From The Independent.co.uk:
The Big Question: What was the Holy Grail, and why our centuries-old fascination with it?
By Jerome Taylor
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
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 Chrétien 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 the chalice to Britain. Four further continuations of de Troyes' original poem, meanwhile, developed the Arthurian search for the grail. Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, which was published in 1485, is the most extensive work on the legend of the grail, and weaves together both the French and English versions of the Arthurian romances.
Is it a purely Christian legend?
Although heavily based on medieval Christian ideals, most academic opinion today views the grail legends as a hybrid mix of Christian and Celtic mythology, in part because numerous Irish and Welsh poems from the same period revolve around similar storylines of quests for an item that gives never-ending food supplies or super-human powers.
Academics have noticed many similarities, for instance, between Bran the Blessed, a giant king in the Welsh "Mabinogion" poems who owns a life-sustaining cauldron, and the Fisher King in the Arthurian romances.
If not the Antioch Chalice, what are the main contenders for grail status?
The Antioch Chalice was not discovered until 1911 but, during the Middle Ages, there were three contenders that were popularly believed to be the holy grail. The so-called Jerusalem Chalice was never found but was described by a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon pilgrim as a two-handled silver cup and was thought to be hidden somewhere inside the holy city. A second chalice in Genoa was thought to have been carved out of emerald but was actually a glass Egyptian bowl, whilst a third contender, made out of red agate, still rests in Valencia's cathedral. For grail fans, the Valencia Chalice is perhaps the most significant vessel of the three, primarily because the upper section of the cup fits a description of the Holy Chalice by Saint Jerome. An inspection of the cup by archaeologists in 1960 placed it chronologically closest to the events of the Last Supper.
Is it true that Hitler was interested in the grail?
Thanks to Hitler's fixation with the pure Aryan race, the grail – which legend dictates can only be seen by the pure of heart – became a useful propaganda tool, and films from the 1930s showed Arthurian knights handing swords to SS officers. But it was Heinrich Himmler who really became obsessed with the idea of finding the grail. Throughout the 1930s, he enlisted the help of Otto Rahn, a controversial German medievalist, who was also equally preoccupied with the grail and thought it could be found somewhere in the Pyrenees.
And the grail still fascinates us to this day?
Absolutely. Just as the grail legend underwent a literary renaissance during the 19th century and captured the imagination of the Romantic and the Pre-Raphaelite movements, so it appears to inspire reams of highly successful literary and artistic franchises today. One of the West End's most successful current musicals, Spamalot, is a based on the highly popular Monty Python film satirising King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail whilst authors such as Dan Brown have managed to turn our obsession with the Christian occult into one of the most successful run of books of all time.
Is the Antioch Chalice the most plausible Holy Grail?
* It was found in Antioch, one of early Christendom's holiest cities and relatively close to Nazareth
* The inner lining of the cup is sufficiently old to fit the facts, unlike some of the other contenders
* The highly decorative and more recent exterior could have been made to encase a genuine relic
* The vast majority of the vessel was constructed in the sixth century, long after Christ
* It's impossible to say for sure whether Christ really used a chalice at the Last Supper – or if it survived
* Even New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art describes claims that it is the grail as "ambitious"
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