What Was the Holy Grail, and Why Our Centuries-Old Fascination with It?
Taylor, Jerome, The Independent (London, England)
The big question
Why are we asking this now?
Because a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, which brings together hundreds of relics from more than 1,000 years of the Byzantine Empire, has stirred up renewed and fevered excitement over the idea that the Holy Grail is in town.
Curators spent five years bringing together a host of archaeological treasures including mosaics, jewellery, icons and manuscripts to create the first exhibition in Britain on Byzantine art in more than 50 years. But the item causing the most frenzied excitement is the Antioch Chalice, a sixth century silver cup on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art which - to grail aficionados - is one of the most credible contenders to be the Holy Grail itself.
Professor Robin Cormack, the exhibition's curator said: "[The chalice] has an inner plain cup with an ornate covering. The outer cup can be dated to the sixth century but nobody can say for sure when the inner cup was made. There is still a plausible argument that it is the Holy Grail."
What is the grail actually meant to be?
The Holy Grail is an expansion of the legend surrounding the Holy Chalice, the vessel used by Christ during the Last Supper. According to grail legend, Joseph of Arimathea used the cup to collect Jesus's blood and sweat as he was dying on the cross, giving the vessel magical, life-sustaining properties. Credited in the Gospels as the man who generously gave up his own tomb to bury Christ's body, grail legend extends Joseph of Arimathea's story further by making him the first keeper of the Holy Grail.
As the Romans began persecuting the Christians, Joseph found himself locked in a cave but survived for many years because the grail provided him with fresh food and drink every morning. When he finally escaped from the cave, he was said to have travelled with his family to Britain where the grail was placed in a fortified castle to be guarded for eternity by the Grail Kings. It was later sought by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Is it fact or fiction?
The grail legend itself is entirely fictional but it is based on a major relic of the Christian faith which may well exist - the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper.
In Catholic tradition, for instance, the Holy Chalice was taken by St Peter, rather than Joseph of Arimathea, and was used in the very first mass, which explains why ornate chalices are still used in many Christian denominations today.
What should it look like?
Different legends describe the physical attributes of the grail in different ways. In some versions, the grail is described as a plate, a dish or a cup whilst, in later legends, it takes on a less materialistic guise - often something as ethereal as God's grace, a blessing which must be searched for but is only bestowed upon the purest of hearts. The word grail, meanwhile, most likely comes from the Old French word grial, an adaptation of the Latin word gradalis, which was a type of dish brought out at different stages during a meal.
So who is responsible for the legend?
The Holy Grail may have been a miraculous chalice hidden in a mysterious English castle and sought after by English knights but the literary origins of the grail were in fact French.
Perceval, le Conte du Graal, written by the French poet Chretien de Troyes, is the earliest recorded account of the Quest for the Holy Grail. A 9,000-line poem written sometime between 1181 and 1191 for a French baron, it tells the story of a young Welsh knight who first chances upon the Holy Grail at the castle of the Fisher King. The grail contained a single mass wafer which miraculously sustained the Fisher King's crippled father.
Robert de Boron, another French poet, added to the legend further by including Joseph of Arimathea's role in bringing …
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Publication information: Article title: What Was the Holy Grail, and Why Our Centuries-Old Fascination with It?. Contributors: Taylor, Jerome - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 22, 2008. Page number: 32. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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