According to the New Catholic Dictionary the Holy Grail is “a legendary sacred vessel, identified with the chalice of the Eucharist or the dish of the Paschal Lamb, and the theme of a medieval cycle of romance”. It “is said to have been the dish… used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather the Precious Blood of Christ.” And, according to author, historian and folklorist Mark Oxbrow, the Grail has actually been found.
Of course, the Grail was once in the hands of Indiana Jones, but even he ultimately lost it; so what makes Oxbrow’s claims special? Why should we believe him when we already have several Grails, including the Nantios Cup, the “Holy Bloodline” of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the Stone Tablets of the Ark of the Covenant in Graham Hancock’s The Sign and The Seal? And the foregoing is a non-exclusive list; a full tally of all claimants to being the Holy Grail would take considerably more room than space permits.
Before we examine Oxbrow’s claim, it might be worth establishing exactly what it is we’re actually talking about.
Traditionally, the Grail is said to be the plate used for the Last Supper, or a cup used to catch the blood of Christ on the cross. Where do these ideas come from? Three of the four Gospels of the New Testament specifically mention a cup or platter at the Last Supper – perhaps not all that surprising, as it was a meal, after all. None mention a vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea, or anyone else, to collect the Blood of Christ while on the Cross.The closest we have to a biblical mention of blood and a vessel is when Christ pours wine into a cup and urges the assembled Disciples to drink of his blood. So that’s pretty much all we can glean from the Bible.
For the next mention of the Grail we have to wait for an event which supposedly happened in AD 717 but was not recorded in writing until about 1200. In 717, according to the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus, a hermit was shown a vision of the dish of the Last Supper. This learned hermit then wrote a book in Latin, entitled Gradale. Gradale is the mediæval Latin for ‘dish’, and the Old French for dish was Gradalis, whence we get graal, greal and greel. One short leap across the English Channel and we end up with ‘grail’.
Sticking with French for a moment, the phrase san greal means Holy Grail. A slight alteration gives us sang real, which means Holy Blood. And the Grail as the Holy Bloodline of Christ is where Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln (not to mention Dan Brown) come into the picture. According to this reading of the legend, the Grail is the womb of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Blood is the blood line – the direct lineal descendants of Jesus, no less. For the purpose of Mark Oxbrow’s discovery, we are, however, sticking with a literal grail rather than a metaphorical one (which has, quite frankly, been done to death recently!)
So, we have a date of 717 (or 1200) for the first reference outside of the Bible to the dish of the Last Supper. This dish was described by Hellinandus as follows: "Gradalis or Gradale means a dish (scutella), wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich in degrees (gradatim), one morsel after an other in different rows. In popular speech it is also called ‘greal’ be cause it is pleasant (grata) and acceptable to him eating therein.” The other main mentions of the Grail come from the mediæval Grail Romances, the majority of which were written between 1180 and 1240.
The first was written by Chrétien de Troyes and was entitled Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. Regrettably, this beautiful tale is incomplete and cuts off virtually in mid-sentence; terribly inconvenient of Chrétien to die before he finished his most famous work. He describes the Grail as a flat platter made of pure, refined gold and set with the most costly stones of the Earth and the sea. He is also quite specific in saying it was not used to carry pike or lamprey or salmon but it was reserved for the Sacred Host – the Holy Wafer consecrated during mass. The next Grail Romance was penned by Wolfram von Eschenbach and entitled Parzival.
In Parzival, the Grail is not described other than as a green stone and an object which surpasses all Earthly perfection and whose delights resemble the Kingdom of Heaven; indeed, it is referred to as lapsit exillis
– the stone from the Heavens. Most commentators believe that Parzival is a reworking of Chrétien’s Perceval with an ending added for good measure. This doesn’t detract in any way from the wonder of von Eschenbach’s work, but it doesn’t help us in our current Grail quest.
Many subsequent additions and embellishments of the Grail legend were made over the years, but we can safely say that the earliest records are: the Gospels, the dreams of a hermit and the work of Chrétien de Troyes. And of these, only Chrétien’s romance describes the Grail in any detail. But where did this description come from? Was it merely artistic invention or something more?
Chrétien moved in the highest circles of his time, Perceval was dedicated to Philip of Flanders, who was to be the second husband of Countess Marie de Champagne, Chrétien’s patroness. For unknown reasons, the engagement was broken off and the marriage did not take place. Marie was the eldest daughter of King Louis VII of France and the half sister of Richard the Lionheart and King John of England. When Louis VII went on a Crusade, he left Marie at the Abbey of St Denis, which he had endowed with many treasures, as had many other monarchs. It is said that many jewels and rings were encrusted in the alter and left in the treasury. Through subsequent years, Marie maintained strong links with the Abbey, and Chrétien would have visited frequently and been familiar with the many treasures held therein – delights such as the Patène de Serpentine and the Cup of the Ptolemies. Eventually, with the French Revolution, the treasures were broken up and distributed through out France.
Let us return for a moment to our historian and author Mark Oxbrow. Mark has written and lectured extensively on Rosslyn Chapel and the Holy Grail and his great passion is mediæval history, so it was no great surprise when he was approached by Simon Cox to co-author a book in Cox’s A to Z series – An A to Z of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Mark was working on this in the summer of 2006, when he decided a break was in order and Paris the destination of choice – where, naturally enough, one of the ports of call was to be the Louvre. Eschewing the Da Vinci Code tours and the crowds around the Mona Lisa, Mark found him self, for no particular reason, in the Richelieu wing of mediæval treasures. Mark’s wife Jill called him over to look at one particular piece, a rather attractive dish. A dark green stone (serpentine) platter with a gold
surround set with various jewels, inlaid with gold fish. Some of the fish were missing, but the pearls, sapphires, emeralds, moonstones, amethysts, garnets and coloured glass in the gold surround were still present.
Mark realised he had heard this dish described before; when he read the display card, he discovered it was part of the treasure of the Abbey of St Denis, brought to the Musée du Louvre in 1793. A platter of stone (Wolfram von Eschenbach) made of pure, refined gold and set with the most costly stones of the Earth and the sea (Chrétien de Troyes).These are the descript ions of the Grail, yet they are also descriptions of the Patène de Serpentine which Mark found in front of him in the Louvre. Could this be the Holy Grail itself?
The Patène de Serpentine is dated to between 100 BC and AD 100 by the Louvre, with a gold surround added in the late ninth century by King Charles the Bald. It is a treasure with which Chrétien would have been familiar and it would have been highly prized – a gift to the Abbey from Emperor Charlemagne himself. So, reasons Mark Oxbrow, Chrétien had a very specific dish in mind when he described the Holy Grail, and this dish, decorated with fishes (an early Christian symbol), is currently on display in the Louvre.
Is it the mythical Holy Grail? Well, we may never be able to answer that question with certainty, but it does seem to be the Holy Grail of Chrétien de Troyes; and, after all, he pretty much started the tradition of the Holy Grail as we know it today.
So, Mark has gone one better than Indiana Jones – he’s found the Grail and he still knows exactly where it is: Section 01, Window V13, The Richelieu wing of Mediæval Treasures, Musée du Louvre, Paris.