The real Holy Grail (well, my take on it)

Holy Grail

This is the historical note for a pair of novels I wrote a few years back: Warlord and Grail Knight. They are part of my Robin Hood series, the Outlaw Chronicles, but the theme of these two books is the Holy Grail. I’m reposting this in my new site purely because I think this is interesting stuff. Both Warlord and Grail Knight are still available in Amazon, by the way. Anyway, here it is:

Historical Note

Barcelona instantly became my favourite city in the world after a weekend there with my wife in the  summer  of 2012. The municipal authorities screen movies in the public squares, bar-hopping’s a genuine art form, there’s cool architecture everywhere you look and nobody eats dinner till ten at night. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I was also privileged enough during my visit to see some of the earliest images ever made of the Holy Grail.

In the heart of the Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), the interior of a small 12th-century church has been partially reconstructed. The original church of St Clement still stands in remote village of Taull in the Boi Valley high in the Pyrenees, but when the stunning Romanesque frescos the church contained were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and foreign “entrepreneurs” began chipping off bits of the masonry and carrying them away, the Spanish authorities acted swiftly. Using a near-miraculous chemical process, in which strips of treated cloth are pressed on to the church walls and then peeled off, these ancient paintings were painstakingly removed form the walls of the church of St Clement and taken to Barcelona, where they have been lovingly restored and housed in MNAC.

When I saw them there in June 2012, I was astonished by their remarkable beauty and power. The main apse of the reconstructed church is the setting for the superb painting of “Christ in Majesty”, which shows the Saviour enthroned in Heaven and looking down on mortal sinners with a stern yet compassionate expression. The curve of the apse gives the fresco a strangely three-dimensional effect, and the colours – royal blue, warm ochre, creamy white and blood red – appear to be as vibrant as the day they were painted, probably in 1123. Christ is surrounded by various saints and apostles and below his bare right foot and slightly to the left is a panel containing an image of the Virgin Mary (see below).

Her expression is serene, she holds up her right hand, palm out in a gesture of blessing, or perhaps of warning, and her left hand, covered by her rich blue mantle, she is holding a shallow bowl, painted white, which seems to be filled with fire and has rays of reddish-orange light shooting out of it.

Virgin Mary and Grail

This is one of the very earliest representations of the Holy Grail, an object that shortly afterwards began to appear regularly in religious art all over the Pyrenees. Of course, the object in her hand was not regarded then as the Holy Grail, as we think of it today – it was a “graal”, the word in the medieval language of the region for a common, broad, shallow dish of the kind that might be used to hold a cooked fish when it was served at the table. And it was “holy” because Mary the Mother of God was holding it, not in her bare palm, but in a hand covered by her blue mantle.

Opinion is divided on what the graal is supposed to symbolise – other Christian dignitaries have their symbols, useful icons for identifying them in medieval art today, as then: St Luke, for example, is often pictured with an ox, St Peter holds a set of keys; on the picture of Christ in Majesty, in the panel to the right of Mary’s, St John is seen supporting a book in his right hand, the hand also covered in a mantle, like the Virgin’s, to indicate the book’s holiness. Some scholars suggest the graal pictured in this magnificent painting might be a container of Christ’s blood, reminiscent of the Saviour’s words repeated in the Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many . . .” – others suggest the graal might hold sacred oil, chrism, a holy unguent used in consecration and other important Christian rituals. Personally, I think Mary’s graal is a symbol of her womb, in which she conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit and carried him for nine months. What more powerful symbol could a holy mother display than the secret place inside her body in which she nurtured her growing child and from which issued the future Saviour of Mankind?

But whatever the graal was originally intended to mean – and nobody can be absolutely certain – the symbol was to have a profound effect on Christendom. By the middle of the 12th century, grail-like objects were appearing regularly in the hands of the Virgin in religious art, particularly in the southern lands of western Europe – in the Languedoc in France, northern Spain and northern Italy. Sometimes they were bowls, sometimes cups or chalices, sometimes they appear to be oil lamps.

However, it was not until the end of the 12th-century that the Holy Grail made its literary debut. Perceval, Le Conte du Graal (Percival, The Story of the Grail) was written by the French poet Chretien de Troyes sometime between 1180 and 1190 – perhaps sixty years or more after the graal was pictured in the Virgin’s hands in the Pyrenees – and the work was an almost instant hit in European aristocratic circles. The Grail appears as a golden bowl encrusted with precious jewels, paraded about by mysterious denizens of a mysterious castle in the company of a shining lance, a pair of candlesticks and a silver carving platter.

In Chretien’s story the graal is a receptacle for the host of the Eucharist, and such is its power that one wafer of holy bread a day is enough to sustain the lord of the mysterious castle. Beyond that, Chretien does not say much about the Grail, and indeed his poem Le Conte du Graal was never finished. But the Grail was now loose in the literary domain and it had begun to exert its strange fascination over writers, which has continued ever since. Around 1200, a Bavarian poet called Wolfram von Eschenbach produced an operatic retelling of Chretien de Troyes’s story called Parzival, embellishing it considerably, and conceiving of the grail as a precious stone that had fallen from the sky. But the version of the Grail story that I have chosen to adopt, comes from Robert de Boron, a Burgundian knight, who wrote Joseph d’Arimathie or Le grant estoire dou graal (Joseph of Arimathea or the Great History of the Grail), sometime in the 1190s. His take on the legend is the one that would be most recognisable to readers today, in that his Grail is both the cup used at the Last Supper and the vessel used to catch the blood of Christ as he died on the Cross.

I would recommend that anyone interested in the story of the Grail read Professor Joseph Goering’s excellent book The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend (Yale University Press, 2005) for more details on the above medieval Grail poets. Indeed, I must acknowledge him as the inspiration behind my own take on the Holy Grail in these two novels and my source on its origins and, perhaps, its physical reality. Because I think that there might really have been a physical object which people in the 12th and 13th centuries considered to be the Holy Grail.

And it might even still exist.

Let’s return to the beginning of the 20th century and the Valley of Boi in the high Pyrenees. At the same time that the marvellous painting of Christ in Majesty was discovered in St Clement of Taull, a set of wooden sculptures was discovered in another church dedicated to St Mary in the valley a few hundred yards away. These figures were part of a tableau, dated to about the same time as the fresco in St Clement’s church, which is most likely to depict the Descent from the Cross – statues of Mary and Joseph of Arimathea, and perhaps Nicodemus, helping to bring down Christ’s dead body after the Crucifixion. In other contemporary examples of this sort of tableau, Christ’s hand is seen as dangling over a wooden bowl held by his mother, in a manner such that a few drops of his blood might fall into the bowl. The wooden statue of Mary bears a striking resemblance to the image of the Virgin in the painting in St Clement’s. Both have the same clothing, the same posture, the same expression – indeed the resemblance is so striking that scholars believe that one must have been a copy of the other, although it is impossible to say whether the painting inspired the wooden statue or vice versa.

But, for me, the most interesting thing about the statue of the Virgin (below), which is now housed in the Fogg Art Museum, at Harvard University, is that the left hand, the hand that would have been holding the bowl which caught the Saviour’s precious blood, is missing. It has been cut off at some point and neither the hand nor the wooden bowl it once undoubtedly held has ever been found.

Statue of Virgin with Grail

I like to think that this missing, 12th-century wooden bowl, from a group of statues in remote church in the Pyrenees, might have been to origin of the physical, the actual Holy Grail. Perhaps, this was the sacred objective of real quests, by real medieval knights. And, perhaps, somewhere, in a Swiss vault in a wealthy man’s private collection, or in some secret dusty annex of the Vatican, it sits to this day.

Cathars and castles in the air

Montsegur, of course, is a real castle twenty miles southeast of Foix in the shadow of the Pyrenees, and was the site, in 1244, of the heroic last stand of the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade. But forty-four years earlier, when my fictional heroes and villains occupied the place, it was in reality a ruined fortress which had been abandoned by the Counts of Foix as being too remote to bother with. Ruined or not, it still would have been a formidable bastion and, I think, very nearly impregnable after only minor repairs to the walls. A man standing on the battlements can see for miles in all directions, and the sides of the mountain are incredibly steep, and fairly exhausting to climb in a T-shirt and shorts on a sunny May day – let alone in heavy armour and under fire from all manner of lethal medieval missiles. It took 10,000 Crusaders nine months to subdue the castle in 1243/1244, and this presented me, as a 21st-century novelist, with a bit of a problem.

When I had puffed and panted my way up the tourist path to the main entrance in on the western side in hot sunshine, and clambered all over the existing walls of the castle, I was left with a magnificent view and absolutely no idea how a handful of men – even superb warrior-heroes such as the Companions of the Grail – could possibly capture it in the year 1200. I knew that the Crusaders forty years later had attacked up the narrow spur of land to the east of the castle (as my heroes eventually do) but, like Alan Dale, I could still not see how the Companions could successfully attack on such a narrow front under sustained fire from the castle. A couple of well-aimed mangonel or trebuchet strikes and a volley or two of crossbow bolts would have destroyed such a small number of assailants.

I went back down the mountain in a state of mild despair, had supper and went to bed early. The next morning I was awoken at dawn by a terrible noise that sounded like something between machine-gun fire and a Seventies drum solo. A powerful hail storm was battering the terracotta roof of my auberge and hailstones the size of golf balls were bouncing waist-high off stone floor of the courtyard below. After the bright sunshine of the day before this came as something of a shock, and when the hail ceased a thick fog descended on the village of Montsegur, weather so dense that you could barely see ten yards away. I stayed in the hotel most of that day – except for a very pleasant visit to the excellent Montsegur museum – but I was quite happy to be inactive, indeed, I was elated. I had found a plausible plot device that would allow me to get my heroes close to the castle walls without being seen: Nur’s sudden magical mist. There weather there, so close to the Pyrenees, is very changeable, and if I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I would never have dared to include something quite so preposterous in the story.

As well as outlandish weather, Montsegur is also well supplied with a satisfying quantity of strange myths. There are many legends of the Cathars hiding their lost treasure in secret caves, and of travellers well into the 20th century having visions of a lady dressed all in white appearing to them on the steep slopes. My kind hosts at the auberge told me that there was a large hidden cave burrowed into the rock directly under the castle itself, but the official French gatekeeper of the castle grumpily denied it, and despite a long, hot exhausting search I could not find it. Nevertheless, there may well be large caves in the rock of Montsegur, as yet undiscovered or just forgotten, and in my imagination, in one of them, at a stone altar far at the back lies an ancient skeleton with an even older plain wooden bowl in his bony grasp.

Angus Donald

Tonbridge, Kent, December 2012 


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