Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Holy Grail?

A new book by two historians claims that a chalice held in a Spanish church is the mythical Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. With the book's publication, crowds of visitors have swarmed the church attempting to get a look at the Grail. On Friday the cup was taken off display as curators attempted to find a more suitable venue.

There are hundreds of chalices in European churches that are reputed to be the Holy Grail, and there was a time in European history when the forging of Christian artifacts was a highly profitable and booming business. But is there a chance that this could actually be the one?

The director of the basilica's museum, Raquel Jaén, said the cup was taken off display on Friday while curators looked for an exhibition space large enough to accommodate the crowds. "It was in a very small room where it was not possible to admire it to the full," she told AFP. Made of agate, gold and onyx and encrusted with precious stones, the object in León is formed by two goblets joined together, with one turned up, the other down. It has been known until now as the goblet of the Infanta Doña Urraca, daughter of Fernando I, King of León from 1037 to 1065.

The two historians – León University medieval history lecturer Margarita Torres and art historian José Manuel Ortega del Rio – identified it as the grail in their book, Kings of the Grail, published last week. They said two Egyptian parchments they found in 2011 at Cairo's University of al-Azhar set them on a three-year investigation. Their studies led them to identify the upper part of the princess's goblet, made of agate and missing a fragment as described in the parchments, as the grail – one of the most prized relics in Christianity.

As I see it the problem with this hypothesis is that the actual legend of the Holy Grail only surfaced in Europe more than a thousand years after the date given for the death of Jesus. Obviously if no historical Jesus ever existed, there would be no Holy Grail. But even assuming that he did, no special significance was accorded to the cup by those who knew him. Likewise, the Grail legend incorporates elements of non-Christian mythology just as the later story of Jesus himself does.

Hopefully these objections are answered to a satisfactory degree in the book. They need to be if the authors want their claim taken seriously. It should also be noted that the supposed magical powers attributed to the Grail developed from folklore and are not mentioned in the Gospels. Therefore, even if the chalice really was used by the man behind the myth of Jesus, it's most likely simply a significant historical artifact.

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