The Real Cup of Christ?

The legend of the Holy Grail has captured our collective imagination for centuries. From the Da Vinci Code through Indiana Jones to the Arthurian Legends of old we have Grail-mania at the center of our culture. The Grail’s form has changed over the centuries with different versions of the story. Most recently Dan Brown and the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” have theorized that the Grail is, in fact, referring to the ancient bloodline of the Saviour through Mary Magdalene, a bloodline still around today through descent of the Merovingian Kings of France. In Eschenbach’s Arthurian epic “Parzival” the grail is rather vaguely described as a silver plate possessed with the healing qualities necessary to heal the dying Fisher King. Other legends have described it as a magical stone from Heaven, again with healing properties. The most conventional image of the Holy Grail, however, is as the cup which Jesus used at the Last Supper (the first Eucharist), caught his blood at the crucifixion and was entrusted to Joseph of Arimathea.

Over time many people have searched for the cup of Christ as the ultimate relic of the Christian faith. Some legends place this most sacred cup in England, where Joseph of Arimithea is said to have hidden it in Oxford. In the 1930s Otto Rahn, a member of the SS, was personally funded by Himmler to find the cup. Rahn thought that the cup was hidden near the fortress of Montsegur in southern France. Montsegur had been the final stronghold of the Cathar’s in the 13th century. The Cathar’s were a Gnostic Christian sect which were wiped out in the bloody Albigensian Crusade. Their final stand at Montsegur has entered the realm of romance and local legends relate to the Cathars smuggling their “treasure” out of Montsegur in the final days of the siege. This “treasure” allegedly contained the embalmed head of Christ and the Holy Grail. In and around Montsegur there runs one of the largest networks of caves in Europe. Rahn scoured these caves unsuccessfully but died believing in their location around Montsegur. His idea came from Eschenbach’s “Parzival” which told of the Grail being held at the castle of Montsalvat. Montsalvat and Montsegur both literally translate at “the safe mountain”.

However, unbeknownst to all these men, the most likely contender for the Cup of Christ lies in Spain. In Valencia cathedral there is a chapel with an unassuming agate cup in the reliquary that has a history intimately connected to the history of the Catholic church and possibly world history. First, before we proceed further it is necessary to dispel some rumours about what the Holy Grail would be. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the Grail is a wooden cup, the cup of a carpenter. This is not likely to be the case. As we all know the Last Supper took place on the Jewish feast of Passover. Wood was considered in impure drinking vessel at the best of times given the porous nature of wood. On the feast of Passover it was customary to use the most refined cup in the house. The gospels relate that the Last Supper was held in the house of a man of modest wealth and so his possession of an agate cup is entirely possible and even likely. The Chalice of Valencia itself has been dated to the have been made in and around the 1st century AD and so fits the criteria of age. Records can trace it all the way back to the third century when it was in Rome. According to tradition the cup was used for the first couple of hundred years by the church in Rome as the Eucharistic cup by the first Popes. The tradition goes that the cup was brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St Peter. The wording of the liturgy is even said to be different when using this cup: the Pope would raise the chalice at the Eucharist and say “accipiens et hunc praeclarum calicem” meaning “he took THIS precious chalice”. This differs from the usual words which say “accipiens calicem” meaning “he took THE chalice”.

During the persecutions in Rome the Emperor Valerian, in the 3rd century, demanded that the Christians must surrender all items of veneration. Determined that the cup not fall into the hands of the Emperor, Pope Sixtus II ordered his deacon, Laurence to send the cup to Spain and to Laurence’s home town of Huesca. Upon realizing what had happened Sixtus was beheaded and Laurence (later made a saint) was burned alive on a rack. Valerian met his own grizzly end when he was captured by the Persian king Shapur I who forced him to drink molten gold, a testament to his greed.

The cup found its way to Huesca in northern Spain and there it remained for the next 500 years until the conquest of Spain by the Arab Empire in the 8th Century. For its safety the cup was taken to a small monastery in the Pyrenees called San Pedro de Siresa. It was here that the cup was apparently visited by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne as he was crossing the Pyrenees to fight the Arabs. It was around this time that in the 9th century that Grail-mania truly entered the public imagination, brought back by Charlemagne. It could be that the Montsalvat described by Eschenbach many centuries later was referring to the hidden mountain hiding place of the Grail in the Pyrenees.

In the 10th century the more elaborate base was added (the cup itself is only the top part, the actual drinking vessel). The interesting thing is that the base is made by Arabs, there is an inscription on the base of the cup in kufic Arabic which probably refers to Al-Medina Al-Zahira, a town near Cordoba in the south of Spain. By this point in history the Reconquista had begun and northern Spain was largely back in Christian hands. Following this change in fortune the cup was moved in 1071 to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña near the important city of Jaca only 100 or so miles from San Pedro de Siresa. There it would remain for 3 centuries until 1399 when the monks made it a gift to King Martin el Humano, the king of Aragon, who took it to his palace in Barcelona. The cup was pawned to Valencia by Marin’s son and now king, Alfonso V in 1416 to fund military expeditions. The king defaulted on his loan and so the cathedral kept the cup where it remains today. However, the cup has been moved several times since for its safety: once during the Napoleonic wars to keep it safe from Napoleon’s legendary appetite for looting important artifacts; and again in during the Spanish Civil War to protect it from the Communist Republicans who destroyed relics.

Since then it has been used to celebrate the Eucharist by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Once a year the cup is paraded through the streets of Valencia to celebrate its amazing history. Unfortunately there are no miracles attributed to the cup other than its ability to survive the passage of time. However, it is often joked that Indiana Jones could have saved himself a lot of time and trouble if he had just gone to Valencia instead of Petra.

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