it in lieu of a large sum of money and thus acquired a splendid ornament for their church."

    Tradition around the glass dish grew and, by the 13th century, it was definitively identified as one of the items used at the Last Supper. From there, it became part of the story of Jesus on the cross, with stories about Nicodemus, who helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, using it to collect Jesus's blood. 

    Napoleon took the relic to Paris during the early 19th century, where it was discovered that it was made of glass rather than emerald.

  • Photo: Theophanes the Cretan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Holy Grail Isn’t Mentioned By Name In The Bible

    While no so-called Holy Grail receives mention in the Bible, there are numerous references to cups and drinking vessels throughout the New Testament. Many of these remain at the core of arguments about the importance and sanctity of the Grail.

    For example, Luke 22:20 describes Jesus drinking at the Last Supper, telling his followers, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. Mark 15:23 recounts how, while on the Cross, spectators, "offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it," presumably from a cup. 

    While biblical mention of Holy Grail-like objects can support its existence, the lack of description and specificity adds little to helping identify what a real grail would have looked like.

  • Photo: Theodor Pixis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Holy Grail Wasn’t Even Named Until The 12th Century

    The first use of the term grail comes from 12th century French romance poet, Chrétien de Troyes. In his workPerceval or the Story of the Grail, dating to c. 1190 CE, Chrétien de Troyes references "un graal," an object that continues to spark curiosity. Chrétien passed before he completed the work, adding to the mystery of what he meant and to what he referred.

    Chrétien's grail was some sort of platter or serving dish, but the mere mention of it prompted a whole school of grail literature. Soon, the grail became the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper or the cup that captured Jesus's blood as he perished on the cross. Later tellings would go further, presenting the Holy Grail as a person - someone from Jesus's bloodline - or some sort of supernatural force.

    Notably, Robert de Boron, writing around 1200 CE, incorporated Joseph of Arimathea into his work, linking the Holy Grail directly to the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph, tasked with Jesus's burial, was said to have used the grail from the Last Supper to collect Jesus's blood, blending several traditions into one. 

  • Sites In England Are Commonly Associated With The Grail Due To Its Arthurian Connections

    Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1190 CE) gave the world Perceval, a knight on a quest for the grail. After Chrétien's passing, authors like Robert de Boron (c. 1200 CE) brought the grail to Britain, with the former placing it into the hands of Joseph of Arimathea. In Joseph d'Arimathie, Arimathea buries the grail in a secret location, a site that dominates the quests of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. 

    Legendarily, Joseph of Arimathea founded Glastonbury Abbey in the south of Britain, home to the Chalice Well where the Holy Grail is supposed to have been hidden. As a result, the entire area has been associated with Arthurian lore. Avalon (King Arthur's burial site) accompanies Cadbury Castle (allegedly Camelot) as locations that have links to the Holy Grail, but so does Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, where King Arthur was said to have been conceived.

    As centuries of Arthurian prose and poems developed, the Holy Grail continued to find life. Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, a 15th century work, not only synthesizes earlier Arthurian traditions, but also gives the Holy Grail a voice, one that leads Sir Lancelot to the a chamber where he:

    Saw a table of silver and the Holy Vessel, covered with red samite, and many angels about it, whereof one held a candle of wax burning and the other held a cross and the ornaments of an altar.