The Grail Across Europe

As we saw in the section about Chrétien's sourcebook, the story of the Grail is not as simple as, nor limited to, the Arthurian stories with which we have associated it. In fact, the story of the Grail casts a long shadow over many countries. In 2014, I embarked on a documentary filming trip which I referred to as "The Great Grail Expedition of 2014". It may sound funny, but trust me when I say it was no pleasure cruise. I went through England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, and Spain. My reasons for visiting England, Scotland, and Wales you could guess from the last section, but France, Italy, and Spain were another matter. Much as the disciples had in previous centuries, the relics of Christ's Passion journeyed far and wide throughout the world as it was known at the time. For reasons I will explain fully later, those who held various blood relics and the vessels in which they were contained found themselves and their relics in many far off lands.

A Spanish version of the Last Supper depicting the Santo Caliz on the table in front of Jesus

According to the legend of the Santo Caliz in Spain, St. Peter took the agate cup and used it to initiate the sacrament of the Eucharist, and continued the tradition for a couple of hundred years until the relic was in danger of falling into hostile hands. Then it was sent to Spain by St. Lawrence at the will of Pope Sixtus II. There it remained, traveling around Spain, mostly in the north, until it came to rest for a few hundred very important years in the mountain monastery of San Juan de la Peña, later finding its current home in Valencia. This much we have been told before, but is it the true Holy Grail? And if so, how does it relate to the two cruets of Joseph at Glastonbury? This is where things get interesting.

In addition to Joseph's two cruets or vials, there are several other relics, similarly describes as being vials or flasks, that have become inexorably linked to the Grail legend. Like Joseph's cruets, the stories of these small relics have been nearly lost in the sea of stories, legends, and modern treatments that ebb and flow around the Holy Grail. At times it seems there are a nearly countless number of items around the world that claim to be the Holy Grail. However these small vials will prove quite useful in our understanding of what the historical Holy Grail actually is.

If we recall the description of Joseph's cruets, we remember that they were said to be small flasks or jars in which he kept blood relics of Jesus, allegedly taken at the foot of the cross and in the tomb where His body had been lain. A similar story surrounds two other characters from the Bible who were close to Jesus in the time just before His crucifixion — Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene. We have heard the story of Mary Magdalene using the costly oil "spikenard" to anoint the feet of Jesus at the meal held at the home of her sister Martha in Bethany. In this story, we see that she opened a box of the oil and used it for the ritual act of devotion. We also saw how the same box of oil vials was brought to the tomb when she, and a few other women, went to the tomb to complete the anointing of His body following his death and short time in the tomb. Legend states that she accompanied Joseph of Arimathea on a boat trip away from Jerusalem through the Mediterranean, most likely along the ancient Phoenician trade routes once used by Joseph as a metal merchant, where she stopped for a time in southern France near the town of Sts. Maries de la Mer near Marseilles. She and a few others stayed there in France with there to begin a ministry in that country, Mary herself remaining in a mountain cave near present day Sainte Baume. At the end of her life, she journeyed to nearby St. Maximin where her friend St. Maximin, for whom the town is named, cared for her until her death. Her body was buried there, hidden for a time during Muslim occupation of the area, and rediscovered in the Middle Ages. According to tradition, along with her body, a small alabaster "jar" was discovered, leading to Mary Magdalene becoming known as the Woman with the Alabaster Jar.

Mary Magdalene and he alabaster jar

Let us now move to the western shores of Italy around the area of Pisa and Sarzana. The "secret" follower of Christ known as Nicodemus, who is known from the Bible by his question, "how may a man be born again?", is thought to have made a very special carving of the likeness of Jesus a short time after His crucifixion. According to this tradition, he wanted to make sure the face of Jesus was never forgotten in the time to come. However in one night of frustration trying to remember the exact image of the Lord's face, he fell asleep at his workbench. When he awoke, he found the face finished, carved by an unseen hand — the exact likeness of Jesus. This carving is now known as the Volto Santo. The most well known version of this carving is found in the city of Lucca just northeast of Pisa. However there is another version of this carving found in the monastery of Santa Croce in the town of La Spezia in Sarzana overlooking the mouth of the Bocca di Magra river. Both carvings are nearly identical except that the version in Lucca is painted and more highly ornamented. The most difference being that the version found in Santa Croce was cleaned and restored several decades ago, and in the process, they discovered that in the neck of the carving, there was a small recess just large enough for a small object to be concealed. According to the legend that surrounds the Volto Santo, Nicodemus also had two vials containing Christ's blood, and later hid them in the head of the carving, just about where the small recess was found. It is said that the vials containing the vials of blood were split between the churches of Luni, (present day Sarzana) and Lucca. During my visit to Sarzana, I was able to view both the Volto Santo and the church in Sarzana where the vial is kept hidden in a silver reliquary. Unfortunately, the reliquary was closed, but from what I've read, the vial is of a more modern glass type known as a lacrimatory, or "tear catcher". Likely if there ever was an original vial or unguent flask, it has long since been lost or destroyed.

The two versions of the Volto Santo — Santa Croce on the left, and Lucca on the right

The true importance of these stories is not where these items rest today. Although this knowledge would be wonderful, as well as the knowledge of if they still exist today, the real value is in what they say. They all mention the same kind of small flask or vial as the type used by Mary Magdalene at the dinner at her sister Martha's house. Joseph possessed two vials, Nicodemus possessed two vials, and Mary herself only had one, but, from all appearances, they were all related, and together in one place at one time some time before Joseph and Mary departed the Holy Land on their overseas voyage to new lands where they could spread the story of Christ's Passion. What about Nicodemus? The stories say that he remained in Jerusalem where the carving of the Volto Santo was revered and used in worship for several centuries until it too was in danger of being destroyed at the hands of those unfriendly to the Christian faith. It was then sent out upon the Mediterranean on a ship "with no sails and no rudder", just as that Joseph and his companions are said to have embarked upon, until it landed on the shores of Italy, just inside the mouth of the Bocca di Magra River.


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